NASA is sending a new lunar rover called Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) to explore the South Pole of the moon. The mobile robot will hunt for and sample ice in the region for the first time, according to a NASA report.
The location is notably the same place that NASA aims to land the first woman and the next man on the moon under the Artemis program in 2024.
NASA’s IAC Announcement
“We actually have a mission right now that I’m very pleased to announce, it’s called VIPER,” the leader said.
“VIPER is going to rover on the south pole of the moon, and VIPER is going to assess where the water ice is,” he continued. “We’re going to characterize the water ice, and ultimately drill and find out just how the water ice is embedded in the regolith on the moon.”
During the IAC’s five-day event, Bridenstine attended multiple panels and discussions on the future of the space program. Water is a vital natural resource. Thus, determining where it exists is a critical part of enabling astronauts to work and live on the moon someday.
NASA plans to deliver VIPER, which is about the size of a golf cart, to the moon by 2022.
How VIPER Will Extract Ice from the Moon
Using four built-in instruments, the rover will take various soil samples as it travels across the moon’s surface. VIPER will collect data from soil environments that vary in light and temperature.
As the robot drives across the moon, the Neutron Spectrometer System (NSS) will reveal “wet” areas below the surface. Then, it will stop, and the TRIDENT drill will dig up soil samples. The probe can bore down up to a meter beneath the surface.
Two more onboard instruments will analyze the samples—Kennedy Space Center’s Mass Spectrometer Observing Lunar Operations (MSolo), and Ames Research Center’s Near InfraRed Volatiles Spectrometer System (NIRVSS). Specifically, these tools will “Determine the composition and concentration of potentially accessible resources, including water.”
Confirming and Mapping Ice on the Moon
Due to the moon’s tilt, impacts from comets and meteors can form frozen water crystals in the dark lunar regions. Ultimately, the extreme negative temperatures and a lack of sunlight would keep the ice from melting.
Knowing these facts has led scientists to believe that the lunar poles might be promising sources of ice. If they are correct, the crystals could supply space explorers with breathable oxygen. They could also provide hydrogen and oxygen to fuel future rockets and landers.
In 2009, NASA tested the theory by sending a projectile into a crater at the moon’s South Pole from the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS). The satellite discovered hydrogen gas, ammonia, and methane in the crater’s soil. It also found light metals like sodium, mercury, and silver.
Most importantly, the mission revealed that hydrogen existed in crystals of water.
In fact, scientists speculate that hundreds of millions of tons of frozen water still exist in craters near the lunar poles. This hidden reservoir would provide a virtual space oasis for interstellar explorers.
“It’s incredibly exciting to have a rover going to the new and unique environment of the South Pole to discover where exactly we can harvest that water,” said Anthony Colaprete, VIPER’s project scientist, in a statement. “VIPER will tell us which locations have the highest concentrations and how deep below the surface to go to get access to water.”
Overall, knowing where to get water will be vital to astronauts who occupy the moon for extended missions. Therefore, researchers plan to use VIPER’s data to plot the first-ever map of frozen water on the moon.
Furthering NASA’s Artemis Goals
Though NASA’s budget for the Artemis mission is currently facing Congressional scrutiny, the space agency is making progress on its Artemis goals. For instance, NASA recently revealed a new Artemis spacesuit, selected “tipping point” partners for the moon mission, and appointed Marshall Spaceflight Center to lead the Human Landing System Program.
If the VIPER mission stays on track, the vehicle will retrieve water by 2022. Consequently, hitting this milestone will occur two years ahead of NASA’s Artemis mission launch. Thus, the rover will play an essential role in returning humans to the surface of the moon.