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NASA’s VIPER Takes Shape

NASA’s VIPER mission prepares to descend from the Astrobotic Griffin lander in Mons Mouton.
Credit: Astrobotic

At Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, California, work on NASA’s next lunar explorer has begun. The Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) is now in assembly ahead of its projected launch in 2024 onboard a Falcon Heavy. This mission, designed to explore the mysterious lunar South Pole, is set to unlock the secrets of water ice that may be buried beneath the surface, allowing future Artemis astronauts to use the ice for production of water, propellant and breathing gasses – enabling longer duration expeditions and potentially permanent habitation. 

As part of Artemis, NASA has been uniquely interested in the South Pole for one key reason – water ice. Water ice has been widely detected by orbiting spacecraft, including the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and Lunar Prospector missions, with particular concentrations in the permanently shadowed regions of the South Pole. Now, with the goal of sustainable exploration in mind, NASA and its international partners have begun to examine the poles in closer detail, utilizing the VIPER rover as a scout before the arrival of Artemis astronauts.

The VIPER rover will operate on the western edge of Nobile crater on Mons Mouton in the Moon’s south pole region. It is planned to rove several kilometers, collecting data on different kinds of soil environments affected by light and temperature: those in complete darkness, occasional light and in constant sunlight. This region is not an easy one to traverse, for long shadows and areas of low sunlight make solar power collection difficult. Once it enters a permanently shadowed location, it will operate on battery power alone and will not be able to recharge itself until it drives to a sunlit area. This challenging environment requires the rover to use headlights, the first of any extraplanetary rover in the history of space exploration. The total planned operation time for the mission will be 100 Earth days, but is likely to be extended to help determine final landing sites for Artemis missions. 

Onboard, the rover carries four primary instruments. The Neutron Spectrometer System, from NASA Ames, is designed to detect subsurface hydrogen from a distance, suggesting prime sites for drilling. It measures the energy released by hydrogen atoms when struck by neutrons. This instrument was originally developed for the Resource Prospector rover, the predecessor proposal to VIPER. The Regolith and Ice Drill for Exploring New Terrain, or TRIDENT, is a 1 meter drill developed by Honeybee Robotics that will explore the subsurface ice deposits. Near InfraRed Volatiles Spectrometer System, or NIRVSS, is a system developed by Ames that will Analyze mineral and volatile composition to determine if the hydrogen the rover encounters belongs to water molecules, or is free hydroxyl. The final instrument, the Mass Spectrometer Observing Lunar Operations, will analyze collected samples and determine mineral and volatile concentrations.

Astrobotic’s Griffin lander, with an average human for scale.
Credit: Astrobotic

On 11 June 2020, NASA awarded Astrobotic Technology of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, US$199.5 million to deliver VIPER to the lunar south pole. VIPER will be carried aboard Astrobotic’s Griffin lander as part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative. Astrobotic is responsible for end-to-end services for delivery of VIPER, including integration with its Griffin lander, launch from Earth, and landing on the Moon. The Griffin vehicle will have its debut flight with the VIPER lander, demonstrating the larger lander’s ability to precisely land cargo in the difficult South Pole terrain.

Like many other NASA missions, the construction of the rover will be livestreamed starting November 8th, as the various instruments and subsystems arrive at Ames over the course of the year. Launch is currently scheduled for November of 2024, with an arrival in Mons Mouton scheduled for the same month.

Edited by Beverly Casillas

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