NASA scientists are expected to launch an exploratory rover to the moon’s south pole at the end of next year, with the aim of finding pockets of water that can be used for future manned missions to the lunar surface in 2024 and beyond.
The plan, announced at a press conference on Monday, is to land the golf cart-sized robot along the western edge of Nobile Crater, a large impact crater spanning about 45 miles which is mostly surrounded by darkness. NASA scientists Ames in Mountain View are managing the mission and will have to steer the robot over difficult and icy terrain during its 100-day trek through the contours of the crater.
The rover’s mission is to create a detailed and one-of-a-kind resource map of the moon’s south pole, with the goal of finding water and other valuable substances on or just below the lunar surface. The vehicle, dubbed the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER), is equipped with a one-meter drill rig capable of drilling the surface for water.
NASA has so far only studied the lunar surface and the potential for valuable remote resources using orbiters and satellites, making VIPER the first chance to test these theories and see what happens. is actually there, said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division.
“That will all change once VIPER lands,” Glaze said. “The rover will come closer to the ground.”
The rover has long been part of NASA’s Artemis program, a manned space flight mission with an emphasis on finding ways to maintain a human presence on the moon once they get there. VIPER’s findings will help determine where astronauts can land and harvest resources during extended missions, and frozen water – with its potential to convert into oxygen and fuel – is among the priority discoveries.
In June last year, NASA awarded private company Astrobotic a $ 200 million contract to help deliver VIPER to the South Pole on a lander that will be launched from Earth.
Keeping the rover upright and fueled will be a constant challenge as the 1,000-pound four-wheeled robot goes through some of the toughest conditions. While Nobile Crater is the best of many options considered, it is still freezing, dark, hilly and cratered, said Daniel Andrews, VIPER project manager at NASA Ames. The rover runs on solar power and needs light to hit its solar panels, but the sun is so close to the horizon that it casts long shadows that will prevent the driver from sticking to bright spots.
The rover must also be strong enough to withstand a wide range of temperatures. Permanently shaded craters in the area are near 50 degrees Kelvin, or about below 370 degrees Fahrenheit, while the sunny areas of Nobile can reach about less than 10 degrees Fahrenheit.
“It’s extremely cold in the dark but also quite hot in daylight, and our little rover has to be able to operate in both of these extremes and anywhere in between,” Andrews said.
Unlike the Mars rover with its classic six-wheel “rocker-bogie” suspension design, VIPER has more movement capabilities, with four independently movable wheels that can move side-to-side like a crab. The alternate design, bolstered by its relatively fast speed, is important as the lunar rover struggles to keep its solar panels out of sunlight among the moving shadows.
Another advantage of the system is that VIPER will return data in near real time, unlike other exploratory missions where scientists have to wait days or even weeks. This means that the Ames team will be able to analyze the data quickly and make adjustments to maximize the amount of research they can do before the rover goes out of service, which is both a windfall and a challenge. Scientists will need to make quick decisions and adapt quickly based on the results to come.
The rover will land on the moon’s surface in late 2023 with not only a drill but spectrometers capable of recording exactly what’s going on, said Tony Colaprete, senior scientist on the VIPER project at NASA Ames. It will be able to track how much hydrogen is in the ground and how deep it is buried, and detect any gas escaping from a newly drilled hole on the surface. The equipment provides enough information to tell scientists how much ice is present and in what form.
While there is a high probability that the lunar rover will find ice in its path, it is not a slam dunk. Data collected to date has detected ice on the moon’s surface from a wider orbital perspective, but it will take a rover directly to the surface to find ice on a human scale and finally put the observations and observations. theories to the test.
“This is exactly why we are going there,” Colaprete said. “We know there is water ice out there, we know some of it is on the surface and some below the surface. Exactly where and how much and how it is distributed between the surface and the below. -sol is a big unknown. “