Space robotics company Astrobotic will carry a lander to the moon by the end of 2023, NASA announced Thursday. Which rocket will launch the commercial mission is still up for decision, but a golf cart-sized rover will use the Astrobotic lunar lander to the moon’s surface.
NASA’s VIPER rover will search for water ice at the moon’s south pole and try to figure out how much water is lurking in the permanently shadowed craters in the region. NASA hopes to map the location of the water, hoping to extract it for future missions.
Astrobotic has emerged from other commercial vendors as part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Service (CLPS) program. CLPS is designed to help NASA send payloads to the moon in support of the agency’s Artemis program, which aims to send the first female astronaut to the moon by 2024. The contract awarded to Astrobotic by NASA is worth $199.5 million.
Astrobotic has not yet decided which rocket to launch the VIPER mission. However, the company plans to launch another lander to the moon in 2021, in which Astrobotic plans to fly using the Next Generation Vulcan rocket from the United Launch Alliance. In the 2021 mission, the company will use a smaller lander, Peregrine, to deliver several small payloads to the lunar surface for NASA and other companies.
The VIPER rover will take the Griffin lander of Astrobotic to the moon’s surface, which is 6 feet high and nearly 15 feet in diameter. Once on the landing, the solar-powered rover will begin a 100-day mission. The researchers plan to cover a range of about 12 miles with VIPER, which will use a drill bit to try to locate and map water resources on the moon. Unlike the rover, VIPER can be controlled directly by operators from Earth, allowing it to explore the area in near real time. The VIPER will be the first lunar rover equipped with headlights, as it will explore the shaded space.
NASA is particularly interested in finding water because it is particularly valuable for human exploration. Water can be turned into rocket fuel, oxygen, and of course, humans need it to live. But while NASA knows there is water ice in the moon’s south pole, researchers are still unsure how much water there is or whether it is possible to extract it and use it.
“As on Earth, the key to living on the moon is water,” Daniel Andrews, project manager for the VIPER mission, said in October 2019. “Since the moon’s water ice was confirmed a decade ago, the question now is whether the moon can really contain the amount of resources we need to live outside the world. This lunar rover will help us answer many questions about where the water is and how much water is available to us.