Washington, D.C. – NASA’s new water-hunting mission to the Moon, the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER, has received agency-level approval to move from formulation into implementation of the final design of the rover. This puts the mission one step closer to launching to the Moon’s South Pole in late 2023.
The decision follows VIPER passing the important preliminary design review milestone in August, in which the mission successfully demonstrated to NASA’s Planetary Science Division and the independent VIPER review team that it can meet all the requirements with an acceptable level of risk within cost and schedule restraints.
The mission will provide the first surface-level mapping of ice and other resources on the lunar surface to further NASA’s goal of establishing a sustainable human presence on the Moon under the Artemis program.
“We’re extremely pleased to see VIPER pass this important milestone,” said Sarah Noble, VIPER program scientist at NASA Headquarters. “Scientific data gathered by VIPER will provide insight into the origin and distribution of water on the Moon, and help us prepare for human exploration by providing important information on the traversability, environment, and resources at the lunar poles.”
Measuring 8 feet (2.5 meters) tall and 5 feet (1.5 meters) in length and width, this mid-sized rover is built for crawling around craters. By pioneering a new kind of wheel motion, NASA is engineering the rover to be agile enough to move through a variety of inclines and soil types – from compacted to fluffy – without getting stuck.
Outfitted with sensitive instruments and a drill that can detect water molecules on and below the lunar surface, these components will allow the rover to study many characteristics of the Moon’s polar water over the course of its mission, lasting up to 100 Earth days.
From extreme temperatures to near-real-time rover driving, the VIPER team faces some brand-new challenges operating on the Moon – different from those tackled by previous rover missions to Mars. VIPER will be NASA’s first rover with headlights, capable of exploring permanently shadowed regions of the Moon that haven’t seen sunlight in billions of years.
The extreme swings in light and dark at the poles of the Moon are nothing like those on Earth or Mars and produce extremely long and fast-moving shadows. The solar-powered VIPER must retreat from these advancing shadows as it seeks out the right zones to sample while maintaining communications with Earth. Periods of darkness in this lunar region can last multiple Earth days, so VIPER will periodically park in identified safe havens, where the periods of darkness are shorter. Combining all these constraints makes for complicated route planning.
“We’re now ready to finish the design and operational planning for this rover, and then start building it,” said Daniel Andrews, VIPER’s project manager. “This team has worked incredibly hard, through a pandemic and many other challenges natural disasters to get us to this point – we’re determined now to see it on the Moon.”
VIPER is a collaboration within and beyond the agency. VIPER is part of the Lunar Discovery and Exploration Program and is managed by the Planetary Science Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley is managing the project, leading the mission’s science, systems engineering, real-time rover surface operations and flight software. The hardware for the rover is being designed and built by NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, while the instruments are provided by Ames, NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and commercial partner Honeybee Robotics in Altadena, California. The spacecraft, lander and launch vehicle that will deliver VIPER to the surface of the Moon will be provided by Astrobotic in Pittsburgh, who was selected through NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services, or CLPS initiative, delivering science and technology payloads to and near the Moon.