The Over The Dusty Moon competition is organised by the Colorado School of Mines and Lockheed Martin, and the final round takes place in Colorado, USA. The UNSW Aussienauts will compete against 5 other teams from across the world, including competitors from Poland, the United States and Germany.

The goal of the challenge is to demonstrate systems designed to move lunar dirt, or regolith, around the Moon’s surface. Judging focuses on the amount of regolith simulant transported, system mass, energy consumed, dust tolerance and generation, autonomy, and overall performance. 

Each team is required to build a prototype that removes embedded rocks and can transport lunar regolith between a hopper and a molten regolith electrolysis (MRE) plant, five meters across and three meters up.

The UNSW team performed well in last year’s inaugural competition. They received recognition for having the most innovative design, and placed third despite some technical problems on the day.

“Last year it was so hot that our adhesives started melting as we were assembling our system. As we didn’t have access to specific tools, we had to try and patch it up with tape,” says Shiran Elilvathanan, fifth-year Aerospace Engineering and Finance student.

“This year our design will be more mechanical, so we are less reliant on adhesives. We are building a continuous conveyor system, but simplified and modular. Instead of a complicated system with lots of screws and nuts and bolts, we’re aiming for simplicity and reliability,” says Peter Johnson, fourth-year Aerospace Engineering student.

“What sets UNSW apart from other teams in the competition is that we’re doing very practical designs, that are incredibly light and low power. That makes the system a very feasible solution which could be used by NASA,” says Nick Barnett, PhD candidate in Space Mining at UNSW, and supervisor of the team.

@ UNSW 2023

General concept of the 2023 design

For a system to be feasible, the design needs to take the extreme conditions on the moon into account.

“Because it’s so cold on the moon, materials don’t behave elastically. For last year’s cable car, we required a heating element around the wheel to allow the cable to bend. This year, we are using a very simple axle that doesn’t need to flex or bend in any way. All our parts are rigid and move naturally,” says Johnson.

“Regolith itself is extremely abrasive, which means that moving parts will wear out very quickly if there is any sort of friction with the regolith. So in our design, our actual moving parts are positioned away from where the regolith will be. Because there is no atmosphere on the moon, the regolith won’t spread or cloud and has a very low chance of getting into the system,” he says.

“There is no access to electricity on the moon, and there won’t be astronauts present at all times. So we’ve built a system that runs on solar power that is gained on the moon, and that can function autonomously,” says Elilvathanan.

In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU), the use of local materials, is important to minimise the amount of material that needs to be transported from Earth. Lunar regolith is an important resource; it is a source of hydrogen and oxygen, and can be used to create building materials. Learning how to work with regolith is important for humanity to have a sustainable presence on the moon, and for future space missions.

“If we were able to utilize what’s on the lunar surface, we can launch missions to Mars from the moon, which is much easier than launching from the Earth. It will make a future Mars mission much more feasible,” says Barnett.

The type of conveyance systems that the students in this challenge are designing are vital to help advance lunar exploration technology. Competitions like Over the Dusty Moon generate different ways of looking at a problem and different solutions. Organisations such as NASA and Lockheed Martin, who are both on the judging panel, could fund further research into the viability of the winning entries.

“To me, the coolest part of the challenge is the fact that it is unique: we are in a space where there is no solution for a problem yet. Everything that we come up with, every point of data that we generate is novel. It is really exciting to be at the bleeding edge of space mining technology,” says Finn Prince, fourth-year Mining Engineering student, who joined the team this year.

“The global space sector is going to be worth $1 trillion US dollar per annum by 2040. In comparison, the Australian GDP two years ago was $1.5 trillion, and that is across all industries. It is a huge growing sector that we need to get people involved in,” says Barnett.

“At the moment, the Australian space industry is quite immature in its form. By having this team together and doing this competition, we are really putting Australia on the map and promoting our capabilities in the field.

“A lot of teams in this competition are highly established, they have postgraduates and professors heavily invested and have been designing these systems for a long period of time. Our team mostly consists of second- and third-year undergraduate students, so fact that we succeeded in making the finals, not once but twice, is a huge win for the team itself, for UNSW and for Australia.

“Apart from the competition, we are also doing outreach, trying to get local communities and schools in rural areas involved. We want to show young people that this is a fully fledged career path with many opportunities, which is going to be sustainable for many years. This way we can really push the Australian space industry and be a significant part of that journey,” he says.

The Over the Dusty Moon team is looking for sponsors to help realise their goals. If you want to get involved, please reach out to Nick Barnett.

@ UNSW 2023

The Over the Dusty Moon team with academic supervisors Dr Chengguo Zhang (left) and Associate Professor Binghao Li (right)