We now know where NASA’s first robotic moon vehicle will land.
The Volatile Ice Search Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) will land just west of Nobile Crater, which is located near the moon’s south pole, NASA officials announced today (Sept. 20). In late 2023, VIPER will fly to the moon aboard Griffin, a lander built by the Pittsburgh-based company Astrobotic that 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,” Daniel Andrews, VIPER project manager at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, said 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 Detection 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 late 2020s. Achieving this will require extensive use of lunar resources. especially water ice, NASA officials said.
Observations from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and other spacecraft suggest that the moon harbors a large amount of water ice, especially in the permanently shadowed regions (PSRs) near its poles. VIPER is designed to make that job a reality, and tell scientists how much ice is actually there 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 a variety of locations in Nobile, including PSRs, which are among the coldest locations in the entire solar system. VIPER will perform this work over the course of at least 100 Earth days using three spectrometers and a drill, which will collect samples up to 3.3 feet (1 meter) underground.
“The data returned by VIPER will provide lunar scientists around the world with a greater understanding of the cosmic origin, evolution, and history of our moon, and will also help inform future Artemis missions to the moon and beyond by enabling us to understand better the lunar environment in these previously unexplored areas hundreds of thousands of miles away, “said Thomas Zurbuchen, head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, in the same statement.
The VIPER team had been considering 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 running from Shackleton Crater; and a location near Shoemaker Crater, NASA Ames VIPER project scientist Tony Colaprete said during a news conference today.
The four finalist sites are intriguing and all appear to be scientifically and logistically sound, Colaprete said.
“Ultimately, it came down to the total number of business days,” he said during today’s press conference, explaining that a “business day” is one where the rover has enough sunlight to operate and can also communicate with the earth. (This communication will be direct from VIPER to its manipulators; the robot will not use a relay satellite).
“We need at least 10 days to fulfill the requirements of our mission,” Colaprete said. “We get over 40 at Nobile, and that was much higher than any of these other places.”
The total cost of the VIPER mission is expected to be approximately $ 660 million: $ 433.5 million for mission development and operations plus about $ 226.5 million for the delivery contract with Astrobotic, which includes the launch cost, NASA officials said. That delivery contract was signed through NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program.
While VIPER will be NASA’s first unmanned rover to crash into gray earth, it won’t be the agency’s first wheeled lunar rover of any kind – NASA launched astronaut-powered lunar buggies on the last three Apollo missions. , in 1971 and 1972.
Mike Wall is the author of “Out There” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for extraterrestrial life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.