NASA will launch its Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER, in 2023 to get a closer view of the Moon’s South Pole and evaluate the concentration of water as well as other potential resources on its surface. The space agency is undertaking the mission to understand if it is possible for human life to sustain there, by using locally available resources. The VIPER mobile robot, NASA said, is the first resource mapping mission on any other celestial body. 

NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services  (CLPS) will be providing the launch vehicle and lander for what’s going to be a 100-day mission. Similar to a golf cart, VIPER measures 5 feet by 5 feet and weighs 430 kilograms, said the agency. On its website, NASA said that the Moon rover will directly analyse the water ice on the surface and sub-surface of the celestial body. The VIPER will also evaluate the same at varying depths and temperatures within four main soil environments on the moon.  

The Lunar rover will transmit the data to Earth which will then be utilised in the creation of resource maps. It will also help scientists determine the location and concentration of frozen water on the Moon and varied forms such as ice crystals or molecules chemically bound to other materials. NASA said that VIPER’s findings will inform “future landing sites under the Artemis program by helping to determine locations where water and other resources can be harvested” to sustain humans over extended stays.

The agency added that the findings could be a game-changer, especially because it’s not possible to bring everything to the Moon, Mars, and beyond for long-term exploration. It will use the data that VIPER collects to determine where the water ice is most likely to be found and the easiest to access. This is going to be a critical step forward in NASA’s Artemis programme to establish a sustainable human presence on the surface of the Moon by 2028, the agency said.

NASA said satellites orbiting the Moon as part of the past missions have helped us understand that there is water ice on its surface. However, in order to use it one day, they have to learn more about it — up close and personal. “VIPER will roam the Moon using its three instruments and a 3.28-foot (1m) drill to detect and analyze various lunar soil environments at a range of depths and temperatures,” the agency said. “The rover will venture into permanently shadowed craters, some of the coldest spots in the solar system, where water ice reserves have endured for billions of years.”

There are challenges, too, of extreme temperature conditions, dynamic lighting, and complex terrain. The near real-time driving of the rover will also pose new engineering and design challenges to the team.