NASA is already pulling together plans for what could become its first long-lived robotic rover on the moon's surface, designed to sniff out water and targeting a landing date of 2022.
Right now, that rover, called Volatiles Investigation Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER), is still a mission concept. If all goes well, the project could develop a long-lived, mobile robot that can hunt for water and other volatiles near the south pole of the moon. And VIPER has a head start, since the would-be mission builds on previous NASA development conducted as part of a project called Resource Prospector, which was axed in 2018. This time around, the rover would reflect the Artemis program, NASA's initiative to land humans on the moon in 2024.
"We are heavily ensconced in the intersection between science and exploration," Brad Bailey, program scientist with NASA's Lunar Discovery and Exploration Program, said about NASA's lunar program during a Planetary Science Advisory Committee meeting held in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 23. Volatiles are an area of particular overlap between the two programs, hence VIPER's relevance to both.
Related: Water Ice Confirmed on the Surface of the Moon for the 1st Time!
On the science side, understanding how water arrived at our closest neighbor would explain how Earth got its own water, even though plate tectonics has destroyed the geologic record of that era. Would-be explorers are on the hunt for fuel or even drinking water they could generate from stores of ice.
But in both cases, the first step is figuring out where the water is and that's what VIPER is designed to do, not only at the south pole, where it would land, but over the entire lunar surface. "The idea is that that mission is a very important part of looking for volatiles, looking for these potential resources on the lunar surface," Debra Needham, a planetary scientist at NASAs Marshall Space Flight Center, told Space.com. "It's a highly desired mission under formulation."
Scientists have confirmed the existence of sizable chunks of frozen water on the moon only over the past decade. But as it stands right now, NASA's last soft-landed mission to the moon was Apollo 17 in 1972, when humans last set foot on the moon. The agency has also only flown lunar rovers designed to work with humans, during the latter three Apollo missions. These rovers carried some instruments but primarily served as transportation devices for astronauts.
That means that although VIPER won't necessarily be the first mission to land in NASA's new, moon-focused Artemis era, it could be NASA's first lunar rover in decades and the agency's first independent rover ever.
The combination means that there are plenty of new capabilities NASA wants to build into such a mission. A particularly high priority for the agency is to design a rover that can power through the dramatic temperature swings between night and day. A couple of long-duration lunar rovers the Soviet Union's Lunokhod 2 and the Chinese Yutu rovers have slept through the night, woken up and resumed work.
But NASA wants to do something more: The agency wants VIPER and other future missions to keep gathering data through the night, without shutting down for safety. "One of the biggest technologies that needs to be developed is being able to survive and operate through the lunar night," Needham said.
Working through the night would double the amount of observations a rover could make in the same mission duration, which is of course appealing. But full-time observing would also offer crucial science data about phenomena that aren't observable during the lunar day. In particular, Needham said, scientists think that at dawn and dusk, dust may levitate and electrical currents could form in the lunar surface.
VIPER would let engineers test technologies designed to let lunar rovers work through the night, but it wouldn't tackle those specific science measurements. Instead, according to Bailey's presentation last month, there are four primary instruments that NASA is eyeing for VIPER.
Two of those instruments were under development for Resource Prospector; NASA also included both in a list of a dozen instruments selected in February to land on the moon as early as this year. (Bailey said they are scheduled to fly on board Astrobotic's lunar lander, which is due to fly in the summer of 2021.)
Those projects are the Neutron Spectrometer System, which measures hydrogen in the lunar surface; and the Near-Infrared Volatile Spectrometer System, or NIRVSS, which can study volatile composition, mineralogy and surface temperature.
A third instrument NASA is eyeing for VIPER is a drill designed to reach about 3 feet (1 meter) into the lunar regolith.
Scientists have glimpsed below the moon's surface before: Astronauts on the later Apollo missions also carried a drill, and they returned subsurface samples to Earth. But volatiles literally get their name from their ability to easily evaporate away, so scientists can't be sure what volatiles disappeared from the subsurface moon rocks they have examined up close with modern technology.
VIPER would change that, as both NIRVSS and a second instrument, called Mass Spectrometer observing lunar operations (MSolo), which can analyze isotopes, will conduct their analyses not only while the rover is moving but also on material that the drill pulls to the surface.
NASA also wants to make sure that the findings of a mission like VIPER could stretch far beyond the small patch of lunar surface that the rover itself would explore. In particular, the agency wants to work with the U.S. Geological Survey to establish how to apply the rover's local findings to orbital data about the rest of the lunar surface, Jay Jenkins, program executive for exploration at NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said during a panel about NASA's commercial partnerships for lunar science at a symposium held by NASA in Huntsville, Alabama, on Sept. 12.
