NASA’s ice-hunting VIPER lunar rover, scheduled to arrive on the moon in 2023, would land near the Nobile Crater on the lunar South Pole, the space agency announced Monday.
The crater offers a relatively safe area to hunt for water ice, which is considered crucial for long-term Artemis missions to explore the moon and eventually Mars, NASA officials said. The ice could provide a water supply and even liquid oxygen rocket fuel.
“The Nobile region offers a high elevation with a big mountain range … making communication with Earth, actually, very good,” Tony Colaprete, NASA’s VIPER lead project scientist, said during a press conference. “It’s more toward the near side of Earth than say Shackleton Crater is.”
The high elevation of the Nobile region also means the VIPER rover’s solar panels, which are to power the robotic explorer, should receive adequate sunlight.
The Nobile region also offers several areas that are in permanent shadow, which is where the space agency believes ice may exist just below the surface.
NASA has awarded $199.5 million to Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic to deliver VIPER to the moon in late 2023. Astrobotic, in turn, has selected a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket to launch the mission. NASA has budgeted a little over $600 million for the effort.
VIPER stands for Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, which refers to the volatility of oxygen or hydrogen gas that escapes from the lunar surface when water sublimates, or evaporates.
The mission would be the first U.S. robotic rover to land on the moon and is expected to operate for at least 100 days.
The rover would use drills and scanning equipment to map out water ice deposits that NASA hopes to find within a little over 3 feet below the surface.
The Nobile region also offers slopes that aren’t “too steep” for the rover to navigate, Colaprete said.
NASA emphasized that rover technology used repeatedly on Mars won’t necessarily work on the moon because there is virtually no lunar atmosphere. That means temperatures can change by a range of 500 degrees F, while the Mars surface range of temperature is about 150 degrees F.
The space industry and science community will be watching the VIPER mission closely, Daniel Britt, professor of astronomy and planetary sciences at University of Central Florida, said Monday.
“We are almost certain there is ice in the polar craters, but there’s no substitute for actually going and measuring,” Britt said. “The mission may not find exactly what is needed to establish a lunar base, but whatever it finds will be vital to understanding the lunar geology.”