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It started out as a winter vacation. It ended with a doomed lunar mission.| GuyWhoKnowsThings


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

The students, many of them studying to be engineers and scientists, went there to witness the launch of a rocket that would send a small 4.8-pound robotic vehicle they had helped build on its journey to the moon. Afterwards, they hoped to have time to sunbathe and have fun, renting a large house just three blocks from the beach.

Their trip did not go as planned.

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

The rover, called Iris, headed towards the moon as planned in A perfect maiden flight of Vulcan, a brand new rocket. But the spacecraft carrying the rover malfunctioned shortly after launchand the students turned their rental house into a makeshift mission control as they improvised how to make the most of the The doomed journey of the rover.

“We had a mission,” said Connor Colombo, Iris' chief engineer. “It was not the mission we thought. And actually, maybe that made it more interesting because we had to think a lot on the fly, and I'm very grateful that we did.”


The Vulcan rocket, built by United Launch Alliance, lifted off on January 8. Aboard this rocket was 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 gently on the surface of the Moon.

And aboard Peregrine was Iris, the size of a shoebox and designed and built by Carnegie Mellon students. She was one of the payloads of this robotic mission; Astrobotic's main customer was NASA, which was sending several experiments as part of preparations to send 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 headed to space.

“We had filled our itinerary for the trip with other fun things,” said Carmyn Talento, a senior who served as the Iris mission representation team leader.

Iris started in 2018 as an undergraduate student of Red Whittaker, a professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon. She gave the students an assignment: put a small rover on the moon.

Dr. Whittaker had co-founded Astrobotic a decade earlier as a competitor in the Google Lunar X Prize, which offered $20 million for the first privately funded company to put a spacecraft on the Moon. None of the competitors even reached the launch pad before the The contest ended in 2018..

Astrobotic is now one of several companies that believe there will be profits to be made by providing a delivery service to the Moon. (Another one of those companies, Intuitive Machines of Houston, aims to launch its spacecraft to the moon next week.) Dr. Whittaker saw that these commercial ventures offered the possibility of cheap lunar missions like the one he asked his students to devise. .

Although Dr. Whittaker is no longer directly involved with Astrobotic, he spoke with company officials about the size, weight and limitations of what could fit in Peregrine. That 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 then it would be possible to calculate the energy of the impact and the dynamics that would relate to landing in a stable position or to overturning if it hits the wrong rock.”

Successive classes of students came up with and revised the design, then built and tested the rover. Other students joined in as well, 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 former students who had worked on the rover and had already graduated also made the pilgrimage. (Mr. Colombo, the chief engineer, graduated in 2021 and now works at Astrobotic.)

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

The difficult, pressure-filled part of its mission – powering up the rover, deploying it to the surface and driving it before the battery power runs out in two or three days – should still have been in the future, after Peregrine landed in February. .23 on the near side of the Moon, in a place known as Sinus Viscositatis, or Bay of Stickiness.

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, on its way to the Moon.

But shortly after, Astrobotic announced on X that “an anomaly occurred.” Later that day, the company said: “We are currently evaluating what alternative mission profiles may be feasible at this time.”

Astrobotic engineers believe a faulty valve failed to close completely, causing one of the spacecraft's tanks to rupture. With propellant leaking into space, the chance that Peregrine could land on the moon disappeared.

“So the question was, 'Okay, what can we do now?'” said Stefanov, who headed mission control for the rover. “We weren't worried at all. “I think we were excited in some ways.”

In the rental house, “We divided ourselves, we kind of separated parts of the house to designate them for certain things,” Mx said. He said Talent. “We had a table in the living room that was our main place of operations, where we had several laptops, and we moved a television from another room to be another monitor. “That was kind of the main mission control room.”

There were up to 30 people in the house, Mx. Talent said.

For security reasons, people in Florida were not able to directly access the spacecraft's systems over the Internet. Instead, a skeleton crew at Carnegie Mellon served as an intermediary, relaying messages between the Peregrine spacecraft's managers at Astrobotic's headquarters in Pittsburgh and the beach house.

“Somehow it worked,” Columbo 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 worked as Iris' program manager, remembers watching the video monitor when telemetry started coming in from the rover. “We hadn't been told we were being turned on at the time, so it was an unexpected heartbeat,” Ms. 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 until after its arrival on the moon.

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

Peregrine's trajectory was designed to orbit the Earth once before returning to rendezvous with the Moon. But the propellant leak had pushed the spacecraft onto a collision course with Earth. Due to the damage to the propulsion system, NASA convinced Astrobotic that the best approach was to simply let Peregrine re-enter the atmosphere and burn up.

There will not be another Iris, but there will be other lunar missions built with contributions from Carnegie Mellon students. One is lunar ranger, a rover that is slightly larger, the size of a suitcase and weighing seven pounds. Will look for signs of water near the south pole of the moon.

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


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