Cardinal Space Mining co-wins Grand Prize at NASA’s ‘Lunabotics Challenge’

Cardinal Space Mining Club members hold their NASA Lunabotics Challenge trophy high.

Members of Cardinal Space Mining celebrate as co-winners of this year's NASA Lunabotics Challenge Grand Prize. Right to left are, Jim Heise (advisor), Anthony Groe (ME-Sr.), Gavin Andres (CompS-Sr.), Sebastian Perez-Aburto (ME-Sr.). Denise Montealegre (ME-Jr.), Sam Richter (CompS-Soph.), Mason Eck (ME-Sr.), William (Jacob) Mozier (ME-Sr.), Gustavo Abagge-Luzzi (AeroE-Jr.), Sachin Patel (behind trophy, CompE-Jr.), Erik Sandberg (SE-Sr.), Charles Schultz (ME-Sr., club president), John Greager (ME-Sr.), Gavin Fisher (CompS-Sr.), Anna Overmann (IndTech-Sr.), Connor Tynnan (CompS-Soph.), and Eileen Diaz (ME-Jr.). Larger photo. Photo courtesy of Cardinal Space Mining.

AMES, Iowa – The student-engineers of the Cardinal Space Mining Club kept finding ways to adapt their robot and their strategies to move up the leaderboard.

Dust is flying from the mini mining robot? Replace a broken dust cover with some cardinal-colored fabric and duct tape it across gaps in the robot’s mining mechanism. That was good for some dust-mitigation points. Need to increase the robot’s mining volume? Re-attach a plow so the robot could also move some rocks – which count as mining volume – into the collection area.

“We really put hours into the competition,” said Charles Schultz, a junior from Chicago who’s studying mechanical engineering and is the president of Cardinal Space Mining. “We were constantly making changes.”

That’s how the club went from seventh in a qualifying competition that sent 10 teams to the recent finals at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center to a co-winner of the competition’s grand prize.

“There were a lot of late nights next to the pool fixing things and building things,” Schultz said.

Those during-competition hours in a Florida rental and pre-competition hours in the Student Innovation Center on campus paid off:

Cardinal Space Mining was co-winner (with University of Alabama Astrobotics) of the 2024 NASA Lunabotics Challenge Grand Prize. The club also took first place in mining and berm building, third place in education outreach and fourth place in autonomous operation.

With that grand prize tie and first-place in mining, Cardinal Space Mining successfully defended last year’s titles at NASA’s 2023 online Lunabotics Challenge and at the University of Alabama’s Robotic Mining Challenge.

“The caliber of engineering that has to go into a competition like this represents Iowa State well on the national level,” said Jim Heise, the club’s faculty advisor and a Distinguished Professor of Practice in mechanical engineering.


Stressful, untested, successful

This was a close, close Lunabotics Challenge, a competition featuring college students designing, building and operating mini robots that move around and dig up a simulated lunar surface. This year’s mission called for the robots to mine gritty, dusty simulated lunar soil and dump it into berms that could be used for lunar infrastructure.

The robots built by Cardinal Space Mining and Utah Student Robotics collected the same amount of the soil. After two runs, both had mined 994.7 pounds.

Then, in the points-based Grand Prize competition (which includes autonomous robot operation, systems engineering papers, dust mitigation, energy use, communications bandwidth and more) Iowa State and Alabama scored the same number of points.

“The competition runs at the NASA Space Education Facility were intense and a lot of fun to witness,” Heise said. “Never in my 15 years of being part of this competition have I seen things this intense with so many teams doing well.”

It was never easy, Schultz said.

“There were curve balls left and right and rules up in the air,” he said. “It was a stressful time. We had to put the hours in. But once you pull one all-nighter, what’s another?”

Anna Overmann, a senior from Marion, Iowa, studying industrial technology, worked as the mechanical co-lead for the club, meaning she had a lot to do with designing and building the robot.

(Club members named the robot LANCE1, for Lunar Autonomous Navigating Construction Equipment and for “Lance and Ellie’s,” the Memorial Union sandwich shop where club members talked lunabotics over lunch.)

This year’s mining machine “took a lot of inspiration from previous years, including the track system and the bucket ladder,” Overmann said. The robot’s tilting hopper equipped with a conveyor belt for dumping soil was one new idea.

Her point of pride for this year’s robot and the club’s success?

“It was our ability to adapt in the moment,” Overmann said. “There were so many changes we had to make on the fly.”

Change after change, she said, “the robot was untested, but it worked well.”