Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) has announced that it plans to send the first American unmanned rover to the Moon in July 2021. Under the direction of Robotics Institute director William "Red" Whittaker, the miniature four-wheeled robot will ride to the Moon aboard CMU's Astrobotic Peregrine lander along with 14 other scientific payloads, and will be taking a miniature art gallery on its journey.

NASA may not have achieved every first in space exploration, but there are very few accomplishments at which the space agency hasn't had a go. Despite the remarkable accomplishments of the Apollo program, many people would be surprised to learn that the Americans have never sent an unmanned rover to the Moon. While NASA did send three electric rovers to carry astronauts around, as well as a small squadron of orbiters, impactors, and landers, it has never sent a robotic rover.

That isn't actually too surprising. The Soviet Union only sent two rovers in 1969 and 1973, and China sent two in 2013 and 2018, but it wasn't until the CMU private spinoff company Astrobotic landed a US$79.5 million contract from NASA last week that the US got back into the game.

The new lunar rover builds on 30 years of experience by CMU's Robotics Institute, which built a series of Earthbound experimental rovers, including the Ambler, Nomad, Scarab and Andy, as well as navigation software that was later incorporated into NASA's highly successful Mars rovers.

However, the still unnamed lunar rover is relatively modest, having the size of a shoebox and weighing in at about 4 lb (1.8 kg). In part, this is to make it easy for the Peregrin lander to carry, but also because the CMU team sees it as the first of a new class of robots that are affordable enough to be used by universities and private companies rather than national space agencies.

The idea is to adapt CubeSat techniques to rover design. According to Whittaker, where the Soviet Moon rovers were as heavy as a buffalo and the Chinese ones as weighty as a Panda, the CMU rover is more of a house cat in terms of weight. For the first mission, the rover will be deployed in the Peregrine's landing zone, which is in the Lacus Mortis crater south of the Mare Frigoris crater near the lunar north pole. Once there, it will send back the first ground-level images of the area.

In addition to its scientific work, the rover will carry an art package called "MoonArk." Created by space artist and professor emeritus in the CMU School of Art Lowry Burgess, the MoonArk weigh only 8 oz (227 g) and is made up of four chambers holding hundreds of images, poems, music, nano-objects, mechanisms and earthly samples, that are "intertwined through complex narratives that blur the boundaries between worlds seen and unseen."

"If this is the next step in space exploration, let's put that exploration into the public consciousness," says Mark Baskinger, associate professor in the CMU School of Design. "Why not get people to look up and think about our spot in the universe, and think about where we are in the greater scheme of things?"

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