Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) is poised to make history as it launches a tiny, lightweight rover named Iris and MoonArk, a “collaborative sculpture project,” to the Moon. The university’s projects will be carried to the Moon by a United Launch Alliance (ULA) rocket, with the earliest possible launch date set for May 4th.
Remarkably, CMU students will achieve the distinction of sending a rover to the Moon before NASA has the opportunity to do so. Although NASA has made significant contributions to lunar exploration, it has yet to deploy a robotic rover on the Moon. To date, the American space agency has sent five robotic rovers to Mars but has not ventured into lunar robotics.
Nonetheless, NASA is currently working on the lunar rover VIPER (Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover) and is preparing for a Moon landing on November 10, 2024. Meanwhile, China’s Yutu-2 robot has been exploring the Moon’s far side, documenting lunar rocks. Greece, Japan, and the United Arab Emirates are also developing lunar rover programs.
CMU’s Iris program manager and research associate Raewyn Duvall expressed her excitement at having a launch date on the calendar, acknowledging the hard work and dedication of hundreds of students over several years. Approximately 300 students collaborated on Iris, which will be sent aboard the Peregrine lander on ULA’s Vulcan Centaur. Once deployed, Iris will conduct a 60-hour mission to capture photos and transmit them back to Earth.
The microwave oven-sized rover will not only be the first American rover to leave tracks on the Moon but will also be the first student-developed rover, the smallest and lightest rover, and the first with both a carbon fiber chassis and wheels. Iris will be controlled and monitored by Carnegie Mellon Mission Control at the university’s Pittsburgh campus.
William “Red” Whittaker, the Founders University Research Professor at the Robotics Institute, emphasized the importance of CMU’s accomplishments in planetary exploration, stating that what matters in space is what flies.
In addition to the Iris rover, CMU will be among the first to help send a museum to the Moon with the MoonArk project. MoonArk involves the work of 18 universities and organizations, 60 team members, and over 250 contributing artists, designers, educators, scientists, engineers, choreographers, poets, writers, and musicians. The project consists of titanium, platinum, and sapphire chambers containing hundreds of images, poems, music, nano-objects, mechanisms, and samples from Earth.
MoonArk aims to celebrate human creativity and knowledge while preserving it for future generations. This project exemplifies how collaboration and innovation can lead to new ways of exploring and understanding our universe. A CMU press release highlights the project’s groundbreaking nature, marking the first time that a sculpture project is flown on a NASA mission, the first time an art/science payload is flown to the Moon, and the first time a cultural artifact is placed on another celestial body.