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Calling all moonbots!

X Prize Foundation
A prototype moonbot made from Lego blocks roams over a simulated moonscape.

Hey, kids! Do you want to build and drive your own scaled-down moon rover prototype? Take a virtual walk on the moon? Launch a virtual space shuttle? Here's your chance.

Sign up to build a moonbot
The X Prize Foundation is looking for kids aged 9 to 18 to sign up for a MoonBots competition that is modeled on the requirements for the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize.

The multimillion-dollar space race calls upon grownup teams to build lunar rovers that can be blasted to the moon for an exploratory trip that includes sending live video back to Earth. The kid-sized version calls upon student teams to design rovers that can drive around a simulated moonscape and capture video while they're doing it.

The deadline for signing up is Saturday, which leaves just a couple of days for choosing up a team (with four to six members) and filling out the X Prize Foundation's registration form.

The first stage of the rover-building mission will be done on computers, using free design software such as Google SketchUp or Lego Digital Designer. Team members are also required to create a video essay about lunar exploration and their expectations for the discoveries that will be made on the moon. And it doesn't hurt if the team sets up a blog or a website as well.

The design and the video have to be turned in by May 28. That's when the real fun begins.

"We will select 20 finalists, each of whom will get sent just shy of $500 worth of Legos," William Pomerantz, the foundation's senior director for space prizes, told me. Using Lego Mindstorms robotics kits, the finalist teams will build pint-sized moonbots based on their designs, plus a Lego-based lunar surface. Each webcam-equipped rover will be asked to perform a series of simulation tasks - for example, rolling off a landing base, visiting craters, collecting blocks, taking pictures and recording video.

"We've tested it out here at the X Prize Foundation offices," Pomerantz said, "so I can tell you from personal experience that it's a really fun experience, and the children will learn quite a lot about both space exploration and about robotics and engineering."

Winners will be selected in August. Members of the top team will get a chance to visit Lego headquarters in Denmark. Other prizes include free team registration and a startup kit for the FIRST robotics competition. Check the MoonBots website for full information about deadlines, rules and rewards.

Pomerantz said the MoonBots program meshes perfectly with the Google Lunar X Prize's goal of building up the buzz for the next generation of science and engineering, on Earth and in space. "We think we've got a platform here that is compelling for students," he said. "These are not boring jobs for the geeks in the class. These are the cool jobs."

Virtual walk on the moon
Even if you're not building a moonbot, you can still take part in lunar exploration through a new citizen-science project called Moon Zoo. The Web-based effort builds on the success of Galaxy Zoo, which has signed up more than 250,000 Internet users for astronomical research.

Moon Zoo explorers can hunt through imagery from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and mark the craters that they see.

"We need Web users around the world to help us interpret these stunning new images of the lunar surface," Oxford University's Chris Lintott, chairman of the Citizen Science Alliance, said today in a NASA announcement. "If you only spend five minutes on the site counting craters, you'll be making a valuable contribution to science - and who knows, you might run across a Russian spacecraft."

Crater-counting is a time-honored method for determining the age and depth of a particular stretch of the lunar surface. The craters left behind by recent impacts could provide clues about the moon's past history - and the future risks Earth might face from meteor strikes.

"We hope to address key questions about the impact bombardment history of the moon and discover sites of geological interest that have never been seen before," said Katherine Joy of the Texas-based Lunar and Planetary Institute.

Virtual shuttle launch
For a down-to-earth classroom project about space, check out the Kennedy Launch Simulation System, or KLASS, a software package that simulates the preparations for a space shuttle launch. NASA says KLASS is based on the actual training software used at Kennedy Space Center, but tailored for sixth- through 10th-grade students.

Students get the chance to monitor simulated shuttle systems during a launch countdown and decide for themselves whether they're "go" for launch. The package, available on CD or via an online download, includes 40 hours of lesson plans and interactive resources for teachers.

To see how the real thing is done, just keep an eye on our Human Spaceflight section, where we're covering the countdown to Friday's scheduled launch of the shuttle Atlantis to the International Space Station.

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