NASA is sending a rover to the Moon to look for water. It’s called VIPER (Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover) and will launch in November 2024. The full-size model was on the SiliCon convention floor. It’s about the size of a golf cart but the mast on top stands eight feet tall. Though there’s rovers on Mars, this will be the first one on the Moon. The water it finds will sustain future crewed missions there. And can also create rocket fuel and other resources needed to continue our exploration to Mars and even beyond. Nerdist chatted with some of the team members at SiliCon about this cool prospecting robot.
“We started three years ago and we’re looking to launch in a couple years. That’s really fast for a NASA mission,” says Terry Fong, chief roboticist of the Intelligent Robotics Group and one of the people who will drive the rover.
VIPER will land at the Nobile Crater (pronounced no-be-lay) near the Moon’s South Pole. Because the water is frozen ice, the rover will travel in areas that are permanently in shadow. For this reason, it will be the first rover to include headlights. But it runs on solar power. VIPER’s solar panels are on the side of the rover rather than the top because the sun will be low on the horizon when it is up at all.
Another NASA mission is heading for the lunar South Pole soon. Could the Artemis astronauts meet up with VIPER there? “It certainly could be possible,” says Ryan Vaughan, the rover’s lead systems engineer. “Of the 13 landing regions Artemis announced, one of them is the VIPER science area.” By the time astronauts are on the moon, VIPER will likely have lost power. The team aims to cover 20 kilometers in a 100-day mission before the rover loses power.
VIPER is going to the Moon thanks to a SpaceX rocket and an Astrobotic lander. “One cool thing about this is we’re including industry so that is helping us go faster,” affirms Mercedes Herreras Martinez, a risk management officer for VIPER.
Earth has six times the gravity of the Moon. Testing out a rover that is designed to work there requires some adjustments when driving it on Earth. The video above shows off VIPER’s all-wheel drive and how it deals with rocky terrain and even quicksand. The communications delay is relatively short, only six to 15 seconds between Earth and the Moon. So VIPER’s drivers will be able to tackle any issues that arise quickly.
The short communications delay also means the rover can double back if it finds something really interesting. The scientific instruments on the rover process information quickly. One machine is called NIRVSS (pronounced “nervous,” which stands for Near-Infrared Volatiles Spectrometer System). It senses not just water but other resources that may be on or just below the lunar surface.
I asked the VIPER team if they see themselves or the rover in popular culture. Amanda Cook, an astrophysicist working on the mission, says, “I always think about Moon because that one is all about ice harvesting. It is kind of interesting to think about. If there was a mining operation on the Moon, it’s going to be like two or three people running some machines. It’s going to be kind of isolating like that.”
“There’s another one, For All Mankind,” states Herreras Martinez. “That could be the next step after VIPER!” Fong adds, “When you look at Moon or For All Mankind, you don’t see the reliance on robots for doing things like prospecting. Which is where we’re focused on right now. We still have a ways to go to catch up to science fiction. I don’t think we would every truly catch up because authors today are thinking about things so far in the future. They’ll always be ahead of science fact.”
We’re excited for VIPER and Artemis’s trips to the Moon. While we wait, there’s always the amazing images from the James Webb Space Telescope to inspire and excite us about space exploration.
Melissa is Nerdist’s science & technology staff writer. She also moderates “science of” panels at conventions and co-hosts Star Warsologies, a podcast about science and Star Wars. Follow her on Twitter @melissatruth.