CMU students who turned on rover during Astrobotic mission share their story

PITTSBURGH — A group of Carnegie Mellon University students are celebrating their place in history. They operated the rover they built while it was traveling in space.

When Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic’s Peregrine Lunar Lander launched in Florida in January, the students, known as Team Iris, were there to see it.

“A rocket is so powerful that not only do you hear it, but you feel it deep inside your body,” said Iris Operator and Representative Team Lead Carmyn Talento.

“It had a different kind of fuel so the second stage burned like a purplish-blue,” added Iris Program Manager Raewyn Duvall.

“Everyone was cheering and we heard some people say, go, Iris,” said Iris Systems Management and Mission Operations Lead Divya Rao.

Iris is the moon rover the students built to map the surface of the moon. It was strapped to the outside of Peregrine.

“There were dolphins coming through, and I remember we all looked around and said that felt like a moment,” reflected Iris Ground Software Lead Jeffery John.

The trip to the moon was supposed to take a month, so Team Iris thought its mission wouldn’t start for weeks but hours after launch, Astrototic reported an anomaly.  The students got a message - the mission is now.

“Some people are sitting at the table at the rental home, and the other people are just pacing around the room as they’re trying to figure out, what can we can. What if we can’t do this?  If we can’t go there, where can we go?” said Irisa Mission Operator Lance Miller.

The brainstorming paid off.  Once Astrobotic announced Peregrine wouldn’t reach the moon, it allowed scientists to turn on their projects on Peregrine, while it was in space. That included Iris.

“When Astrobotic made it public that a moon landing is out of question, we never stopped.  What can we still do?  What more can be done?” said Iris Mission Control Lead Nikolai Stefanov.

“I think the coolest was when Astrobotic posted Iris waving from space where it show our (rover) wheels turning,” Duvall added.

The students got to send names, messages, and even jokes into space.

“I’m proud to say, I believe I sent the first ever Star Trek blog into space from like 200,000, 300,000 kilometers away,” said Iris Science Lead Zachary Muraskin.

“I think the last message that got sent in a time period was along the lines of, we’re trying to reach you about your car’s extended warranty,” joked Talento.

And the smiles stayed put, and still do.  Moon landing or not, the students are proud of what they accomplished and their place in history.

“Whether or not we made it to the moon, we are the starting point, the stepping stone.  No one used the Wright Brother’s plane, sure. But they were still the first people to make a plane, right?” said Iris Mission Operator Madhav Gajula.

“It honestly kind of gave the team a chance to show how adaptable we are and how everyone was so quick to just kind of jump at the opportunity to take us in a new direction,” added Iris Operator Sophia Zhao.

“It’s like every small thing that happened was a miracle in itself.  You were too busy to be disappointed,” said Iris Thermal Lead Paulo Fisch.

Iris Administrative Manager Siri Maley reflected,”if you would’ve told me in advance that this is what’s going to happen, we’re doing to have to do it in transit, we’re not going to the moon, I thought I’d be more disappointed. But it actually worked out great.”

The students now plan to publish all the data from Iris so it can be used in future space projects.

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