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Ex-Intern Used NASA Skills to Lead Robot Rover Moon Mission

An ex-NASA intern bagged a leading role in the creation of a robot explorer bound for the Moon.

A former intern at NASA stepped up in a leading role and created a small robotic explorer destined to land on the Moon, according to a blog post from NASA.

RELATED: NASA DEVELOPS SOFT ROBOTS FOR FUTURE SPACE MISSIONS

Raewyn Duvall Iris NASA
Raewyn Duvall, former NASA intern, with the CubeRover Iris. Source: NASA

Ex-NASA intern leads robot design for moon mission

When she was a wide-eyed intern at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Raewyn Duvall didn't know how doing time as an intern at NASA would leave her in a leading role in the creation of a small robotic explorer that would be earmarked for Lunar aspirations.

Her first internship involved working on ground software within Kennedy's Engineering Directorate in 2015. She did it again, later as a Pathways intern in Swamp Works — from May 2016 to August 2019 — where she worked on controls, embedded systems, and automation for in-situ resource utilization for robots designed to explore space.

Today, Duvall is a student at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh, tackling a doctorate in electrical and computer engineering. The former intern is now the deputy program manager for Iris — a four-wheeled rover roughly the size of a shoebox less than 2.26 kilograms (5 pounds), in development at the university and in collaboration with NASA and Astrobotic Technology.

Iris is a CubeRover — like CubeSats — which uses small standardized designs to hasten the pace of exploration at a lower cost than ever. 

Carnagie Mellon University Rover Iris
The robotic rover is a joint project between NASA and Astrobotic. Source: Carnegie Mellon University / NASA

NASA partners with private companies, builds robot rover

NASA has helped to advance the concept for the miniature rover since 2017. Astrobotic — a company in Pittsburgh founded by CMU alumni — launched the CubeRover project with NASA via the agency's Small Business Innovation Research program. In the early days of the partnership, the company — together with a team at Kennedy — developed the working basics for the then-forthcoming rover.

In September 2019, NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate gave Astrobotic a $2 million Tipping Point award to prepare the CubeRover for its trip to the Moon. The company, in partnership with CMU and multiple NASA centers, are finalizing payload interfaces and enhancing the rover's capabilities.

Iris is the first CubeRover to secure a flight to the Moon, and also serves as a proof-of-concept of how NASA investments stimulate innovation in advanced exporatory technology.

"This is a huge step toward putting more rovers on the Moon," said Duvall. "We will be gathering data to understand trafficability of the regolith and testing new teleoperation command techniques."

Iris' mission to the moon

The main objective of the rover is to successfully drive it on the Moon — capturing and transmitting a rare image back to Earth — and then rolling its way roughly 48.7 meters (160 feet), which is roughly the length of a football field. On the way, it will document the so-called plume effect created by the lander's exhaust system. A secondary objective is to provide mobility, power, and communications to support technical and science demonstration payloads.

Duvall said her intern days at NASA were a significant boost on the road to her eventual role as lead of the project. As NASA moves to outsource and share more of its work with private companies, opportunities for aspirational engineers like Duvall will surely play an increasingly central role in transforming the future of space exploration.

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