With Iris program, Carnegie Mellon is set to make history

Working deep in the lower levels of the Gates Center, a team of students is sending a rover to the moon — and it is set to become the first-ever university project to do so. That team has been working for over five years to make their mission a reality, involving nearly 400 students from across disciplines at Carnegie Mellon. The rover, known as Iris, is planned to launch this summer aboard a United Launch Alliance (ULA) rocket. With hard work and a little luck on their side, the Iris team is going to make history.

The Iris team recently outfitted an old conference room on the second level of Gates into the Mission Control Center, from which the rover will be teleoperated. Large TV monitors show a live stream of what the rover is seeing on the Moon. Sleek soundproofing panels allow the team to focus on mission tasks. When the rover touches down on the lunar surface, it will be all systems go, sending commands and checking for obstacles. Every second counts — not a moment is to be lost in the hours-long mission that took years to manifest.

Now seniors, Mission Control Lead Nikolai Stefanov and Systems Management Lead Divya Rao joined the project as first-years. As Stefanov told The Tartan, the Iris mission is the culmination of “a human century of effort,” and a pioneer for the university and the country. The project builds on decades of space robotics at Carnegie Mellon. Robots built here have been sent into volcanoes, traveled to the Antarctic, and serviced numerous NASA contracts. Iris, however, is set to be the full stack rover mission to go from Earth to the Moon.

The rover has passed all qualification tests for launch, riding as a payload on board Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic Technology’s Peregrine lander. They were required to present rigorous documentation and testing to prove their "nanorover" was fully equipped for the mission. Rao served as the main point of communication between Iris members, bridging the mechanical, avionics, and software teams. She also worked with those teams to create deliverables for submission to Astrobotic, proving their rover’s capability.

The trip to the moon, onboard ULA’s Vulcan Centaur spacecraft, will last approximately a month. It will be taking a highly fuel-efficient path, using Earth’s orbit and gravity to help propel it toward the Moon. During transit, operations are minimal, with only the occasional status report sent home. After touchdown, however, it's a full-on sprint.

The rover is completely battery-operated, and with 72 watt-hours of charge, the mission is anticipated to last roughly 50 hours. To maximize all the effort behind a two-day push, multiple tasks on the rover will be running in parallel. Navigation controls will communicate with the home base and execute specific movements on their command. System elements will analyze rover health, using a thermistor and an inertial measurement unit (IMU) to monitor the temperature across the rover and ascertain its rotation and orientation.

A critical capability for navigation is known as localization, determining where the rover is with respect to its surroundings. Iris has front- and rear-facing cameras but has no depth perception without a means of localization. To achieve a better perspective, the team uses MonoSLAM, an algorithm system that determines a 3D bearing from a monocular camera. That helps figure out, for example, “what’s a rock and what’s a crater,” Stefanov said — not a triviality in-mission. Ground localization software enables the perception of objects using AI edge detection, and also allows for determining distances, all computed here on Carnegie Mellon servers, and not on the rover itself.

A key aspect of navigation lies right outside the control room’s windows, down below in the high bay Planetary Robotics lab where Iris was built. Nestled amid an organized jumble of NASA-contracted innovations and robotics projects is the so-called “moonyard,” a large walled-in sandpit where a flight-equivalent rover will mimic the live actions of its lunar counterpart. Computer models will predict where the rover should be on the moon, which can be checked against where the rover actually is in the moonyard and analyzed post-mission. A focus of the Iris mission is to explore how rover behavior differs on the Moon versus on Earth, enabled by the moonyard’s recreation of the lunar surface.

On top of being the first developed by students, the nanorover is also the smallest to ever go to the Moon. Most rovers are “the size of SUVs,” Stefanov said, but theirs is “the size of a shoebox.” A key aspect of the mission is to test how a rover as small as Iris functions, as studying its terramechanics and interactions with the lunar surface may prove vitally useful to future rover missions. Building a space-ready rover has been quite the learning experience. Every lesson will be a contribution to further lunar ventures.

The original launch date of this May was pushed back to later this summer, due to complications with the Vulcan Centaur test rig. Better safe than sorry — all necessary precautions must be taken to ensure a smooth journey.

What else makes Iris so groundbreaking? A main component is its extreme affordability. Past NASA rover missions have cost in the magnitude of billions of dollars. All told, total programmatic expenses for Iris will come in at under one million. Due to its small size, production costs are not enormous. Showing how a university can achieve getting a project into space for such low cost may inspire others to pursue similar missions.

By showing how such a small rover performs on the Moon and learning what problems must be dealt with in production, the Iris team aims to equip future missions with the data and knowledge gained from their experience, and “open up space for everybody,” as Stefanov likes to say.

“We don't really know how the rover is going to interact on the lunar surface,” he said. “We’ll see when we get there and play it by ear.”

The process of developing Iris has been one of constant learning and adaptation. Often, work on the rover has involved gaining new knowledge more than making use of old, “learning more than application in a lot of ways,” Stefanov said. His coding skills and physics knowledge have come in handy more than once, but learning new things makes up the bulk of his work, which Stefanov is especially excited about.

“A lot of what I deal with right now is logistics,” he said. During the mission itself, he will be stepping into the Director of Operations, ensuring communications are running properly and all operators are in position.

For Rao’s part, she’s been serving in mission operations development now that production of the rover has wrapped up. This semester, Rao has worked to “define and structure our operator roles, making sure we have a set structure, developing training and documentation, and getting ready for launch,” she said.

For the Moon-curious, Iris will be traveling to the Gruithuisen Domes, an area composed of silica-based volcanic eruptions. The lander will touch down in a region named Sinus Viscositatis, or the Bay of Stickiness. A unique feature of the Moon, given its lack of an atmosphere, is a thin layer on its surface called lunar regolith. The makeup of this dusty material varies by lunar location but is essentially a bunch of charged particles, thus highly prone to sticking to surfaces — a major reason why solar panels were ruled too complicated, thus the need for battery operations.

During the Apollo mission, “astronauts would have to wipe their masks constantly because the dust would stick to their mask,” Stefanov explained. How the rover’s wheels perform in this thick layer of regolith, floating on top or sinking deeper, will be another focus of post-mission analysis.

The Iris program, in its pioneering nature as the first university rover to aim for the Moon, aspires to “motivate other universities and students to get interested and see that this is an option, to put things on the moon and even go further,” Rao said. Hopefully, “it will encourage others to get interested and involved in the space community.” With numerous interdisciplinary aspects involving students from every college on campus, Iris “shows that you don’t have to be a STEM major” to contribute to space exploration, she said.

“It's kind of surreal. You don't really grasp the reality of it. We're putting something on the Moon, something that we built as students,” Rao said. She never expected that her time at Carnegie Mellon would involve work on a lunar space mission. For her, doing it now is “just mind blowing."