After all, although the south pole's apparent ice cache is particularly intriguing to scientists and would-be explorers, it isn't the only water on the moon. "Ultimately, we really are trying to ground-truth all of the orbital data that we have, in terms of volatile, extent, composition, forms, etcetera," Bailey said during the advisory committee meeting.
Both Bailey and Jenkins said that NASA is hoping to launch VIPER in late 2022. "It's a very aggressive schedule," Jenkins said.
But that sort of timeline wouldn't be completely unprecedented, he added, pointing to NASA's Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, or LCROSS, which he said was designed, built and executed within two years. (According to a NASA website for the mission, LCROSS was selected in April 2006; the flight concluded in October 2009. That would make for a slightly more generous timeline than VIPER would have if it hits its launch target.)
LCROSS is nothing if not a success story when it comes to understanding moon water. The mission, which launched with NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, watched a rocket stage crash into the moon and studied the debris until its own equally violent demise. The LCROSS data showed that its impact location is twice as wet as the Sahara Desert.
Email Meghan Bartels at email@example.com or follow her @meghanbartels. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.
See more here:
- Naming a NASA Mars Rover Can Change Your Life - NASA Mars Exploration - October 24th, 2019
- Japan Sets Sights on Moon with NASA and India - Space.com - October 24th, 2019
- NASA Wants to Send a Probe to the Hellish Surface of Venus - WIRED - October 24th, 2019
- Jeff Bezos Blue Origin to Partner With 3 Companies on NASA Moon Lander - The New York Times - October 24th, 2019
- Caterpillar's autonomous vehicles may be used by NASA to mine the moon and build a lunar base - CNBC - October 24th, 2019
- NASA Needs to Get With the Times When It Comes to Planetary Protection, Report Finds - Space.com - October 24th, 2019
- India's Crashed Moon Lander Is Still Missing, And NASA Can't Find It Anywhere - ScienceAlert - October 24th, 2019
- NASA chief says the first human on Mars may be a woman - NBC News - October 24th, 2019
- Why it took so long for NASA to do the first all-female spacewalk - The Verge - October 24th, 2019
- NASA to confront swarm of asteroids with scientists hopeful of discovering origins of life - Express.co.uk - October 24th, 2019
- Could Chinese Astronauts Beat NASA Back to the Moon? - Motley Fool - October 24th, 2019
- Every $1 NASA spends drives up to $10 in growth, and that's great for the space industry, says man behind the UFO ETF - CNBC - October 24th, 2019
- The 1st Human on Mars May Be a Woman, NASA Chief Says - Space.com - October 24th, 2019
- NASA's Eyes on Extreme Weather - Teachable Moments - NASA/JPL Edu News - October 24th, 2019
- News | Mars 2020 Unwrapped and Ready for Testing - Jet Propulsion Laboratory - October 24th, 2019
- Success! NASA Confirms the Mole is Working Again. - Universe Today - October 24th, 2019
- NASA official says the first person on Mars may be a woman - Mashable SE Asia - October 24th, 2019
- Asteroid terror: NASA spot mammoth space rock to hit Earth's orbit five days before X-mas - Express.co.uk - October 24th, 2019
- NASA reveals how falling into black hole would be portal to another reality - Express.co.uk - October 24th, 2019
- NASA's Van Allen probes are no more, and we owe them a lot - MIT Technology Review - October 24th, 2019
- NASA's New Space Suits Will Fit Men and Women Alike (for Once) - WIRED - October 16th, 2019
- NASA's 1st SLS Megarocket Launch to the Moon Could Be Delayed to 2021 - Space.com - October 16th, 2019
- See NASA's new spacesuits for the moon and beyond - CNN - October 16th, 2019
- NASA's first all-female spacewalk will now take place this week - NBC News - October 16th, 2019
- NASA's Hubble space telescope just took incredible photos of a visiting comet from another star system - INSIDER - October 16th, 2019
- After Sparring, NASA and SpaceX Declare a Shared Mission - The New York Times - October 16th, 2019
- Dream Chaser Space Plane Begins Full Assembly Ahead Of First NASA Mission In 2021 - Forbes - October 16th, 2019
- NASA's 'Mole' Is Digging Below The Surface of Mars Again Thanks to an Ingenious Hack - ScienceAlert - October 16th, 2019
- NASA's Plan to Rescue InSights Stuck Heat Probe Appears to Be Working - Gizmodo - October 16th, 2019
- Asteroid news: NASA is tracking two rogue space rocks barrelling towards Earth this month - Express.co.uk - October 16th, 2019
