Arctic Miner – Part 1

Phase 2 of “Excahauler,” the UAF Arctic Mining Robot

In March 2023 I was hired by Dr. Orion Lawlor, professor of robotics in the Computer Science Department at the University of Alaska – Fairbanks.

I am one of several student research assistants.

Our project is to build a robot that is capable of mining ice on the moon. This ice will then be transformed into fuel.

The project is part of a larger worldwide competition among many other universities and research corporations.

NASA is the organizer of the competition, and we have received funding from NASA for our performances in previous rounds of the event.

My current role is to gather data from the robot’s sensors and display the output in a simple live graph.

This is a perfect opportunity for my stated (long-term) goal of combining my many previous professional work areas into the composite field of interactive data-driven storytelling.

I am documenting this project here on my blog.

The first step I performed was to become familiar with Dr. Lawlor’s accomplishments.

To this end, I reverted to my roots as a technical documentation writer, researched the history of Dr. Lawlor’s project and wrote the following explanation.

The purpose of this portion of work was to orient myself and to do so in a manner that would leave a trail for other students who may follow after.

In future blog posts, I will show my progress in data visualization.

(Click here for a link to Part 2 of this blog series.)

UAF/NASA Arctic Miner Competition

About the Break The Ice Challenge

NASA is conducting an open challenge that allows participants to design and submit robotic lunar mining equipment.

The intent is to develop robotic, automated solutions to excavate “regolith,” more commonly known as “lunar soil.” From the regolith, NASA intends to mine water, which can then be converted into other substances, such as fuel. Access to water will open the possibility for additional space exploration at a greatly reduced cost.

Official Website Link

Be sure to watch the video on the homepage and to read the official rules.

The challenge has three phases, and each phase has various levels within the phase.

Currently, the competition has reached Phase 2: Level 2.

In this stage, competitors build an actual prototype of the ideas that they have submitted to NASA previously. Competitors then run the prototype as a demonstration for 15 days, and submit the results towards the latter half of 2023.

UAF’s Involvement

Dr. Lawlor and UAF have been involved with this project, and other similar endeavors, for approximately a decade.

The experience gained and the hard work of many students before us have allowed UAF to have a competitive position in the challenge.

In 2022, NASA chose UAF’s robotic mining concept from the field of applicants to successfully move to Phase 2: Level 2.

As a reward for UAF’s current progress, NASA awarded UAF $25,000 to assist in further funding. Some of these funds are making continued development possible for the UAF Robotics team.

Meet Our Competitors

Our student team, led by Dr. Lawlor, is not alone in the race to complete Phase 2 with a working model. Here are the list of teams against whom we are competing:

Team NameLinks
Aurora RoboticsWebsite, YouTube Demo
Cislune ExcavatorsLinkedIn Profile Proposal Summary
Ice BustersIsaac Blankenau – LinkedIn Profile
Lunar WombatsWebsite, LinkedIn
Michigan Technological UniversityWebsite, BTI Web Hub
Moog Inc.Website
Moon Industry Inc.Website
OffWorld Robotic Mining TeamWebsite, YouTube Demo
Redwire Space (First Place)Website, YouTube Demo
Space Trajectory (SD State – Mechanical Engineering Department)Website, YouTube Demo
StarpathBusiness Entity Page Company
Team xTrac Planetoid MinesWebsite
Team ChandraLinkedIn Profile
Terra Engineering
The Ice Diggers (Second Place)Website

About This Repository

This blog series contains my notes, journal, sketches, and other random data associated with my involvement with this challenge.

Other students may find some of this content useful, therefore I am attempting to record my learning in a format that assists others in becoming a part of the UAF Robotics team.

Getting Involved


There is a general excitement among students about the concept of being involved in robotics, even before learning about UAF’s Break The Ice opportunity.

Many students see computer science and robotics as an opportunity for a rewarding career.

NASA’s Mining Initiative

NASA is actively monitoring the progress of UAF’s project, and students have their work displayed with this prominent employer.

Interested students may find it useful to know that NASA is planning a series of missions, dubbed the “Artemis missions”, for which this Break The Ice challenge is providing relevant research and discovery.

In the Artemis missions, NASA intends to send manned lunar mining equipment to the Shackleton Crater at the Lunar South Pole.

The objective is to harvest water from lunar ice, and the water can then be converted to rocket fuel.

Past students have found employment with agencies such as SpaceX and other prominent space agencies.

Alaska is Home to a Growing Space Race Initiative

Another interesting fact is that the state of Alaska itself is growing in potential for commercial space exploration and development.

There is a budding space program, Alaska Aerospace, at the base of the Kenai pennisula.

Fairbank’s own military base, Eielson Air Force Base, has partitioned one of its installations near Fairbanks to serve as an installation for the new Space Force.

Alaska is renowned for its connection to the oil and gas industries. Launching satelites and other payloads from Alaska may have advantages over other locations due to its proximity to these natural resources.

The Break The Ice challenge has opportunities to connect students with career openings that span the gas and mining industry on both a terrestrial and extra-terrestrial level.

Rules and Guidelines

The following is an extract from the NASA Break the Ice website.

Phase 2 contains three (3) levels.

