February 26, 2024

It all started over winter break. It ended with a doomed lunar mission.

A group of students from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh traveled to Florida last month during winter break.

The students, many of them studying to be engineers and scientists, went there to watch the launch of a rocket that would send a small, 5-pound robotic vehicle they helped build on its journey to the Moon. Then, they hoped they would have time to sunbathe and have fun, renting a large house just three blocks from the beach.

Their trip didn’t go as planned.

“We never saw the beach,” said Nikolai Stefanov, a senior physics and computer science student.

The rover, called Iris, headed to the Moon on schedule in a perfect maiden flight of the Vulcan, an all-new rocket. But the spacecraft carrying the rover broke down shortly after launch, and the students turned their rented house into a makeshift mission control as they improvised how to make the most of the rover’s doomed journey.

“We had a mission,” said Connor Colombo, Iris’ chief engineer. “It wasn’t the mission we thought it would be. And actually, maybe that made it more interesting because we had to think a lot and I’m really grateful that we were able to do that.”


The Vulcan rocket, built by United Launch Alliance, took off on January 8. Aboard this rocket was the Peregrine, a commercial lunar lander built by Astrobotic Technology of Pittsburgh. It was the first American spacecraft launched in more than 50 years with the goal of landing softly on the surface of the Moon.

And aboard the Peregrine was the Iris, about the size of a shoebox, designed and built by Carnegie Mellon students. It was one of the payloads of this robotic mission; Astrobotic’s main customer was NASA, which was sending several experiments as part of preparations for sending astronauts back to the Moon in the coming years.

For the students, the trip to Florida was supposed to be a fun break during winter break to celebrate that Iris, after years of effort and waiting, was finally going to space.

“We filled our travel itinerary with other fun things,” said Carmyn Talento, a veteran who served as the Iris mission rep team leader.

Iris started in 2018 as a graduate student of Red Whittaker, a professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon. He gave the students a task: put a small rover on the moon.

Whittaker co-founded Astrobotic a decade earlier as a contestant on the Google Lunar X Prize, which offered $20 million to the first privately funded venture to land a spacecraft on the Moon. competition in 2018.

Astrobotic is now one of several companies that believe there will be profits in providing a delivery service to the Moon. (Another such company, Intuitive Machines of Houston, plans to launch its spacecraft to the Moon next week.) Dr. Whittaker noticed that these commercial ventures offered the possibility of cheap lunar missions like the one he asked his students to create. .

Although Dr. Whittaker is no longer directly involved with Astrobotic, he has spoken with company officials about the size, weight, and restrictions of what could fit on the Peregrine. This made the rover a real-life engineering problem for his class.

“I actually knew the height above the ground for the attachment and therefore the release, and how far it would have to float to the ground,” Dr. Whittaker said. “And so it would be possible to calculate the energy of the impact and the dynamics that would be related to landing in a stable position or tipping over if it hit the wrong rock.”

Successive classes of students conceived and revised the project, then built and tested the rover. Other students also joined in, training to work in mission control or taking on other tasks.

After a succession of delays, the Vulcan rocket finally arrived at the launch pad in January.

Some of the Carnegie Mellon students flew to Florida. Others traveled by van, driving nearly 1,000 miles south of Pittsburgh. Some alumni who worked on the rover and graduated also made the pilgrimage. (Mr. Colombo, the chief engineer, graduated in 2021 and now works at Astrobotic.)

They were supposed to stay at the vacation home for four days in case the launch was delayed by bad weather or technical problems.

The difficult, pressure-filled part of their mission — turning on the rover, getting it to the surface and flying it before the battery power runs out in two or three days — was still in the future, after Peregrine landed in February. 23 on the side closest to the Moon, in a place known as Sinus Viscositatis, or Adhesion Bay.

By then, winter break would be over and they would be back at Carnegie Mellon, juggling spring classes with stints at a mission control facility the university built for this and future space missions.

The Vulcan rocket took off without incident. Less than an hour later, Peregrine separated from the rocket’s upper stage, en route to the moon.

But soon after, Astrobotic announced on X that “an anomaly has occurred”. Later in the day, the company said, “We are currently evaluating which alternative mission profiles may be viable at this time.”

Astrobotic engineers believe a faulty valve failed to close completely, leading to the rupture of one of the spacecraft’s tanks. With the propellant leaking into space, the possibility of Peregrine landing on the Moon disappeared.

“So the question became, ‘OK, what can we do now?’” said Stefanov, who led mission control for the rover. “We weren’t worried at all. I think in some ways we were excited.”

In the rented house, “We separated ourselves, we kind of sectioned off parts of the house to designate certain things,” Mx. said Talento. “We had a table in the living room that was kind of our main place of operations where we had several laptops, and we moved a TV from another room to be another monitor. This was sort of the main mission control room.”

Up to 30 people were in the house, Mx. said Talento.

For security reasons, people in Florida could not directly access the spacecraft’s systems over the Internet. Instead, a skeleton crew from Carnegie Mellon served as intermediaries, relaying messages between Peregrine spacecraft managers at Astrobotic’s Pittsburgh headquarters and the beach house.

“Somehow it worked,” Colombo said.

Several days into the mission, Astrobotic began providing power to payloads like Iris. Raewyn Duvall, a graduate student in electrical and computer engineering who served as Iris’ program manager, remembers watching the video monitor as telemetry began arriving from the rover. “They didn’t tell us they were turning us on at that point, so it was an unexpected heartbeat,” Duvall said.

The Iris team then began activating systems on the rover, such as the computer and two-way communications, that were not originally planned to be activated before arrival at the Moon.

When the beach house rental ended, the students returned to Pittsburgh for the remainder of the mission. And then, on January 18th, it was all over.

Peregrine’s trajectory was designed to circle the Earth once before returning to rendezvous with the moon. But the propellant leak pushed the spacecraft onto a collision course with Earth. Due to the damaged condition of the propulsion system, NASA convinced Astrobotic that the best approach was to simply let Peregrine reenter the atmosphere and burn up.

There won’t be another Iris, but there will be other lunar missions built with contributions from Carnegie Mellon students. One of them is the MoonRanger, a slightly larger space vehicle, the size of a suitcase and weighing three kilograms. It will look for signs of water near the Moon’s south pole.

And this spring there will be another space robotics course at Carnegie Mellon. “So we know there is a class of people working on the next ones,” Duvall said.

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