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NASA stalls water-seeking VIPER lunar rover to 2024

Americans need more time rebuilding their Moon sound stage, clearly

NASA is pushing back the launch of VIPER, a rover designed to hunt for water ice on the Moon, by a year to November 2024.

VIPER, which stands for Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, was scheduled to fly to the Moon in November 2023 as part of NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative.

Under CLPS, NASA is collaborating with private aerospace companies to deliver vehicles and instruments on the lunar surface. For the VIPER launch, the US space agency has commissioned a Pittsburgh biz called Astrobotic to develop a lander to set the lunar rover down on the Moon.

But it has delayed the launch and has asked for "additional ground testing" of Astrobotic's Griffin lander.

"Through CLPS, NASA has tasked U.S. companies to perform a very challenging technological feat – to successfully land and operate on the Moon," Joel Kearns, deputy associate administrator for exploration in NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said this week.

"VIPER is NASA's largest and most sophisticated science payload to be delivered to the Moon through CLPS, and we've implemented enhanced lander testing for this particular CLPS surface delivery."

The tests will "reduce the overall risk to VIPER's delivery to the Moon," we're told. Another $67.8 million has been added to Astrobotic's CLPS contract to cover the extra year of costs, bringing Astrobotic's total contract to $320.4 million so far.

A previous audit [PDF] by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that the mission appeared to be on track to reach its November 2023 launch goals, but noted it could be held back if NASA modifies VIPER's design. The report said NASA did not conduct its critical design review of the lunar rover until October 2021, more than a year after it had already awarded the contract to Astrobotic.

In the meantime, NASA has already made three changes to its initial design adding an 18.1 percent increase in costs to increase VIPER's mass and reduce vibrational issues.

"As the VIPER project completes its design phase, potential changes in its requirements may lead to more contract modifications to incorporate those changes into Astrobotic's Griffin Lander design, which in turn would increase the mission's overall cost and timeline," the GAO warned. 

VIPER will carry a drill and three spectrometer systems to obtain and analyse samples of the lunar regolith for water ice. NASA hopes it will be one of many rovers that will help un-cork this resource to support human missions on the Moon: it may be possible to use the Moon's water ice to obtain drinking water and refuel spacecraft. ®

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