Pittsburgh-based space robot specialist Astrobotic has been picked by NASA to drop a rover onto the surface of the Moon.
The $199.5m contract is the second awarded to the company under NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program and will see the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) deposited on the south pole of the Moon in 2023.
VIPER is all about hunting for water ice on the Moon and the golf-cart sized robot, armed with four science instruments including a one-metre drill, will collect approximately 100 days' worth of data to build a lunar water resource map.
Water ice on the Moon is key to a long-term human presence, and NASA detected the stuff using a Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) when it crashed a projectile into a crater near the lunar South Pole.
It is the second CLPS delivery awarded to Astrobotic. The first, using the company's Peregrine lander, will deliver 14 NASA payloads to the Moon under a $79.5m contract in 2021. That mission will make use of the first Vulcan Centaur launched by United Launch Alliance (ULA).
There is no word on what rocket will launch VIPER, but the approximately 450kg trundlebot will make use of Astrobotic's Griffin lander, capable of transporting 475kg to the lunar surface. Two metres high, the lander uses cameras, IMUs and LIDAR to touch down within 100 metres of a targeted site.
It has been a while since the US last had its own rover on the lunar surface. The Soviet Lunokhod 2 landed in January 1973, after the departure of the last Apollo mission, and trundled around for a few months before expiring in May of that year. The Lunokhod held the off-earth rover distance record until Opportunity's Martian antics decades later.
More recent lunar shenanigans include China's Chang'e 4 and Yutu-2 rover, which both continue to operate on the Moon's surface well over a year after landing. India's rover, Pragyan, carried by the Vikram lander, did not fare so well in late 2019 after a harder-than-planned landing likely left the trundlebot in pieces.
While the next Change'e mission will be about returning lunar samples to Earth, NASA hopes that data from VIPER will inform the next phase of human exploration, due to kick off in 2024. ®