NASA has revealed plans to send a rover to the Moon in 2023 to scout out potential landing sites for a crewed Artemis mission a year later and find sources of water.
The space agency plans to send the $433.5 million (£306 million) rover, named VIPER, to explore the lunar south pole, where it will look for water ice and other resources that could be harvested by humans and scout the terrain for a future crewed mission.
The first woman and next man are expected to land in the same region in 2024 as part of the Artemis mission, the first crewed landing on the Moon since 1972.
VIPER will be the first rover with headlights on the Moon, helping it explore regions of our natural satellite that have been in permanent darkness for billions of years.
The golf-cart sized vehicle will spend three lunar days on the surface, or about 100 Earth days, handling unknown terrain and temperatures varying by 500F.
The rover is part of the wider Artemis mission aimed at making lunar exploration sustainable, rather than a series of one-off trips like the Apollo-era missions.
NASA has revealed plans to send a rover to the Moon in 2023 to scout out potential landing sites for a crewed Artemis mission a year later and find sources of water
KEY FACTS ABOUT THE NASA VIPER ROVER
Launch: Late 2023
Landing site: South Pole of the Moon
Mission duration: 100 Earth days, covering three cycles of lunar day and night
Distance goal: 12 miles (20 kilometers)
Rover size: Similar to a golf cart: 5 feet by 5 feet by 8 feet and 950 pounds
Onboard instruments: 3 spectrometers and a 3.28ft drill
Power: Solar-charged battery, peak power of 450 watts
Top speed: 0.5 mph
Communications: X-band direct-to-Earth (no relay) over the Deep Space Network
Data from the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER, will help the agency map resources at the lunar South Pole.
The agency says these resources could one day be harvested for long-term human exploration at the Moon and even used by a permanent settlement.
The golf-cart sized rover will explore areas that haven’t seen sunlight in billions of years and are some of the coldest spots in the solar system.
The 5ft by 5ft rover weighs about 950lb, can travel at 0.5 mph and has three spectrometers and a 3ft drill on board.
Running on solar power, VIPER will need to quickly manoeuvre around the extreme swings in light and dark at the lunar South Pole.
‘The data received from VIPER has the potential to aid our scientists in determining precise locations and concentrations of ice on the Moon,’ said NASA director of the NASA Planetary Science Division Lori Glaze.
She added that it ‘will help us evaluate the environment and potential resources at the lunar south pole in preparation for Artemis astronauts.’
‘This is yet another example of how robotic science missions and human exploration go hand in hand, and why both are necessary as we prepare to establish a sustainable presence on the Moon,’ she said.
Once on the Moon, the rover will explore lunar craters using a specialised set of wheels and suspension system to cover a variety of inclines and soil types.
The rover’s design significantly builds on a former robotic concept to prospect the Moon called Resource Prospector, which NASA canceled in early 2018.
Since then, the VIPER mission has been launched and expands on Prospector in a number of ways, including mission duration.
This has been extended from the originally proposed one lunar day, or about 29 Earth days, to three lunar days or about 100 Earth days.
The first woman and next man are expected to land in the same region in 2024 as part of the Artemis mission, the first crewed landing on the Moon since 1972
CHALLENGES FACING THE VIPER TEAM
The VIPER team faces some new challenges operating a rover on the Moon, different from those tackled by previous rover missions to Mars.
Extreme temperatures: The rover’s hardware will have to handle temperatures varying by as much as 500 degrees Fahrenheit.
Real-time drivers: Drivers will be able to ‘live operate’ the rover due to minimal delay but they will have to drive over complex terrain in real time.
Drivers will have to operate in places where there are no good ‘scouting’ images from orbit.
Mobility: NASA can’t be exactly sure what the soil in the Moon’s polar regions will be like – hard and compacted, fluffy, or somewhere in between. So VIPER is designed for unprecedented agility.
Complex route planning: 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 territory to sample.
First rover with headlights: VIPER will explore inside dark craters where the Sun never reaches, making it the first NASA rover to need headlights.
VIPER has evolved to increase its science capabilities, enabling more data collection at the lunar surface to help it prepare for future crewed missions.
NASA can’t be exactly sure what the soil in the Moon’s polar regions will be like – hard and compacted, fluffy, or somewhere in between.
So VIPER is designed for unprecedented agility. The rover can drive sideways or diagonally, spin in a circle and move in any direction without changing the way it’s facing.
If it encounters soft soils, it will even be able to walk its wheels by moving each wheel independently to free itself.
The Moon is much closer to Earth than Mars, so there will be little delay when transmitting commands to the rover.
That means drivers on Earth can operate VIPER interactively.
With a lot of ground to cover on a tight schedule over complex terrain, the drivers’ efforts will be key.
Because of the dim-to-dark lighting at the South Pole, drivers will have to operate in places where we do not have good ‘scouting’ images from orbit.
Computer simulations of the mission will allow them to practice this critical operation before launch.
VIPER will carry four instruments, including the Regolith and Ice Drill for Exploring New Terrains (TRIDENT) hammer drill and the Mass Spectrometer Observing Lunar Operations (MSolo) instrument.
