NASA's VIPER rover to look for water, resources on moon
The mission is expected to launch in late 2023
NASA's ambitious lunar program Artemis will send the agency's first mobile robot to the moon in late 2023.
The Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, also known as VIPER, would search the planet for ice and other resources on and below its surface that could potentially be harvested for long-term exploration in the future.
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Using the first-ever headlights on a lunar rover, VIPER will explore the lunar South Pole and "permanently" dark regions of the moon – some of the coldest areas in the solar system.
In a recent release, NASA wrote that the mid-size rover would need to work quickly to "maneuver around the extreme swings in light and dark," and that it would explore the craters using a "specialized set of wheels and suspension system to cover a variety of inclines and soil types."
The task order was awarded to private space robotics company Astrobotic to launch, carry and deliver the VIPER – an upgraded version of the former robotic concept to prospect the moon called Resource Prospector, which NASA canceled in early 2018.
The joint effort is notably part of NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative.
The rover will carry four instruments to the moon on Astrobotic's first flight, including the Regolith and Ice Drill for Exploring New Terrains (TRIDENT) hammer drill, the Mass Spectrometer Observing Lunar Operations (MSolo) instrument, the Near-Infrared Volatiles Spectrometer System (NIRVSS) and the Neutron Spectrometer System (NSS).
Notably, earlier versions of TRIDENT and MSolo will journey to the moon in late 2022 onboard the Polar Resources Ice Mining Experiment (PRIME-1) technology demonstration.
"The data received from VIPER has the potential to aid our scientists in determining precise locations and concentrations of ice on the moon and will help us evaluate the environment and potential resources at the lunar south pole in preparation for Artemis astronauts," Lori Glaze, director for NASA’s Planetary Science Division at the agency’s headquarters, said in a statement. "This is yet another example of how robotic science missions and human exploration go hand in hand, and why both are necessary as we prepare to establish a sustainable presence on the moon."
The price tag for the rover's mission development and operations is $433.5 million.
The delivery contract value for Astrobotic to deliver VIPER to the moon is around $226.5 million.
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Astrobotic is partnering with SpaceX, using the Elon Musk-owned company's Falcon Heavy rocket to launch VIPER and Astrobotic's Griffin lunar lander from NASA's Kennedy Space Center.
"SpaceX's Falcon Heavy completes our … solution by providing a proven launch vehicle to carry us on our trajectory to the moon. SpaceX has the team, vehicle, and facilities to make this happen," Daniel Gillies, mission director for Astrobotic, said in a statement put about by Astrobotic.
The Griffin lunar lander's qualification testing process is expected to be finished by the end of 2021.