NASA To Send VIPER Rover to Study Ice on the Moon

NASA To Send VIPER Rover to Study Ice on the Moon

NASA announced plans today to send a golf cart-sized rover to the South Pole of the Moon in 2022.  Called VIPER, it will move around the lunar surface not only to quantity how much water ice is present, but to sample it.  Earlier probes confirmed the existence of water ice, and scientists have offered estimates of how much is there, but NASA needs more data as it readies plans to return astronauts to the Moon.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine officially announced the VIPER project at the 2019 International Astronautical Congress taking place in Washington, D.C.

Artist’s illustration of NASA’s Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) lunar rover. Credit: NASA

NASA says the $250 million rover is being funded as part of the Lunar Development and Exploration Program (LDEP) in the Science Mission Directorate and will be delivered to the lunar surface through LDEP’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program.  Under CLPS, NASA develops payloads and pays commercial companies to provide the spacecraft and launch vehicle to get to the Moon’s surface.  Nine companies were selected to offer services under the CLPS small lander program in November 2018.  Three were awarded task orders on May 31, 2019, although one subsequently withdrew. The remaining two, Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines, plan to launch their landers in July 2021.  Astrobotic contracted with United Launch Alliance (ULA) to send its Peregrine lander to the Moon on the first launch of ULA’s new Vulcan-Centaur rocket.  Intuitive Machines signed with SpaceX to launch the Nova-C lander on a Falcon 9.

The Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) will need a larger lander, however. The CLPS program is currently completing an on-ramp process that is expected to add more companies and enhanced capabilities.  Once that process is complete, existing and new providers will be able to submit proposals to transport VIPER in December 2022.

Once on the surface, VIPER will roll off the lander and begin a 100-day mission to explore several miles of the lunar South Pole with a suite of scientific instruments and a 1-meter (3.3-feet) long drill.  The data will allow scientists to create the first water resource map of the Moon.

NASA is engaged in the Artemis program to return astronauts to the Moon as part of a sustainable program of exploration and utilization of the lunar surface.  Water is important not only for human habitation, but it can be separated into hydrogen and oxygen and used for other purposes like rocket propellant.

VIPER project scientist Anthony Colaprete said VIPER “will tell us which locations have the highest concentrations and how deep below the surface to go to get access to water.”

The rover will roam around the surface using instruments to detect “wet” areas below for further investigation. When it finds one, it will stop and use its drill to obtain soil samples that then will be analyzed by other instruments to determine their composition, including the amount of water.

Clive Neal, who was involved with a similar project that NASA chose not to pursue, Resource Prospector (RP), told today that VIPER is more capable than RP.  “It should be able to last up to 96 hours without sunlight and be able to drill to 1 m depth – essential if we are to look for the volatiles in the regolith.”  A University of Notre Dame lunar geologist, Neal is chairman emeritus of NASA’s Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG), which meets next week in Washington, D.C. where VIPER likely will be discussed.

Neal made the point that understanding the Moon’s ice will require a “campaign” of rovers, not just one.  That is the only way to “truly get the ground truth needed to show if the lunar resources are actually reserves,” which is critical if the expansive plans being developed by NASA and the commercial sector are to be realized.  “Multiple builds” of VIPER are needed and the cost should come down with subsequent units.

VIPER will be built at and managed by NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, CA.  Johnson Space Center (TX) and Kennedy Space Center (FL) are also involved, along with Honeybee Robotics, headquartered in Brooklyn, NY.

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