It also includes the Near Infrared Volatiles Spectrometer System (NIRVSS) and the Neutron Spectrometer System (NSS).
NASA launch partners will send test versions of the same instruments to Mars within the next two years to test how they work and improve performance data.
The mass spectrometer, volatiles spectrometer and neutron spectrometer are slated to arrive via Astrobotic’s first flight later this year
The space agency plans to send the rover, named VIPER (artist impression), to explore the lunar south pole to look for water ice and other resources that could be harvested by humans
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE LUNAR SOUTH POLE?
The lunar south pole is a site of interest for scientists and agencies planning crewed missions to the Moon.
This is because water ice has been found in shadowed areas in that region with craters that never get sunlight.
The rims of craters at the pole are exposed to near constant sunlight but the interiors are in permanent darkness, shaded from sunlight for billions of years.
The water ice and volatile deposits are found in the cold traps that are shaded from sunlight.
There have been orbital observations of the region including by NASA, India, Russia and China with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mapping the entire region to help future astronauts.
NASA plans to land the first woman and next man in the lunar south pole region as part of the first crewed landing since 1972.
They will touch down in 2024, a year after a rover lands to take samples of the water ice and scout the terrain.
This is part of the NASA Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLIPS) deliveries, a $2.6 billion (£1.84 billion) project that will see the US space agency work with a range of tech firms, large and small, to send payloads to the Moon for the Artemis mission.
Versions of TRIDENT and MSolo will ride to the Moon in late 2022 aboard the Polar Resources Ice Mining Experiment (PRIME-1) technology demonstration.
This is being delivered by Intuitive Machines on its second CLIPS flight.
NASA’s investment in the mid-size rover for mission development costs and operations is $433.5 million (£306 million).
The current delivery contract value for Astrobotic to deliver VIPER to the Moon through CLPS is approximately $226.5 million.
‘VIPER will be the most capable robot NASA has ever sent to the lunar surface and allow us to explore parts of the Moon we’ve never seen’ said Sarah Noble, program scientist for VIPER at NASA Headquarters.
‘The rover will teach us about the origin and distribution of water on the Moon and prepare us to harvest resources 240,000 miles from Earth that could be used to safely send astronauts even farther into space, including Mars.’
Throughout the Artemis program, NASA will send robots and humans to explore more of the Moon than ever before.
When astronauts return to the lunar surface for the first time since 1972, they will follow in VIPER’s wheel prints and land at the lunar South Pole.
That mission will include landing the first woman on the Moon who will be one of two crew members paving the way for sustainable lunar exploration missions with crew.
If you can’t wait until 2023 to see what it looks like when a rover drives across the lunar surface, or spot a crater, this week marks a super moon, where our natural satellite is at its closest point in its orbit around the Earth.
‘The ease with which the full Moon can be spotted makes it a great object for kids and newcomers to stargazing,’ said astronomer Mark Thompson.
‘See how many craters you can spot or if you can locate the Sea of Tranquillity where Neil Armstrong and Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin landed in 1969.
‘If your little ones have been inspired by the Moon, I recommend checking out Canon’s Creative Park where you can explore the Moon further by creating your own fleet of lunar roving vehicles.’
NASA will land the first woman and next man on the Moon in 2024 as part of the Artemis mission
Artemis was the twin sister of Apollo and goddess of the Moon in Greek mythology.
NASA has chosen her to personify its path back to the Moon, which will see astronauts return to the lunar surface by 2024 – including the first woman and the next man.
Artemis 1, formerly Exploration Mission-1, is the first in a series of increasingly complex missions that will enable human exploration to the Moon and Mars.
Artemis 1 will be the first integrated flight test of NASA’s deep space exploration system: the Orion spacecraft, Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and the ground systems at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Artemis 1 will be an uncrewed flight that will provide a foundation for human deep space exploration, and demonstrate our commitment and capability to extend human existence to the Moon and beyond.
During this flight, the spacecraft will launch on the most powerful rocket in the world and fly farther than any spacecraft built for humans has ever flown.
It will travel 280,000 miles (450,600 km) from Earth, thousands of miles beyond the Moon over the course of about a three-week mission.
Artemis 1, formerly Exploration Mission-1, is the first in a series of increasingly complex missions that will enable human exploration to the Moon and Mars. This graphic explains the various stages of the mission
Orion will stay in space longer than any ship for astronauts has done without docking to a space station and return home faster and hotter than ever before.
With this first exploration mission, NASA is leading the next steps of human exploration into deep space where astronauts will build and begin testing the systems near the Moon needed for lunar surface missions and exploration to other destinations farther from Earth, including Mars.
The will take crew on a different trajectory and test Orion’s critical systems with humans aboard.
The SLS rocket will from an initial configuration capable of sending more than 26 metric tons to the Moon, to a final configuration that can send at least 45 metric tons.
Together, Orion, SLS and the ground systems at Kennedy will be able to meet the most challenging crew and cargo mission needs in deep space.
Eventually NASA seeks to establish a sustainable human presence on the Moon by 2028 as a result of the Artemis mission.
The space agency hopes this colony will uncover new scientific discoveries, demonstrate new technological advancements and lay the foundation for private companies to build a lunar economy.