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Pittsburgh's first mission control center to land at CMU ahead of 2022 lunar rover launch

A rendering of design plans for Carnegie Mellon University's mission control room.
Courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University
A rendering of design plans for Carnegie Mellon University's mission control room.

Carnegie Mellon University will send its first rover, Iris, to the moon this year. It will mark a series of other firsts as the smallest, first American-built, first university-built and first student-built rover on the moon. CMU hopes to establish another first during Iris’ mission: crews operating Pittsburgh’s first space mission control center.

The university’s “Moonshot Mission Control” would serve as a command center at CMU’s School of Computer Science Gates Center. It will allow students to watch and troubleshoot problems while the shoebox-sized Iris wheels around the surface of the moon. The control center’s design will also be adjustable for future missions like the university’s MoonRanger, which is scheduled to fly to the moon in search of water in 2023.

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A permanent mission control room is the final piece to making these expeditions successful, according to William “Red” Whittaker, roboticist and Robotics Institute professor.

“Our rovers and spacecraft are the stars of the show, but they mean nothing without mission control,” said Whittaker. “An on-campus facility for this purpose is absolutely essential.”

Two classrooms that overlook the school’s planetary robotics lab will be converted into a control center with individual stations capable of beaming specific commands up to space that can redirect, analyze and communicate with a rover.

According to Lydia Schweitzer, a researcher at the Robotics Institute and head of CMU’s mission operations, the proximity of mission control to the robotics lab will allow students to test solutions with prototypes before making decisions for the rover in space.

For example, if a lunar rover got stuck on a rock, students would be able to quickly experiment with different maneuvers in a testing facility within view of the operators in the command center.

“You can look down at the planetary robotics lab and see what testing is happening in the thermal vacuum chamber,” she said. That’s ideal because communication windows during missions can be extremely limited and often require fast decision-making.

Renderings of the command center’s design show stations for flight, navigation, science and communications operators who can all make decisions from the same data displayed on a large screen at the front of the command center.

The rover and spacecraft teams have launched a crowdfunding campaign to help cover the costs of high-powered computers, servers and other communications equipment. They’re aiming to raise $80,000 for the project. According to CMU, additional funds will be raised through sponsorship and gifts.

Schweitzer said the financial goal was designed to ensure that mission control could have systems with high computing power.

“You want to make sure that your system is really robust, and from a laptop or from a local computer, it’s not necessarily as robust as a fully designed facility would be,” she said. “Without a facility… it would be operators operating the rover system and communicating with the rover system from their individual laptops.”

This isn’t the first time the school has fundraised to support its space programs. Iris, the mission scheduled to launch this year, raised $66,000 in 2021 to cover the costs of building the final flight components.

Schweitzer said the community support has been meaningful to CMU researchers, who are trying to push space exploration out of government facilities and into the hands of everyone.

“The kinds of missions that are coming out of Carnegie Mellon are some of the first examples of smaller-scale missions that are providing opportunities for individuals to work in space that might not normally,” Schweitzer said. “How many students get to say that they work on a space mission? That’s incredible!”

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.