We now know where NASA’s very first robotic lunar rover will land.
The ice-hunting Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) will land just west of the Nobile Crater, which is near the moon’s south pole, NASA officials said today (September 20). At the end of 2023, VIPER will fly to the moon aboard Griffin, a lander built by the Pittsburgh-based company Astrobotic and which will be launched atop a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket.
“Selecting a landing site for VIPER is an exciting and important decision for all of us,” said Daniel Andrews, VIPER project manager at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, in a statement.
“Years of study have gone into assessing the polar region that VIPER will explore,” Andrews said. “VIPER goes into uncharted territory – informed by science – to test hypotheses and reveal critical information for future human space exploration. “
Related: Moon VIPER: NASA’s water sniffer rover for the lunar south pole
VIPER is an important part of NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to establish a long-term sustainable human presence on and around the moon by the end of the 2020s. Achieving this goal will require intensive use of lunar resources, including especially water ice, NASA officials said.
Observations from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and other spacecraft suggest that the moon harbors a lot of water ice, especially in permanently shaded regions (PSRs) near its poles. VIPER is designed to verify the truth of such work, by telling scientists how much ice there really is and how accessible it is to humanity.
The Nobile site covers 36 square miles (93 square kilometers). The 950-pound (450-kilogram) solar-powered VIPER will measure and characterize the water ice under its wheels at various locations in Nobile, including PSRs, which are some of the coldest places in the entire solar system. VIPER will carry out this work for at least 100 Earth days using three spectrometers and a drill, which will obtain samples up to 3.3 feet (1 meter) underground.
“The data returned by VIPER will provide lunar scientists around the world with a deeper insight into the origin, evolution and cosmic history of our moon. these previously unexplored areas hundreds of thousands of kilometers away, ”said Thomas Zurbuchen, chief executive officer of the NASA science mission, in the same statement.
The VIPER team had envisioned four finalist landing sites near the lunar south pole for the four-wheeled robot. The other three were an area outside of Haworth Crater; a ridge line starting from Shackleton Crater; and a location near Shoemaker Crater, NASA Ames’ VIPER project scientist Tony Colaprete said at a press conference today.
The four finalist sites are intriguing and all seem to fit both scientifically and logistically, Colaprete said.
“In the end, it came down to the total number of working days,” he said at today’s press conference, explaining that a “working day” is when the rover has enough sunlight to operate and can communicate with Earth as well. (This communication will be direct from VIPER to its manipulators; the robot will not use a relay satellite.)
“We need at least ten days to complete the requirements of our mission,” said Colaprete. “We get over 40 in Nobile, and that was way more than any of these other places.”
The total cost of the VIPER mission is expected to be approximately $ 660 million – $ 433.5 million for the development and operations of the mission, plus approximately $ 226.5 million for the delivery contract with Astrobotic, which includes the cost of the launch, NASA officials said. This delivery contract was signed through NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program.
While VIPER will be NASA’s first unmanned rover to hit gray earth, it won’t be the agency’s first wheeled lunar vehicle: NASA has launched astronaut-driven lunar buggies on the last three Apollo missions. , in 1971 and 1972.
Mike Wall is the author of “The low“(Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about finding alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.