Photo courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University
Iris, developed by Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, weighs about 4.4 pounds. Photo courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University.

A tiny lunar rover destined to go to the moon next year will have a short but important mission: laying the groundwork for other robots to build a colony in space.

The small, boxy rover named Iris, developed by Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, weighs about 4.4 pounds, though on the moon it will weigh about one-sixth of that, says Raewyn Duvall, of Squirrel Hill, the research associate heading the team.

The rover will connect with Astrobotic’s lander in early November and go through more testing before it is integrated with the rocket for launch in mid-2022. MoonArk, another Carnegie Mellon project, will be another payload on that launch.

Iris won’t come home — its critical mission must be accomplished within 72 hours before its batteries die.

“We are the first American, first student, first private rover going to the moon next year. Our goal was to build a 2-kilogram rover to show that small rovers can drive and survive on the moon,” Duvall says. On the moon’s severe environment, she says, “To be able to get traction to drive is a big factor.”

If the vibration and thermal testing done in Pittsburgh plays out as expected on the moon, researchers eventually could send many small rovers at once to explore large areas. A lightweight rover is important because you pay per kilogram to get space on rockets, says Duvall.

“We’ve put it through a lot of paces,” she says. “We’ve sent humans [to the moon] but we want to be able to build a colony on the moon. We can do research, in terms of how rovers interact with the ground. It’s been done with big rovers. They can search [areas astronauts haven’t gone to] for resources that we could use in a permanent base, so we don’t have to take everything with us.”

Photo courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University
Raewyn Duvall. Photo courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University.

NASA is making a rover, too, to search for water and has found ice caps at the poles of the moon, says Duvall. “If they can find water, you can basically filter it and then when we go to the moon for a permanent base, we don’t have to take water with us.”

Researchers hope to have autonomous robots prepping a base before people get there – a cheaper, easier way to do it, Duvall says. They could build structures through 3D printing and make sure the terrain is level for landers.

“These things are hard to test on Earth, because we don’t have the same type of [soil] that’s on the moon, which is really sharp, like ground-up glass,” Duvall says. “So, being able to understand those characteristics and how they affect types of robots is important to what we can do in the future.”

Duvall, a former computer engineer for NASA at the Kennedy Space Center, says the agency hopes to begin building infrastructure for a base in the next decade. A base on the moon would enable easier exploration of Mars and other space travel, she says.

“Mars had a similar makeup as Earth at one point, so hopefully we can learn about where Earth may be headed and help keep it from going that direction,” Duvall says.

Iris will take photos to give researchers an idea of how dusty it gets, with the aim of developing solar panels that could survive there.

The project, funded by a Mellon Foundation grant, cost under $500,000 — “pretty cheap for a lunar rover,” says Duvall. The program started with a Google Lunar Xprize in the early 2000s. The Carnegie Mellon team of about 30 people is winding down now. More than 200 students have worked on Iris over the past couple of years, from the design phase on through its construction.

“I’ve always been a huge sci-fi nerd,” says Duvall. “I made my first Mars rover for a science fair in middle school and won a NASA prize for that. I always wanted to work for NASA and be able to get to space. When I was in college, it wasn’t something I was actively working toward … [but] it turns out NASA’s really big about hiring from school, so they can have new talent. I applied for an internship on a whim, and I haven’t looked back since.”

Photo courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University
Photo courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University.

Duvall tells other young people who are interested in space and robotics to pursue the things they enjoy, even if they seem to be on the fringe of the industry, such as public relations, social media or something in the health field.

“There’s a lot of things that are really neat projects that will prep them for future space robotics,” Duvall says. “One thing I’ve learned, there are jobs for people with every background in the space industry. … There are doctors who are researching how astronauts’ health is affected by space. There are biologists seeing how plants would do in another world.

“I’ve found that doing what you really enjoy, and branching out and not worrying about a final goal, has been the best way of seeing what you love. Everybody gets excited when you know about a lot of things, and when they see that you’re passionate about what you’re doing. Do not be afraid to take an opportunity because you feel you’re not ready.”

Sandra Tolliver is a freelance writer, editor and public relations professional in Upper St. Clair.