college students

Iris of the sky: The fun and adventures of some college students on winter break

Kenneth Chang
Kenneth Chang
Posted on 20 Feb 2024
07:54 AM
Students in a mission control centre built by Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, US 

Students in a mission control centre built by Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, US 


A gaggle of students from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh in the US, travelled to Florida during their winter break.

The students, many of them studying to be engineers and scientists, went 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. Afterward, they hoped to have time for some sun and fun, renting a large house just three blocks from the beach.

Their trip, however, did not go as planned.


The rover, named Iris, headed toward the moon on schedule in a perfect inaugural flight of Vulcan, a brand-new rocket. But the spacecraft carrying the rover malfunctioned soon after and the students turned their rental house into a makeshift mission control as they improvised how to get the most out of the rover’s doomed journey.

“We had a mission,” said Connor Colombo, the chief engineer for Iris. “It wasn’t the mission we thought. And in fact, maybe that made it more interesting because we had to do a lot of thinking on our feet.”

The Vulcan rocket lifted off on January 8. Aboard 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 aim of gently setting down on the moon’s surface.

And aboard Peregrine was Iris, about the size of a shoe box and designed and built by the Carnegie Mellon students. It was one of the payloads on this robotic mission; Astrobotic’s main customer was Nasa, which was sending several experiments as part of the preparations for sending astronauts back to the moon.

For the students, the trip to Florida was supposed to be an entertaining lull during winter break to celebrate that Iris, after years of effort and waiting, was finally heading into space.

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

Successive classes of students devised and revised the design, then built and tested the rover. Other students trained to work in mission control. After a succession of delays, the Vulcan rocket finally made it to the launchpad in January.

Some of the Carnegie Mellon students flew to Florida. Others travelled via van, driving nearly 1,000 miles. Some former students who had worked on the rover also made the pilgrimage.

The Vulcan rocket lifted 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 on X, formerly known as Twitter, that “an anomaly occurred”.

Astrobotic’s engineers believe that a faulty valve failed to fully close, leading to the rupture of one of the spacecraft’s tanks. With propellant leaking into space, Peregrine could not possibly land on the moon.

“Then the question became, ‘OK, what can we do now?’” said Stefanov, who was leading mission control for the rover.

For security reasons, the people in Florida could not tap into the spacecraft systems over the Internet. Instead, a skeleton crew at Carnegie Mellon served as go-between, conveying messages between the Peregrine spacecraft managers at Astrobotic’s Pittsburgh headquarters and the beach house.

Several days into the mission, Astrobotic started providing power to the payloads like Iris. The Iris team then turned on systems like the computer and two-way communications that were originally planned to be turned on after arrival on the moon.

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

Peregrine was supposed to swing around Earth once before heading out to rendezvous with the moon. But the propellant leak had nudged the spacecraft onto a collision course with Earth. Because of the damage, Nasa convinced Astrobotic that the best approach was to just let Peregrine re-enter the atmosphere and burn up.

There will not be another Iris, but there will be other lunar missions by Carnegie Mellon students. One is MoonRanger, a rover that about the size of a suitcase and weighs seven pounds. It will look for signs of water near the moon’s south pole.

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,” Duvall said.


Last updated on 20 Feb 2024
08:04 AM
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