After much deliberation, NASA has selected an intriguing spot for its upcoming Artemis rover mission: the rugged edge of an impact crater near the Moon’s South Pole.
The Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) will be plopped just outside of the western edge of Nobile Crater, NASA announced Monday. This ancient crater, located near the Moon’s South Pole, is a very dark, cold, and shadowy place, allowing for the preservation of water ice. VIPER will need to survive the frigid temperatures at this location over the course of its planned 100-day mission to the Moon, scheduled for November 2023.
Indeed, the lunar South Pole is among the coldest places in the solar system. No space agency has ever attempted a landing there, and it’s only been studied from a distance. Evidence suggests water ice exists in meaningful quantities within the southern polar regions, hiding in shadowed craters and cold traps. By sending VIPER to Nobile Crater, NASA hopes to uncover signs of this ice and other resources, both on the surface and subsurface of the Moon.
“The data VIPER returns will provide lunar scientists around the world with further insight into our Moon’s cosmic origin, evolution, and history, and it will also help inform future Artemis missions to the Moon and beyond by enabling us to better understand the lunar environment in these previously unexplored areas hundreds of thousands of miles away,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters, said in a statement.
Big picture is that NASA wants to create a global resource map and be able to predict where similar resources might exist elsewhere on the Moon. This information will be of benefit to future crewed missions to the lunar surface, while furthering NASA’s goal of establishing a long-term presence on the Moon. The $433.5 million VIPER mission could also set the stage for future mining efforts on the surface.
VIPER will launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket and be delivered to the lunar surface via Astrobotic’s Griffin Lander. The 8-foot-tall (2.5 meters) rover is expected to travel between 10 to 15 miles (16 to 24 km) over the course of the mission, during which time it’ll explore a region measuring 36 square miles (93 square kilometers).
Nobile Crater features accessible terrain and a trove of nearby sites worthy of scientific exploration, including a bunch of small shadowed craters that VIPER will be able to explore with its headlights—the first for an off-world rover. The four-wheeled rover also features an advanced suspension system to help it navigate through even the softest regolith. Several spectrometers and a hammer drill will enable VIPER’s scientific endeavors.
This mountainous region features many areas permanently cast in shadows, but also areas exposed to sunlight. These illuminated areas will be of crucial importance to the mission, as VIPER will use its solar panels to recharge and stay warm—another factor for choosing Nobile Crater.
The current plan is for VIPER to visit six distinct sites of scientific interest, with “additional time to spare,” according to NASA. Samples will be extracted from at least three different drill sites and taken from various depths and temperatures. The mission could provide insights into how the Moon acquired its frozen water and other resources, how they’re preserved over time, and how much of it escapes into space.