Students set to land first US rover on the moon — before NASA

In May, Carnegie Mellon University students will launch the country's first lunar rover, beating NASA to the moon by roughly a year.

The United States is finally preparing to send its first autonomous rover to the moon after 65 years of lunar research. However, this project will not be led by NASA engineers; rather, it was conceived by a passionate group of college students.

Over the course of three years, academics, staff, and former students at Pennsylvania's Carnegie Mellon University created the Iris rover. It is being sent to the moon as a component of NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, which is the agency's first collaboration with the private space sector. It was originally intended to launch in late 2021 or early 2022, but delays in NASA's moon mission program forced a launch date change to this spring.

As NASA's Viper rover is set to launch next year, this endeavor marks both the first lunar rover for America and the first rover to be created by college students. The 4.4 pound (2 kilogram) rover features a shoebox-sized chassis and bottle-cap-sized carbon fiber wheels. Its 60-hour mission will focus mostly on taking pictures of the moon's surface for scientific research. As it broadcasts information about its position back to Earth, it will try novel localisation strategies.

The Carnegie Mellon team intends to send Iris along with the MoonArk, a little time capsule containing poetry, music, images, and other artifacts. According to MoonArk director Dylan Vitone, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon, the project aims to tell a story "that is moving to people now, but also 1,000 years down the road." The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum presently has a second, similar ark on exhibit.

The Vulcan centaur rocket operated by United Launch Alliance will carry MoonArk and its little rover partner into space. Pittsburgh-based Astrobiotic's Peregrine lander will then transport them to the lunar surface. Launch is now planned on May 4 from Florida's Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, which the internet has dubbed International Star Wars Day.

Iris' commander, Raewyn Duvall, a research associate at Carnegie Mellon University, stated in a statement: "Hundreds of students have poured thousands of hours into Iris." We've been working on this mission for years, so having a launch date set in stone is a thrilling development.