From Winter Break to Doomed Moon Mission: The Unlikely Journey.

A group of Carnegie Mellon University students ventured to Florida last month during their winter break. Many are studying engineering and science, and decided to witness a rocket launch that would send a small robotic rover that they helped construct to the moon. Intending to spend time relaxing during their trip, the students rented a large house near the beach.

Despite these plans, things did not go as expected. Shortly after launch, the spacecraft carrying the rover malfunctioned, leading the students to convert their rental house into a makeshift mission control to address the failed mission. Through improvisation, they aimed to maximize the rover’s potential despite its doomed fate.

The Vulcan rocket, created by United Launch Alliance, carried Peregrine, a lunar lander developed by Astrobotic Technology of Pittsburgh. Iris, built by the Carnegie Mellon students, was also on board Peregrine. The students planned their Florida trip to celebrate Iris’s launch into space after years of hard work.

Undergraduate students at Carnegie Mellon began developing Iris in 2018. In a class taught by robotics professor Red Whittaker, students were given the assignment to place a small rover on the moon, presenting real-life engineering challenges. Successive classes improved, built, and tested the rover over several years before it was finally on its way to the moon.

The students’ trip to Florida was interrupted by the rocket malfunction, and they transformed their vacation house into an operational hub to communicate with the spacecraft. When the spacecraft malfunctioned and began hurtling towards Earth, students at the university headquarters served as intermediaries, conveying messages between Astrobotic’s Pittsburgh headquarters and the Florida-based students.

Despite the mission’s failure, the students remain hopeful and determined for future projects. However, the fate of Iris’s successor remains uncertain. Another space robotics class will start this spring at Carnegie Mellon, opening opportunities for the next generation of students to build and send rovers to the moon.

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