We definitely dig this. NASA has started testing the Regolith Advanced Surface Systems Operations Robot (RASSOR). This robot is designed to mine resources on the surface of asteroids, the Moon or even Mars.
The bot is in development at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The agency has released a video showing a simulated mission in which RASSOR was used to scoop up regolith, which is the loose, rocky material on the surface of a planet. It then loaded the regolith into a device called a MARCO POLO/Mars Pathfinder in-situ resource utilisation system. This pulls water and ice out of the regolith and turns their chemicals into fuel or air for astronauts working on the surface.
The primary challenge for any digging robot operating in low gravity is that it has to be light and small enough to fly on a rocket, but heavy enough to operate in gravity lower than Earth’s. RASSOR tackles this problem by using digging bucket drums at each end of the robot’s body that rotate in opposite directions, giving enough traction on one end to let the opposite side dig into the soil. It has a top speed of 4cm per second, five times faster than the Mars Curiosity rover, and is capable of hauling around 20kg of material.
“[On Mars] there are some areas at the poles where they think there’s a lot of ice, so you’d be digging in ice,” said NASA engineer AJ Nick. “There’s other areas where the water is 30cm down, so you actually have to dig down 30cm and take off the top and that depth is really where you want to start collecting water ice.”