Iris, the mini space rover that’s been tasked with a big job

The task of exploring other worlds in space is a big and challenging job. But it seems that you don’t need to be big in size to take on the task.

A new lunar rover tasked with helping NASA to prepare for its next series of manned spaceflights by scouting the surface of the moon will, remarkably, be no bigger than a shoebox.

It will also weighs just a little over 2kg. To put that into perspective, it tips the scales at less than some Chihuahua dogs.

Iris the mini rover heads to the moon’s surface next year

The rover, called Iris, will launch next year and once it arrives on the moon it will drive over the rocky and dusty surface for just under 50m, in other words about half the length of a soccer field.

Its aim is to give engineers back on Earth more information about how best to travel over the moon’s surface in future.

The drive will take the rover far enough away from its landing site to study how the landing itself alters the surface of the moon.

Feedback from Apollo astronauts who were on the moon’s surface in the 1960s and ‘70s is that the all-encompassing dust and debris makes it difficult to operate there and the potential for damage to sensitive equipment is ever-present.

Solutions must be found before astronauts arrive in 2024

At the semi-permanent lunar outposts that will be set up in the future, sandblasting as a result of take-offs and landings could cause catastrophic damage.

So Iris needs to help engineers find answers before the next manned flights to the moon, which are scheduled to take place in 2024 as part of NASA’s Artemis programme. This will put astronauts back on the lunar surface and develop an ongoing presence there.

“The Artemis programme is a renaming of several earlier activities NASA was already undertaking to return humans to the moon. These were mandated by President Trump’s Space Policy Directive 1, which tasked the agency with focusing on missions to the moon. Earlier this year, Vice President Mike Pence set an ambitious deadline to land humans at the lunar south pole by 2024,” explains the website Space.com.

CubeSats such as Iris bring enormous cost savings to space exploration

According to Space.com, Iris and is the first of a new, small and simple design called CubeRovers. The name is a nod to CubeSats, which NASA says are a class of nanosatellites (tiny satellites) that use a standard size and form.

“CubeSats now provide a cost effective platform for science investigations, new technology demonstrations and advanced mission concepts,” the space agency notes on its website.

“For such a tiny rover, Iris has a big mission to lead America back to the moon, and I’m so proud to lead this team of passionate students who are paving the way for future planetary robotic exploration,” Raewyn Duvall, Deputy Program Manager for Iris and a doctoral student at Carnegie Mellon University, said in a statement. “We’re all excited for Iris’s launch, to drive a rover on the lunar surface, and to see what we can discover!”

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