NASA is offering people around the world a chance to fly their names to the Moon aboard the agency’s Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER). Scheduled to launch in 2024, VIPER will map and explore the Moon’s South Pole to prepare the way for astronaut missions under the Artemis program.
NASA Opens Call for Public Names Before VIPER Completes Build
With VIPER now 50% complete, NASA has opened registration for members of the public to add their names to a flash memory drive that will fly aboard the mobile robot. According to NASA, the names will be part of a diverse range of payloads flying on VIPER to demonstrate new technologies as it searches for ice and other resources on the Moon.
Once launched, VIPER will be the first resource mapping mission on another world, helping pave the way for longer-term science investigations at the lunar South Pole. The public names will also help connect people to the mission.
We’re very excited to offer this opportunity to send your name to the lunar South Pole aboard VIPER. This enables people to connect with a mission of exploration at the Moon in a very tangible way beyond just reading about the science and engineering activities. – Lori Glaze, Director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division
There is no cost to add your name to the payload. Registrations will be accepted through an online form until September 30, 2023. NASA expects well over a million names will fly aboard VIPER when it launches in late 2024.
VIPER Rover Build Now Half Complete
In an exciting update on January 2nd, NASA declared that construction of the VIPER flight rover is halfway complete. NASA’s Ames Research Center in California has been leading the build, integration, ground testing, and operations phases for VIPER. So far the engineering model and flight nose cone have already been delivered. The actual flight rover chassis was also delivered in November 2022.
|Flight Nose Cone
|Flight Rover Chassis
|Instruments and Payloads
|Full Integration and Testing
Despite pandemic delays and supply chain issues pushing schedules slightly, NASA reports VIPER remains on target to launch and land on the Moon in December 2024. The rover has a 100-day mission to map subsurface water ice believed to be trapped in permanently shaded craters at the lunar South Pole.
VIPER To Fly Commercial Delivery Spacecrafts In NASA Collaboration
VIPER will launch on a Falcon Heavy rocket built by SpaceX, the first lunar lander to employ a commercial rocket and delivery spacecrafts. The rover will fly aboard SpaceX’s new Dragon XL cargo spacecraft, then transfer in space to follow-on delivery by Astrobotic Technology’s Griffin lander to handle the final descent and soft landing on the Moon.
The partnership highlights NASA’s growing use of public-private collaborations focused on establishing a long-term lunar presence under the Artemis program. NASA says using commercial vehicles like Dragon XL and Griffin frees up agency resources to concentrate on scientific objectives for missions.
Commercial partners are changing the landscape for robotic lunar landers. By taking advantage of cutting-edge U.S. industry capabilities, we’re able to reduce overall costs to the agency while working to accelerate the science activities for the VIPER mission and the long-term Artemis program. – Daniel Andrews, Project Manager for VIPER at NASA’s Ames Research Center
How VIPER Will Search for Lunar Resources
Using VIPER, NASA aims to create the first resource maps of the Moon’s South Pole to help identify concentrations of water and other materials. This data will be critical for deciding placement of Artemis astronaut landers, habitats, and more on future missions.
- Four specialized instruments, cameras, and sensors to detect surface and sub-surface water ice deposits down to just below the surface
- Temperature sensors and neutron spectrometer to sense hydrogen abundance from orbit
- Specialized wheels and suspension system allowing VIPER to “walk” across the landscape, climbing over rocks and down crater walls
- VIPER can travel several hundred meters per Earth day, with an expected traverse of at least 12 miles (20 kilometers) during its 100-day mission
- On-board rechargeable batteries recharged by solar panels; no radioisotope heating which could interfere with the neutron spectrometer
- Communicate directly to Earth via NASA’s Deep Space Network; 4G-LTE communications tested on previous surface missions
The VIPER team will operate the rover from the new Exploration Science Operations Center (ESOC) located at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. There a diverse team or scientists, engineers, robotics specialists, and operators will coordinate VIPER’s movements and science operations over the 100-day surface mission.
VIPER Rover Leverages Artificial Intelligence for Autonomous Operations
The extreme conditions of the South Pole, including intensely cold temperatures, constant darkness, and uneven terrain with deep craters and shadows, pose challenges for surface missions. Solar power availability is limited and communication delays mean a round-trip signal to Earth can take up to 20 minutes.
To maximize productivity despite these hurdles, NASA will use onboard autonomy and artificial intelligence software so VIPER can conduct science and navigation tasks without human intervention. Algorithms running locally onboard VIPER will control functions like:
- Identifying regions of interest for detailed inspection
- Self-targeting instruments for data collection
- Safely navigating uneven, hazardous terrain
- Detecting, avoiding, and escaping entrapments like cracks and holes
- Optimizing use of time and resources to complete objectives
VIPER’s onboard autonomy software comes from experience running Mars rovers like Curiosity and Perseverance. By minimizing the need for moment-to-moment human control, VIPER can operate during lunar nights, through communication blackouts, and in risky regions a human operator might avoid. This expands the science return for the mission.
Artemis Astronauts Could Launch by 2026 If VIPER Success
NASA still aims to launch the first Artemis astronaut missions to orbit the Moon by 2024, with a lunar landing attempt in 2025 or 2026. Those timelines depend greatly on the success of robotic precursors like VIPER proving out landing technologies and identifying resources astronaut crews can utilize once on the surface.
Findings from VIPER will influence major Artemis program decisions about placement of landers, habitats, power sources, and infrastructure needed for sustainable long-term lunar exploration. Most concepts currently assume using lunar ice as vital supplies of drinking water, breathing oxygen, and rocket fuel production.
If VIPER confirms sufficient reserves of shallow ice exist at the poles, it boosts both near-term and long-term viability. NASA may then speed up schedules and begin launching initial Artemis crews by as early as 2026.
Conclusion: Fly Your Name to the Moon Before Astronauts Arrive
An exciting moment for space exploration, NASA’s VIPER rover is set to search for ice and map resources at the Moon’s South Pole beginning in late 2024. Before launch, NASA now offers the public one-time chance to fly your name along on the mission. At the same time, VIPER’s build has reached the halfway mark – keeping it on target to meet objectives prerequisite to returning astronauts back to the Moon this decade under the Artemis program.
So don’t miss this opportunity to have your name transmitted on flash memory and sent over a quarter-million miles away across space to reach the lunar surface with VIPER! It’s easy, free, and means you symbolically set foot on the Moon to fly with NASA’s history-making mobile robot bound for areas never before explored.
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