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Space tech alert: CMU is launching a mission control center on campus via crowdfunding

The university's new hub will enable on-the-ground teams to control and communicate with spacecraft in upcoming missions.

CMU's Moonshot Mission Control will bring equipment to the crews of Iris, MoonRanger and future space missions. (Courtesy photo)
“Pittsburgh, we have a problem.”

Well, hopefully not. But just as a version of that phrase was communicated to Houston’s mission control by the famed Apollo 13, so too could a different moon mission message be sent back to a new space control center in Pittsburgh.

Amid all of its recent efforts in space tech innovation, Carnegie Mellon University will build a new space mission command center on campus, in the Gates Center for Computer Science. The new space will serve as a hub and equipment provider for the crews of upcoming space missions from Iris and MoonRanger, which are scheduled to launch this year and in 2023, respectively. The command center is intended to serve future missions beyond those two as well, with CMU continuing to build its space tech initiatives.

The new command center will take up two rooms in the Gates Center, and its features can be adapted for any needs related to future missions, per a press release. But for now, the center includes resources to support CubeSat launch missions, testing of battery-less nanosatellites, building robots to service satellites as they’re in orbit, developing capabilities for satellite swarms and more. The university said the command center will have workstations for crews to direct rover movements, monitor data and communicate throughout the team. Those workstations will also provide Fault List Evaluator for Ultimate Response readouts, as well as telemetry and localization data.

But before all of that can become available, CMU is hoping to raise money through a crowdfunding campaign to support the $80,000 cost as it prepares for its upcoming rover missions.

“While these two projects have some funds to develop a mission control center, the university and these rover teams have ambitions of developing a mission control center with the ability to support space initiatives of the future within the university,” Lydia Schweitzer, a research associate in the Robotics Institute and head of CMU mission operations, wrote in an email to Technical.ly. “Crowdfunding allows the community to become a part of the space exploration initiatives at CMU and see a space contribute long-term to future university-led missions.”

The campaign will run for the next 29 days, and offers different tiers of rewards for different donation amounts. (Wanna send your name to the moon? There’s a tier for that.) The hope is that this campaign will be as successful as the $66,000 one launched for the Iris mission last year.

While CMU is still largely known for its prowess in artificial intelligence, robotics and computer science, Schweitzer said it’s not surprising to see the university pursuing space tech now too.

“Carnegie Mellon has been at the forefront of new technologies, research, and ambitions within the fields of robotics, computer science, and engineering for decades now. Space was just the next frontier. Now that mission opportunities are shifting to include universities and smaller organizations, Carnegie Mellon is excited to become one of the leading institutions in space exploration initiatives,” she said. “The university’s values of learning-by-doing, creative problem solving, and hands-on research are fully represented in its ambitions for space. Two of its current lunar rover missions, IRIS and MoonRanger, represent just that. These missions are groundbreaking in the technology and science of micro-rover exploration and have been led and developed by, in large part, the students of CMU.”

But even beyond the innovative academic environment within the university itself, Schweitzer noted that growing activity from Pittsburgh companies like Astrobotic also makes the prospect of getting involved in space tech more intriguing, knowing that commercial opportunities could follow the research.

“With the shift to include commercialized, smaller-scale space exploration initiatives, many local companies are developing and contributing valuable technologies and practices. The larger community of engineers, designers, and leaders among these local companies and universities is part of what makes mission development out of a university so enriching and exciting,” she wrote. “A mission control center at Carnegie Mellon is another step in the direction of creating an educational environment equipped to tackle and excel in the field of space in collaboration and alongside these local companies.”

Sophie Burkholder is a 2021-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments.
Companies: Carnegie Mellon University

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