NASA's VIPER is half-built, with launch plans for this year

Ice, ice maybe – water-seeking lunar trundlebot overcomes iffy connectors

NASA's much-delayed Moon rover, VIPER, is progressing toward a 2024 launch, with its project manager declaring the trundlebot half-built.

The Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) will spend 100 days at the Moon's South Pole to search for ice and other potential resources. It has three instruments and a one-meter-long drill to retrieve samples beneath the surface.

NASA plans to use data from the rover to create its first resource maps of the Moon – an essential step in the long-held dream of establishing a long-term presence on the lunar surface.

However, VIPER must first get to the Moon, and the announcement that the team is halfway through the build of the flight rover is an important milestone.

According to VIPER project manager Dan Andrews, most of the key pieces of hardware have now been delivered, and all but one of the science and instrument payloads are installed. Andrews also noted challenges in the supply chain due to pandemic-era hold-ups and technical and design problems.

"There have been some reveals in the first half of the rover build, which we've had to navigate, including connector issues from vendors, where we've discovered and corrected some design and Foreign Object Debris issues, which prevented connectors from reliably working," he said.

Andrews also described some of the vendor hardware's performance characteristics as "unexpected," which required changes to VIPER's operation plans.

Building spacecraft remains challenging. The next step, post-assembly, will be testing the rover in the types of environments engineers expect to see on the mission before delivering the completed spacecraft for launch integration.

VIPER is to fly to the Moon as part of NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative and will be delivered by Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic's Griffin lunar lander. VIPER's launch was pushed back a year from November 2023 following a request by NASA for additional ground testing of the lander. Another $67.8 million was added to Astrobotic's CLPS contract.

Astrobotic has two lunar landers, the Griffin and the Peregrine. While the Griffin is capable of landing heftier payloads, it is the Peregrine that will be launched first. The Peregrine lunar lander is currently stacked on top of a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Vulcan Centaur rocket, due for launch from Florida on Jan 8, 2024.

The launch will be a significant one. It will be the first flight of ULA's Vulcan Centaur following multiple delays. If all goes well, Peregrine will attempt to land on the Moon on February 23, 2024. ®

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