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As part of the Artemis program, NASA is planning to send its first mobile robot to the Moon in late 2023 in search of ice and other resources on and below the lunar surface. Data from the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) would help the agency map resources at the lunar South Pole that could one day be harvested for long-term human exploration at the Moon.
VIPER’s design calls for using the first headlights on a lunar rover to aid in exploring the permanently shadowed regions of the Moon. These areas haven’t seen sunlight in billions of years and are some of the coldest spots in the solar system. Running on solar power, VIPER will need to quickly maneuver around the extreme swings in light and dark at the lunar South Pole.
During normal operations, the rover will roll across the surface. Should it encounter extremely fluffy soil, VIPER can lift each of its wheels independently, almost like feet, and use them to dig into and sweep along the surface. This gives it a swimming-like motion capable of pulling the rover out of even very soft soils.
“The data received from VIPER has the potential to aid our scientists in determining precise locations and concentrations of ice on the Moon and will help us evaluate the environment and potential resources at the lunar south pole in preparation for Artemis astronauts,” said Lori Glaze, director for NASA’s Planetary Science Division at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington. “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.”
NASA awarded a task order to Astrobotic for VIPER’s launch, transit and delivery to the lunar surface as part of the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative.
Once on the Moon, the rover will explore lunar craters using a specialized set of wheels and suspension system to cover a variety of inclines and soil types. The rover’s design significantly enhances upon a former robotic concept to prospect the Moon called Resource Prospector, which NASA canceled in early 2018. Since then, the VIPER mission duration was extended from one to three lunar days (100 Earth days). VIPER has evolved to increase its science capabilities, enabling more data collection at the lunar surface.
Following completion of its formulation phase, NASA recently approved the rover to enter the mission development phase. VIPER progress continues moving full speed ahead. NASA’s investment in the mid-size rover for mission development costs and operations is $433.5 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.”
Design of VIPER Rover
Measuring 8 feet tall and 5 feet in length and width, this mid-sized rover is built for crawling around craters. Pioneering a new kind of wheel motion, NASA engineered the rover to be agile enough to move through a variety of inclines and soil types – from compacted to fluffy – without getting stuck.
Capable of traversing an incline of as much as 15 degrees, the rover’s four wheel modules are designed with both an active suspension and independent steering. This means VIPER can drive sideways or diagonally and even spin in a circle. VIPER can move in any direction without changing the way it’s facing, so its science objectives and solar-panel charging can be optimized.
Generally, VIPER will drive at about 0.5 MPH over the lunar surface, slowing to 0.25 MPH when prospecting for water and other potential resources. VIPER will explore inside dark craters where the Sun never reaches and is the first NASA rover with headlights – a system specially designed to work with its cameras in the Moon’s extreme conditions of light and dark.
VIPER’s camera system will allow operators on Earth to visualize the terrain the rover needs to navigate and send commands in near-real time based on what they see – where and how fast to move, and where to stop and search for water ice. Typically, the operators will tell the rover to move between 12 and 25 feet (4 to 8 meters), before downlinking data and reassessing. VIPER will send its science and prospecting data back using an X-band communications system that connects directly with Earth over the Deep Space Network.
The onboard computer is the brain of the rover that will help VIPER do its job and includes software for running commands sent from Earth, processing data from VIPER’s sensors, operating its instruments and driving. Since the Moon is much closer to Earth than Mars, there will be little delay when communicating with VIPER, allowing some of the rover’s functions to be performed here on Earth, such as creating maps of the rover’s environment to track its position and mapping the resources it finds.
VIPER will carry four instruments, including the Regolith and Ice Drill for Exploring New Terrains (TRIDENT) hammer drill, the Mass Spectrometer Observing Lunar Operations (MSolo) instrument, the Near Infrared Volatiles Spectrometer System (NIRVSS) and the Neutron Spectrometer System (NSS). Earlier versions of these instruments will be tested on the lunar surface ahead of the VIPER mission, allowing the team to reduce risk and test instrument performance data.
Slated to arrive via Astrobotic’s first flight, MSolo, NVSS and NIRVSS are among the payloads that will land on the lunar surface on one of the first CLPS deliveries to the Moon. Versions of TRIDENT and MSolo will ride to the Moon in late 2022 aboard the Polar Resources Ice Mining Experiment (PRIME-1) technology demonstration, delivered by Intuitive Machines on its second CLPS flight.