For the first time in years, NASA is gearing up to send humans to the Moon. The agency’s Artemis program aims to have boots on the Moon by 2024, but those boots will necessarily be preceded by wheels. VIPER is one of the many robotic missions currently planned to support human exploration of the Moon, and NASA has just awarded a contract to get VIPER to the lunar south pole.
In the Apollo era, scientists believed the Moon was a dry, lifeless chunk of rock. It is indeed lifeless, but we now know there is water on the Moon in the form of ice. The exact locations and quantity are unclear, and that’s what NASA’s Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) will tell us.
NASA has awarded the launch contract, valued at $199.5 million, to Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic. The company will be responsible for integrating the rover with the Griffin lander and launching them to the Moon. This is part of the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative, which is modeled on the Commercial Crew Program that gave us the recent SpaceX launch carrying astronauts to the International Space Station. CLPS will get scientific instruments and other payloads to the Moon, paving the way for human landings in the coming years.
VIPER is a unique mission in several ways. For one, it will be the very first resource mapping mission on another celestial body. The development of VIPER is also unlike all of NASA’s other lunar missions. NASA plans to equip VIPER with four water-hunting instruments, and three of them will fly to the Moon before VIPER is even complete. NASA plans to include prototype versions of the VIPER payload on earlier CLPS missions in 2021 and 2022. This will help NASA get a better handle on how to structure the final mission.
NASA plans to launch VIPER in 2023, about a year before the proposed human landing. After landing in Oceanus Procellarum near the Moon’s south pole, VIPER will spend 100 days zig-zagging across the surface to probe the surface for ice that could become drinking water and fuel in the future. The rover will also bore down about three feet to analyze ice deposits.
The Moon could one day become an important launching platform for missions to the outer solar system. A supply of water on the Moon could help maintain the facilities and infrastructure necessary to support these missions, and VIPER could point the way.
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