It started as winter break. It ended with the ill-fated moon mission.
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 to become engineers and scientists, went there to watch a rocket launch that would send a small, 4.8-pound robotic rover they helped build on its journey to the moon. Afterwards, hoping to spend some time in the sun and fun, they rented 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 toward the moon on schedule in a perfect inaugural flight for the new Vulcan rocket. But the spacecraft carrying the rover malfunctioned shortly after launch, and the students turned their rented home into a temporary mission control center while they improvised how to make the most of the ill-fated rover’s flight.
“We had a mission,” said Connor Colombo, chief engineer at Iris. “This wasn’t the job we thought it would be. And actually, that probably made it more interesting because we had to do a lot of thinking, and I’m really grateful that I got to do that.”
The Vulcan rocket, built by United Launch Alliance, lifted off on January 8. On board that rocket was Peregrine, a commercial lunar lander built by Astrobotic Technology of Pittsburgh. It was the first American spacecraft to be launched in more than 50 years with the aim of landing gently on the surface of the moon.
Aboard Peregrine was the ship Iris, about the size of a shoebox, designed and built by Carnegie Mellon University students. It was one of the payloads in this robotic mission; Astrobotic’s main client was NASA, which was sending several experiments as part of preparations to send astronauts to the moon in the coming years.
For the students, the trip to Florida was supposed to be an entertaining lull during the winter break to celebrate that Iris, after years of effort and waiting, is finally heading into space.
“We filled the itinerary with other fun things,” said Carmine Talento, a senior staffer who served as cast leader for the IRIS mission.
IRIS began in 2018 as an undergraduate class for Reed Whittaker, a robotics professor at Carnegie Mellon University. The students were given a task: to place a small vehicle on the surface of the moon.
Dr. Whitaker co-founded Astrobotic a decade ago as a competitor in the Google Lunar X Prize, which offered $20 million for the first privately funded project to put a spacecraft on the moon. None of the competitors reached the launch pad before the competition ended in 2018.
Astrobotic is now one of many companies that believe there will be profits in providing delivery to the moon. (Another of these companies, Intuitive Machines of Houston, aims to launch its spacecraft to the moon next week.) Dr. Whitaker saw that these commercial projects offered the possibility of carrying out inexpensive lunar missions like the ones he asked his students to create. .
Although Dr. Whittaker is no longer directly involved with Astrobotic, he has spoken with company officials about the size, weight and limitations of what can fit Peregrine. This made the rover a real engineering problem for his class.
“I already knew the height above the ground for the attachment and then the launch and how high it had to float to the ground,” Dr. Whittaker said. “It will therefore be possible to calculate the impact energy and dynamics that might relate to either landing in a stable position or capsizing if you hit the wrong rock.”
Successive classes of students created and revised the design, then built and tested the vehicle. Other students also joined in to practice working in mission control or performing other tasks.
After a series of delays, the Vulcan rocket finally arrived at the launch pad in January.
Some Carnegie Mellon students traveled to Florida. Others traveled via pickup truck, driving nearly 1,000 miles south from Pittsburgh. Some former students who worked on the rover and have since graduated also performed the Hajj. (Mr. Colombo, the chief engineer, graduated in 2021 and now works at Astrobotic.)
They were scheduled to remain at the vacation home for four days in case the launch was delayed due to bad weather or a technical malfunction.
The difficult and stressful part of their mission — getting the rover up and running before the battery runs out in two or three days — should have been in the future, after Peregrine’s landing in February. 23. On the near side of the Moon in a spot known as Sinus Viscositatis, or the Gulf of Viscosity.
By then, winter break will be over, and they will be back at Carnegie Mellon, where they will rotate between spring semesters and work periods at the mission control facility the university built for these and future space missions.
The Vulcan rocket launched without any 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 Channel X that there had been an “anomalous event.” Later in the day, the company said: “We are currently evaluating alternative mission profiles that may be possible at this time.”
Astrobotic engineers believe a faulty valve failed to close fully, resulting in one of the spacecraft’s tanks rupturing. As the propellant leaked into space, the possibility of Peregrine landing on the Moon disappeared.
“Then the question became: OK, what can we do now?” said Mr. Stefanov, who was leading mission control for the rover. “We weren’t worried at all. I think we were excited in some ways.”
In the rented house, “we broke up, and divided up parts of the house to set aside certain things,” Mex. Talinto said. “We had a table in the living room that served as our main operations space where we had several laptops, and we moved a TV from another room to be another monitor. That was our main mission control room.”
There were up to 30 people in the house, Mix. Talinto said.
For security reasons, people in Florida could not directly access the spacecraft’s systems via the Internet. Instead, a simple crew at Carnegie Mellon University served as an intermediary, relaying messages between Peregrine spacecraft managers at Astrobotic’s headquarters in Pittsburgh and the beach house.
“Somehow it worked out,” Mr. Colombo said.
Several days into the mission, Astrobotic began providing power to payloads like Iris. Raywin Duvall, an electrical and computer engineering graduate student who served as program manager for Iris, remembers watching the video screen as telemetry began arriving from the rover. “They didn’t tell us they were arousing us at that moment, so it was an unexpected heartbeat,” Ms. Duvall said.
The Iris team then began operating systems on the rover such as the computer and two-way communications that were not originally planned to be operational until after reaching the Moon.
When the beach house rental was over, the students returned to Pittsburgh for the remainder of the assignment. Then on January 18, it was over.
Peregrine’s path is designed to swing around the Earth once before returning to rendezvous with the Moon. But a fuel leak sent the spacecraft onto a collision course with Earth. Given the damaged state of the propulsion system, NASA convinced Astrobotics that the best approach was to allow Peregrine to re-enter the atmosphere and burn up.
There won’t be another Eris, but there will be other lunar missions built with contributions from Carnegie Mellon University students. One is the MoonRanger, a slightly larger rover, about the size of a suitcase and weighing seven pounds. It will search for signs of water near the moon’s south pole.
This spring, there is another course on space robotics at Carnegie Mellon University. “So, we know there is a group of people working on the following projects,” Ms. Duvall said.