Best. Sandbox. Ever.

Calvin and Hobbes comic. Credit: B. Watterson
When I was a young boy, my family had a small, hand-built sandbox behind our house just outside of Buffalo, NY(w00t! Representin' the 14221!). The sandbox was a fun place for a young child to play--but also was a place that sparks creativity (Calvin picked a great place to go to await his creative spark, even if his real plan was to wait for the creative rush of last minute panic). Hop in a sandbox, and the curiosity and the ingenuity of youth naturally strikes, and in no time at all, you'll find yourself inventing fanciful castles, cities, and mountains, combining left and right brain in an activity that is part art, part structural engineer, and part demolition derby.

My family moved away from that house with the sandbox just before my eighth birthday, and I haven't had a sandbox since. Of course most of us don't ever get the chance to play in a sandbox after about that age anywhat--it just isn't something that adults (or even teenagers) do. It's not part of our preconceived notions of productive and acceptable adult behavior.

Well, it's time to throw those notions out the window, because our friends at the California Space Authority and at NASA's Ames Research Center are working together to offer researchers and inventors the chance to experiment in a new "Lunar Regolith Simulant Testbed"--which is just a fancy name for a really kick-butt lunar sandbox.

The idea for this sandbox was born out of the Regolith Excavation Challenge, an incentive prize program funded by NASA's Centennial Challenges program. The California Space Authority is the Allied Organization that manages the day-to-day conduct of the prize program, much like we at the X PRIZE Foundation do for the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge. When running a prize that requires teams to dig out a bunch of Moon dirt, one first has to start with a big pile of Moon dirt--so at the start of this competition, CSA set out to create just such a pile, which is something that no one else had ever done.

Teams, Engineers, and Scientists inspect the lunar sandbox prior to the 2008 Regolith Excavation Challenge. Photo Credit: CSA
Of course, there isn't a whole lot of actual lunar material here on Earth, and what there is is closely guarded for scientific research, so it would be impossible to pull together enough of the real thing. Thankfully, NASA has been interested in the materials that make up the surface of the Moon for a long, long time, and has developed Lunar Regolith Simulant--essentially artificial Moon dirt--to help researchers. It's been available for quite some time; but is usually obtained in very small quantities, and used in highly controlled lab settings. However, "small quantities" and "highly controlled lab settings" were not what CSA had in mind:

Making a lunar sandbox prior to the 2007 Regolith Excavation Challenge. Credit: CSA
As they put these sandboxes together for these challenges, the staff at CSA and at NASA Centennial Challenges realized they had an exciting and unique resource on their hands. Experts who came to judge or watch the competition were noticing new things about the lunar simulant itself: effects and properties that hadn't been clear when dealing with much smaller quantities. The sandboxes, built originally for short term use by the contestants, had clear long-term research potential.

So CSA started looking for a permanent home for the sandboxes, which do carry some logistical complications (breathing in the Moon dust in large quantities can be hazardous to one's health and, as the Apollo astronauts learned, it has a habit of getting everywhere). After a long search, they've found a great home at NASA Ames.

On behalf of my colleagues at the X PRIZE Foundation and, I'd wager, of Moon enthusiasts everywhere, I want to say congratulations and thanks to the staff at both organizations. This is an excellent tool that will have a great impact on Google Lunar X PRIZE teams, NASA engineers, and planetary scientists alike. Kudos!

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