In this Phase, teams will design, build, and test terrestrial analog full-scale prototypes of robotic icy regolith excavation and transportation systems. Downstream ice and/or water delivery equipment described in Phase 1 of this Challenge will not be considered in Phase 2 of this Challenge.

LEVEL 1: PLAN THE PROTOTYPE (Completed in 2022)

Teams will develop detailed engineering designs and long-duration demonstration test plans for their prototype systems.

All teams that submit compliant deliverables by the deadline will move into Level 2.

Up to $500,000 in prizes will be offered in Level 1.


Build your terrestrial analog full-scale prototype and conduct durability demonstrations at a facility of your choosing and submit the report data.

Up to 15 teams will be selected to advance to Level 3

Up to $1,000,000 in prizes will be offered in Level 2

We are currently in Phase 2: Level 2.

The rewards offered are as follows.

1st Place$300,000
2nd Place$200,000
3rd Place$125,000
Up to 5 Runners Up ($75,000 each)$375,000
Level 2 Total$1,000,000

Submission Deliverables and Requirements

The following is an extract from the NASA website.

Durability Demonstration Test Report:

This document must detail the Team’s long-term durability demonstration of their working prototype system. This document must include the following details:

  • Demonstration start date, duration, and as-run schedule of tests
  • Sequence for operating and exercising each piece of prototype equipment
  • Description of any changes in the Demonstration Test Plan from that submitted in Level 1
  • Description of any changes to the prototype robot design submitted in Level 1.
  • Photos of each major piece of hardware and equipment performing normal operations
  • Log of parts replaced, breakdowns, issues requiring human intervention, along with job-hours spent on repairs on the prototype icy regolith excavation and transportation equipment.
  • Log of any maintenance or repair of the Transportation Demonstration Area
  • Post demonstration inspection results
  • Details of icy regolith simulant bed used in demonstration:
    • mixture design
    • certified compressive strength test report at the beginning and end of the 15 day test period
    • geometry sketch
  • The following information shall be provided in a table:
    • Mass (kg) of each piece of equipment, including spare parts (whether used or not) and repair and maintenance tools (whether used or not), plus total system mass (kg)Energy used by each piece of prototype icy regolith excavation and transportation equipment (kWh), plus total system energy (kWh)
      • Not counting energy used during repair and maintenance of prototype icy regolith excavation and transportation equipment nor repair and maintenance of transportation demonstration area.
      Runtime (hours) of each piece of equipment, plus total system runtime, plus total number of icy regolith excavation and transportation robotsTotal distance traversed (km) by icy-regolith transportation equipment, plus total number of icy-regolith transportation equipment round trips between simulated Excavation Site and simulated Water Extraction PlantTotal mass (kg) of icy regolith simulant excavated and delivered
      • Any material processed by the excavation equipment which is not also transported and delivered by the transportation equipment will not count towards the team’s score.Daily (at the end of each 24 hour period) log of the mass of simulated icy regolith delivered
    Durability Demonstration Time-Lapse Video:
    • This video must show a minimum of 3 full cycles of excavation, transportation, and delivery from each piece of equipment recorded during the Team’s long-term durability demonstration of their working prototype system. For equipment operating continuously without discrete cycles, a minimum of 2 hours of operation from that equipment is acceptable.Safety analysis:This document must identify any potentially hazardous material or other safety concerns related to the terrestrial analog full-scale prototypes. This safety analysis must specifically consider future possible transport and operation of your equipment in a test facility (NASA or other) and potential interactions with humans (i.e. Centennial Challenges judging staff).

Takeaways for New Students

Many Students are Looking for a Way to Get Involved

Many students are excited about the idea of getting involved with Break The Ice, but are not sure how to proceed.

Conversations with Dr. Lawlor as a First Step

Dr. Lawlor is, quite naturally, the leading expert on the project. He is most available for open discussion with students during his office hours, which are MWF 1300 to 1500 hrs.

We also meet with other students as a part of the Robotics Club on Thursdays from 1300 to 1400 hrs in ELIF 118.

Dr. Lawlor and other students are available for chat discussion on the Aurora Robotics Lab Discord server (this server is separate from the main CS UAF Discord server):

UAF Aurora Robotics Discord Channel

The Aurora Robotics Github repository can be found here.

The Aurora Robotics Google Drive has an abundance of useful resources on the current state of the project, as well as a history of many of the projects that have come before.


The current iteration of UAF’s robotic miner needs to complete its first 15 day endurance test by June 2023.

This will give ample time for finalization of the product before all submission content can be handed to NASA in Fall 2023.

Additional Resources

NASA Break The Ice Webinar

Link to NASA Webinar Video

Dr. Lawlor’s 2021 PowerPoint Presentation on Break the Ice

This document can be found in the UAF Google Drive here:

UAF Robotics > ISRU > Break the Ice Challenge > Break the Ice 2021-02-Presentation


A document that has many of the questions and answers about Phase 2 of the project.

This file can be found in the Google Drive:

UAF Robotics > ISRU > Break the Ice Challenge > Phase 2 – 2022-23 > BTIL Phase 2 MEGANOTES

Break the Ice Challenge MEGANOTES

This file can be found in the Google Drive:

UAF Robotics > ISRU > Break the Ice Challenge > Break the Ice Challenge MEGANOTES