A group of students from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh traveled to Florida last month during their winter break.
The students, many of whom are studying engineering and science, were there to watch a rocket launch that would send a small 4.8-pound robotic rover they had helped build on its journey to the moon. Afterwards, they hoped to have time for sun and 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, named Iris, headed for the moon on schedule in a perfect maiden flight of Vulcan, a brand new rocket. But the spacecraft carrying the rover malfunctioned soon 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 was not the mission we thought. And actually, maybe that made it more interesting because we had to think on our feet a lot and I’m really grateful to have that.”
The Vulcan rocket, built by United Launch Alliance, lifted off on January 8. On that rocket was Peregrine, a commercial lunar rover built by Astrobotic Technology of Pittsburgh. It was the first American spacecraft to launch in more than 50 years with the goal of landing softly on the lunar surface.
And in Peregrine was Iris, about the size of a shoebox and 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 to send astronauts back to the Moon in the coming years.
For the students, the trip to Florida was supposed to be a fun lull during winter break to celebrate that Iris, after years of trying and waiting, was finally heading into space.
“We had filled our itinerary for the trip with other fun things,” said Carmyn Talento, a senior who served as the delegation team leader for the Iris mission.
Iris began in 2018 as an undergraduate class of Red Whittaker, a robotics professor at Carnegie Mellon. He gave the students a task: Put a tiny rover on the moon.
Dr. Whittaker co-founded Astrobotic a decade earlier as a competitor in the Google Lunar X Prize, which offered $20 million for the first privately funded venture to put a spacecraft on the moon. None of the competitors even made it to the launchpad before the competition ended in 2018.
Astrobotic is now one of several companies that believe there will be profits to be made from providing a delivery service to the moon. (Another of these companies, Intuitive Machines of Houston, plans 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 do.
Although Dr. Whittaker, no longer directly involved with Astrobotic, spoke with company executives about the size, weight and limitations of what could fit on the Peregrine. This made the rover a real engineering problem for its class.
“I really knew the height above the ground for the attachment and therefore the release and how far it would have to float to the ground,” said Dr. Whittaker. “And so it would be possible to calculate the impact energy and dynamics that would be associated with either landing in a stable position or tipping over if it hits the wrong rock.
Successive classes of students devised and revised the design, then built and tested the rover. Other students were also involved, who were trained to work in mission control or take on other duties.
After a series of delays, the Vulcan rocket finally arrived at the launch site in January.
Some of the Carnegie Mellon students flew to Florida. Others traveled by van, driving nearly 1,000 miles south from Pittsburgh. Some former students who had worked on the rover since graduating also made the pilgrimage. (Mr. Colombo, the chief engineer, graduated in 2021 and now works at Astrobotic.)
They were assigned to stay at the cottage for four days in case the launch was delayed due to bad weather or technical problems.
The difficult, pressure-filled part of their mission—to ignite the rover, deploy it to the surface, and drive it before the battery runs out in two to three days—should still be in the future, after Peregrine’s landing on February. 23 on the near side of the moon in a spot known as the Sinus Viscositatis or Gulf of Stickiness.
By then, winter break would be over and they would be back at Carnegie Mellon, juggling their 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 soon after, Astrobotic announced to X that “an anomaly has occurred.” Later in the day, the company said: “We are currently evaluating what alternative shipping profiles may be feasible at this time.”
Astrobotic engineers believe a faulty valve failed to close completely, leading to a rupture of one of the spacecraft’s tanks. With the propellant leaking into space, the chance of Peregrine landing on the moon was gone.
“Then the question became, ‘OK, what can we do now?’ said Mr. Stefanov, who headed mission control for the rover. “We weren’t worried at all. I think in a way we were excited.”
In the rented house, “We divided, we kind of divided parts of the house to identify them in certain things,” Mx. Talento said. “We had a table in the living room that was the main part of our operations where we had several laptops and we moved a TV from another room to be another screen. This was sort of the main mission control room.’
There were up to 30 people in the house, Mch. Talento said.
For security reasons, people in Florida could not use the spacecraft systems directly over the Internet. Instead, a crew of skeletons at Carnegie Mellon served as go-betweens, relaying messages between Peregrine spacecraft operators at Astrobotic headquarters in Pittsburgh and the beach house.
“It kind of worked,” Mr. Colombo said.
Several days after the mission, Astrobotic began providing power to payloads such as Iris. Raewyn Duvall, an electrical and computer engineering graduate student who served as program manager for Iris, remembers watching the video screen when telemetry from the rover started arriving. “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 originally not scheduled to be activated until after they arrived on the moon.
When the beach house rental was over, the students headed back to Pittsburgh for the remainder of the mission. And then, on January 18th, it was over.
Peregrine’s orbit was designed to circle the Earth once before returning to rendezvous with the moon. But the propellant leak had pushed the spacecraft on a collision course with Earth. Due to the damaged state of the propulsion system, NASA convinced Astrobotic that the best approach was to let Peregrine re-enter 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 is MoonRanger, a rover that’s a bit larger, about the size of a suitcase and weighs seven kilograms. It will look for signs of water near the moon’s south pole.
And this spring there’s another space robotics class at Carnegie Mellon. “So we know there’s a class of people who are working on what’s next,” Ms. Duvall said.