NASA hopes VIPER rover will search for water in Moon's Nobile crater in 2023

Machine could help unlock natural resources for future lunar base dwellers


Video NASA has chosen where to send a golf-cart-sized rover to the Moon in 2023 to hunt for water: the western edge of the Nobile impact crater on the south pole.

The US space agency hopes to one day extract sufficient amounts of water from icy deposits on the lunar surface to sustain human habitation on Earth’s satellite. Before scientists can begin to think about how best to draw water and other material from the regolith, though, they have to figure out how abundant those resources are and what chemical form they exist in.

Enter VIPER, which stands for Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover: it's set to explore the ice at six points in the Nobile (pronounced no-bee-lay) crater. We're told the area VIPER will study measures 36 square miles (93 square kilometres), and the bot will trundle over roughly 10 to 15 miles (16 to 24 km) during its 100-day mission.

Lori Glaze, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA HQ, said during a press conference on Monday that VIPER was the space agency’s “first resource mapping mission" of its kind. The goal is to search for frozen water and other resources at and below the surface to harvest for human exploration of the Moon, she added.

It’ll be a particularly challenging environment to control a rover in. Nobile is an impact crater at the South Pole, one of the coldest places in the Solar System. Most of it is permanently shrouded in shadow except in narrow stretches where sunlight can get through.

VIPER will have to operate in both extremes of temperature, and make sure to navigate in areas where it can charge its solar panels for power, said Daniel Andrews, VIPER project manager at NASA's Ames Research Center in California.

VIPER will be armed with three mass spectrometers to analyse the chemical composition of the ice and sniff any volatiles kicked up in the regolith’s dust as the rover drives by; it'll also have a drill to see how deep the icy deposits lay beneath the ground.

Here’s a video of the Nobile region...

Youtube Video

NASA wants to set up a lunar base for astronauts to live in: a permanent station for them to stop and refuel as they travel to further reaches of the Solar System, such as Mars and beyond. The agency is hoping to land the next man and first woman on the Moon, though this mission, dubbed Artemis, has been marred by repeated delays, budget constraints, and a lawsuit filed by Blue Origin.

“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,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA HQ, said in a statement.

The VIPER mission to build and launch the rover will cost $650m total. If all goes to plan, aerospace biz Astrobiotic's Griffin lander will place the science-bot on the surface after being ferried to the Moon by SpaceX’s Falcon-Heavy rocket in late October 2023. ®

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