It’s one thing to speculate about the possibility of ice in permanently shadowed craters near the Moon’s south pole. It’s another thing to prove it. And the best way to do that is on the ground.
Enter NASA’s Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER, a robot the size of a golf cart that will be launched to the Moon in 2023 atop a Falcon Heavy rocket. It’s target, announced 20 September, is a region near the western edge of Nobile Crater, a depression at the south pole that’s almost permanently shrouded in shadow.
Along with attempting to rove inside the crater, VIPER also will assess small, shadowed craters on the perimeter of Nobile to look for signs of ice and other resources.
“Once on the lunar surface, VIPER will provide ground truth measurements for the presence of water and other resources at the Moon’s south pole, and the areas surrounding Nobile Crater showed the most promise in this scientific pursuit” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s science director, said in a statement.
“The data VIPER returns will provide lunar scientists around the world with further insight into our Moon’s cosmic origin, evolution and history, and it will also help inform future Artemis missions to the Moon and beyond by enabling us to better understand the lunar environment in these previously unexplored areas hundreds of thousands of miles away.”
Daniel Andrews, the VIPER project manager, said “years of study” went into the landing site selection to maximise the chances of resolving the water-ice question as a prelude to the arrival of astronauts in NASA’s Artemis program.
Along with evaluating viable paths for the rover across up to 24 kilometres (15 miles) of lunar terrain, the team also had to take into account areas where enough sunlight is available to recharge VIPER’s batteries and keep the 430-kilogram (950-pound robot) warm enough to operate throughout a planned 100-day mission.
In a first for NASA, VIPER will be equipped with headlights and low-light-level cameras for use driving down into the cold darkness of Nobile Crater.
“VIPER is going into uncharted territory, informed by science, to test hypotheses and reveal critical information for future human space exploration,” Andrews said.