- An all-female Delta team flew 120 girls to NASA to get them excited about aviation careers - CNN - October 16th, 2019
- Supernova morphs and its shock waves reverse in stunning new NASA video - Fox News - October 16th, 2019
- NASA scientist creates engine concept that can reach 'close to the speed of light' - Fox News - October 16th, 2019
- NASA news: Incredible Space Station pictures reveal auroras glowing in Earth's atmosphere - Express.co.uk - October 16th, 2019
- NASA and USGS reveal stunning infrared aerial photos in Earth As Art project - Express.co.uk - October 16th, 2019
- Today's the Last Chance to Send Your Name to Mars on NASA's 2020 Rover - Space.com - October 1st, 2019
- NASA signals openness to change with new Solar System exploration hire - Ars Technica - October 1st, 2019
- 'Destiny 2: Shadowkeep' has a NASA Easter egg buried on the moon - Mashable - October 1st, 2019
- India's Lost Moon Lander Is Somewhere in This NASA Photo - Space.com - October 1st, 2019
- NASA will air a gazillion ISS spacewalks over the next few months - CNET - October 1st, 2019
- Asteroid alert: NASA tracked rock about to skim Earth at 23,400mph tonight - Will it hit? - Express.co.uk - October 1st, 2019
- A black hole is shredding a star, and NASA caught the incredible space event on camera - USA TODAY - October 1st, 2019
- NASA news: An incredible black hole appeared on Jupiter - What is this 'dramatic image'? - Express.co.uk - October 1st, 2019
- NASA's Astronaut GIFs Take Texting to an Awesomely Nerdy Level - WFAA.com - October 1st, 2019
- Former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly tells crowd at UCCS to 'do the hard things' - Colorado Springs Gazette - October 1st, 2019
- Asteroid alert: NASA tracks three space rocks heading past Earth at once Will they hit? - Express.co.uk - October 1st, 2019
- Send your name to the Red Planet on NASA's Mars 2020 Rover - WFTV Orlando - October 1st, 2019
- Watch SpaceX Test Its Crew Dragon’s Escape System - September 14th, 2019
- Watch a Robot Fish Fly by Shooting Water out of Its Rear - September 14th, 2019
- Residents Are Trying to Flee Russian Town Where Snow Turned Black - September 14th, 2019
- This Startup Will Send DNA From Your Spit to the Moon for $99 - September 14th, 2019
- FBI Investigation Targets Trump Booster Peter Thiel’s VC Firm - September 14th, 2019
- YouTube Influencers Are Mentally Collapsing From Stress - September 14th, 2019
- A Driver Tricked Uber’s Algorithm, Sexually Assaulted a Passenger - September 14th, 2019
- Toyota Wants to Slather Solar Panels All Over Its Prius Hybrid - September 14th, 2019
- A Runaway Star Is Escaping a Black Hole at 1.2 Million MPH - September 14th, 2019
- Putin Critic Uses Drone to Save Hard Drives Before Police Raid - September 14th, 2019
- Airbus Planes Will Track How Often Passengers Go to the Bathroom - September 14th, 2019
- Watch a Tesla Model X Blast Through Deep Flood Waters - September 14th, 2019
- Milky Way’s Giant Black Hole Lets out Two Giant, Radioactive Burps - September 14th, 2019
- Instagram Keeps Accidentally Flagging Fish Photos as Offensive - September 14th, 2019
- MIT Community Horrified by Famed Researcher’s Epstein Outburst - September 14th, 2019
- Unlike MIT, Harvard Cut Off Epstein Donations After Conviction - September 14th, 2019
- MIT Team “Accidentally” Invents Blackest Material in Existence - September 14th, 2019
- Horrifying Study: Corpses Thrash Around For a Year After Death - September 14th, 2019
- French Gov Official Warns Facebook: Libra Is Not Welcome Here - September 14th, 2019
- NASA - Wikipedia - May 30th, 2019
- News | NASA's Mars 2020 Mission Drops in on Death Valley - May 30th, 2019
- atheism | Definition, Philosophy, & Comparison to ... - May 28th, 2019
- Atheism | CARM.org - May 28th, 2019
- Atheism - Simple English Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia - May 28th, 2019
- atheism r/atheism - reddit: the front page of the internet - May 28th, 2019
- Cryptocurrency News: This Week on Bitfinex, Tether, Coinbase, & More - May 25th, 2019
- Ripple Price Forecast: XRP vs SWIFT, SEC Updates, and More - May 25th, 2019
- Cryptocurrency News: Looking Past the Bithumb Crypto Hack - May 25th, 2019
- Cryptocurrency News: Bitcoin ETFs, Andreessen Horowitz, and Contradictions in Crypto - May 25th, 2019
- Cryptocurrency News: XRP Validators, Malta, and Practical Tokens - May 25th, 2019
- Cryptocurrency News: Bitcoin ETF Rejection, AMD Microchip Sales, and Hedge Funds - May 25th, 2019
- Cryptocurrency News: What You Need to Know This Week - May 25th, 2019
- Cryptocurrency News: New Exchanges Could Boost Crypto Liquidity - May 25th, 2019