Carnegie Mellon Rover And MoonArk Art Project Headed To The Moon

Jun 6, 2019

Two Carnegie Mellon University creations will be sent to the moon in 2021, aboard a Peregrine lander built by Pittsburgh company Astrobotic.

CMU's four-pound robotic rover is about the size of a shoebox. Unmanned and equipped with a camera, it will be the first American rover of its kind on the moon. CMU Robotics Institute professor Red Whittaker said the rover will investigate things like moon rocks and how the soil was disturbed during landing. It will also analyze its own performance.

"Because this is such a first, we'll be interested in how well it drives, how much steering around rocks and objects it will have to do to get from one place to another," Whittaker said. 

The small size is due primarily to financial constraints, as it costs $1.2 million per killogram to hop aboard the Peregrine lander, according to Whittaker. But he said small devices are the future of space exploration. As an analogy, he pointed to the evolution of the telephone into a handheld device with the power of a computer.

"I wouldn't say more than two percent of space robotic capability is realized at this time," Whittaker said.

Whittaker said the robot will "die" eventually. Figuring out why -- whether by getting stuck, overheating or due to aging components -- will help inform future rover creations.

The other CMU project on the lander will be an arts package called MoonArk. Billed as the "first museum [on the] moon," its four chambers will house hundreds of images, some poems, music and artifacts from earth. The chambers will be affixed to the underside of the Peregrine lander, to shield them from the heat of the sun. 

MoonArk's four chambers stacked on top of each other.
Credit Carnegie Mellon University

Co-creator and School of Design professor Mark Baskinger said he believes MoonArk could be discovered by future generations of humans when they visit the moon.

"We hope that humans will have hands and eyes, and also this spirit of creative inquiry," Baskinger said. "And they'll want to decode or put the pieces together in a way that makes sense to them."

Dylan Vitone, also a professor in CMU's School of Design, said the team looked to hieroglyphics and other historical artifacts to help inform the design of MoonArk.

"We wanted to simplify narrative in a way that would allow people to access it down the road," Vitone said.

The Peregrine lander is scheduled for takeoff in July of 2021. NASA recently contracted with Astrobotic to make up to 13 additional deliveries to the moon.