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It started as a winter holiday. It ended with a disastrous Moon mission.

It started as a winter holiday. It ended with a disastrous Moon mission.

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

The students, many of them studying to become engineers and scientists, were there to watch a rocket launch that will send a tiny 4.8-pound robotic rover they helped build on a trip to the moon. Later, hoping to find time for some sun and fun, they rented a large house just three blocks from the beach.

His trip did not go as planned.

“We've never seen a beach,” said Nikolai Stefanov, a senior studying physics and computer science.

The rover, named Iris, headed toward the moon on schedule in a perfect inaugural flight of a brand-new rocket, Vulcan. But the spacecraft carrying the rover broke down shortly after launch, and the students turned their rental home into a makeshift mission control as they improvised a way to make the most of the rover's disastrous journey.

“We had a mission,” said Connor Colombo, Iris' chief engineer. “This was not the mission we had planned. And actually, it probably made it more interesting because we had to think on our feet a lot, and I'm really grateful to be able to do that.

The Vulcan rocket, built by United Launch Alliance, was launched on January 8. The rocket carried 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 soft landing on the surface of the Moon.

And Peregrine was carrying Iris, which was the size of a shoebox and was designed and built by Carnegie Mellon students. This was one of the payloads of this robotic mission; Astrobotic's main customer was NASA, which was sending a number of experiments in preparation to return astronauts to the Moon in the coming years.

For students, the trip to Florida should have been a fun respite during winter break to celebrate that Iris, after years of trying and waiting, is finally going into space.

“We had filled our itinerary with other fun things to do for the trip,” said Carmine Talento, a senior who served as head of the representation team for the Iris mission.

Iris debuted in 2018 as part of robotics professor Red Whittaker's graduating class at Carnegie Mellon. He gave the students an assignment: put a small rover on the Moon.

Dr. Whittaker was one of the founders of Astrobotic a decade ago, which ended at Google Lunar 2018 before the competition ended with no competitor reaching the launchpad.

Astrobotic is now one of many companies that believe there would be benefits in providing delivery service on the Moon. (Another of those companies, Intuitive Machines of Houston, is aiming to launch its own spacecraft to the Moon next week.) Dr. Whittaker saw that these commercial ventures offered the possibility of inexpensive lunar missions like the one he Had asked his students to come. ,

Although Dr. Whittaker is no longer directly involved with Astrobotic, he talked to company executives about the size, weight, and constraints of what would fit on the Peregrine. This made the rover a real-life engineering problem for its orbit.

“I knew exactly the height above the ground for attachment and therefore release and how far it would have to swim to the ground,” Dr. Whittaker said. “And so it will be possible to calculate the energy and dynamics of the impact that would be associated with either landing in a steady state or overturning if it hits the wrong rock.”

Successive classes of students designed and modified the design, then built and tested the rover. Other students also joined the training to work in mission control or perform other tasks.

After continuous delays, the Vulcan rocket finally reached the launchpad in January.

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

He was scheduled to stay in the holiday home for four days in case the launch was delayed due to bad weather or technical failure.

The hard, pressure-filled part of their mission — turning on the rover, deploying it on the surface and driving it around before the battery energy runs out in two to three days — will still be in the future after Peregrine lands in February. Was Needed. .23 at a location on the near side of the Moon known as Sinus Viscositatis, or Gulf of Viscosity.

By then, winter break will be over, and they will return to Carnegie Mellon, completing their spring classes with a stint at the Mission Control Facility, which the university has 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, heading toward the Moon.

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

Astrobotic's engineers believe that a faulty valve failed to close completely, causing one of the spacecraft's tanks to rupture. With propellant leaking into space, Peregrine's chances of landing on the Moon were eliminated.

“Then the question became, 'Okay, what can we do now?'” said Mr. Stefanov, who was leading mission control for the rover. “We were not worried at all. I think in some ways we were excited.

In the rental house, “we separated, separated parts of the house to specify certain things,” says MX. Talento said. “We had a table in the living room that was our main location of operations where we had multiple laptops, and we took a TV from another room as a second monitor. It was, in a way, the main mission control room.

There were up to 30 people in the house, max. Talento said.

For security reasons, people in Florida could not access the spacecraft systems directly via the Internet. Instead, a skeleton crew from Carnegie Mellon acted as an intermediary to deliver messages between Astrobotic's Pittsburgh headquarters and Peregrine spacecraft managers at the beach house.

“Somehow it worked,” Mr. Colombo said.

Several days into the mission, Astrobotic began providing power to payloads such as Iris. Ravin Duvall, a graduate student in electrical and computer engineering who worked as program manager for Iris, remembers watching the video monitor as telemetry began coming in from the rover. “They didn't tell us they were stimulating us at the time, so it was an unexpected heartbreak,” Ms. Duvall said.

The Iris team then began turning on systems on the rover, such as computers and two-way communications, which were not originally planned to turn on until after reaching the Moon.

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

Peregrine's trajectory was designed to circle around the Earth once before returning to meet the Moon. But a propellant leak had pushed the spacecraft on a collision course with Earth. Due to the damaged condition of the propulsion system, NASA convinced Astrobotic that the best approach was to allow the Peregrine to re-enter the atmosphere and burn up.

There will be no other Iris, but there will be other lunar missions built with contributions from Carnegie Mellon students. is there anyone moonranger, A rover that's slightly larger is the size of a suitcase and weighs seven pounds. It will look for signs of water near the moon's south pole.

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



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