NASA’s Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) is set to be the first rover on the moon with the specific goal of searching for water ice. As NASA prepares to send astronauts back to the lunar surface through the Artemis program, understanding the moon’s resources like water will be key to establishing a sustained human presence.
VIPER rover hits key development milestone
The VIPER rover has reached a major milestone, with over half of the flight hardware now completed or in final procurement, as reported this week. Lockheed Martin Space is developing the VIPER rover for NASA at their facility near Denver, Colorado.
Daniel Andrews, VIPER lunar rover program director at NASA’s Johnson Space Center said:
“The rover is on schedule for delivery to Kennedy Space Center in Florida in September. From there it will be prepared for launch in late 2024.”
He added that the team is excited to complete final assembly and testing on VIPER over the next several months.
The rover’s instruments are also coming together, with engineering models of several science payloads already built. The instruments will allow VIPER to assess lunar resources and gather detailed data about the moon’s composition.
|Neutron Spectrometer System
|Measure hydrogen abundance & subsurface water ice
|Near InfraRed Volatiles Spectrometer System
|Detect water bound to lunar materials & measure light reflection
|Mass Spectrometer Observing Lunar Operations
|Detect resources & volatile compounds like water vapor
|Regolith & Ice Drill
|Collect subsurface samples down to 1 meter deep
|The Surface Characterization Instrument Suite
|Provide detailed info on surface terrain
VIPER’s instruments will allow it to detect and analyze lunar resources like water ice. The data collected will help NASA determine accessibility and usage of resources on the moon. Table data from NASA.gov
The information VIPER collects on the lunar surface and subsurface will help NASA map resources for future astronaut missions. Its target exploration area is the Nobile region near the moon’s South Pole. This area is one of the coldest spots in our solar system and may contain substantial water ice deposits.
Public participates by sending names to the moon
In prep for VIPER’s historic mission, NASA is allowing the public to participate by having their names flown aboard the rover. Over 2 million people have already signed up to send their name when the call for submissions opened last month.
Participants who sign up will have their name etched onto a flash memory card flying aboard VIPER. The rover will traverse several miles across the lunar surface, scouting for resources and taking detailed scientific measurements.
“We are thrilled with the response we’ve received,” said Nujoud Merancy, chief of NASA’s Exploration Mission Planning Office. “The great enthusiasm we’ve seen through this opportunity demonstrates how excited people are to join Artemis as our missions explore more of the Moon than ever before.”
The public names will join others already on the rover, including 155 essays from K-12 students about using lunar resources. Nine U.S. classrooms were chosen to have their essays transported to the moon through this Artemis Student Challenge.
Launch timed with astronaut return to the moon
VIPER remains on schedule for launch in December 2024, likely from Cape Canaveral, Florida. This positions it well to support the planned astronaut return to the moon’s surface in 2025.
The Artemis II mission will take astronauts around the moon and back in 2024. Then Artemis III aims to land astronauts, including the first woman and first person of color, on the lunar surface by late 2025. Understanding what resources are available and where will be vital for NASA’s lunar ambitions.
Daniel Andrews emphasized that “VIPER is going to the Moon to ground truth our orbital data, increase our confidence for resource utilization, and set the stage for Artemis astronauts to eventually use the resources the rover finds.”
The data collected by VIPER at the moon’s South Pole will help NASA determine exactly how they can use lunar resources like water to enable long-term exploration. If enough easily accessible ice exists, it may be used for drinking water, breathable oxygen, or rocket fuel production.
VIPER leads the charge for AI and automation
As one of NASA’s early Artemis robotic explorers, VIPER is also serving as a pathfinder for autonomous systems. Artificial intelligence and automation will be necessary to facilitate sustainable lunar operations.
The rover has an autonomous self-driving system similar to those used by cars on Earth. This allows it to navigate challenging terrain and select scientifically interesting spots to collect data, without human intervention. VIPER determines its own path using AI, lidar sensors, and mapping software.
The rover is also designed for automated sample collection. It will self-diagnose any issues and even automatically reconnect communications if disrupted. Software updates can also be sent from 230,000 miles away back on Earth.
“VIPER will demonstrate technologies that enable resilience for extended missions under extreme conditions,” said NASA team leader Kurt Leucht. “That’s important for establishing a sustained presence at the Moon under the Artemis program.”
Automating rover functions allows VIPER to operate throughout the lunar night, which lasts over two weeks. Temperatures plunge to -300°F during this extended dark period. The rover will power down non-essential systems but can still run vital experiments with its radioisotope power system.
The capabilities engineered into NASA’s VIPER rover are laying the groundwork for more extensive robotic and human exploration across the solar system. Lessons learned from its mission at the moon’s South Pole will shape plans for a sustained lunar presence and future crewed trips to Mars.
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