NASA is Testing a Rover That Could Search For Water Ice on The Moon

In the coming years, NASA will be sending astronauts back to the Moon for the first time since the last Apollo mission took place in 1972. Back in May, NASA announced that the plan – which is officially known as Project Artemis – was being expedited and would take place in the next five years. In accordance with the new timeline, Artemis will involve sending the first woman and next man to the Moon’s southern polar region by 2024.

To this end, NASA is working on a lunar rover that will search for and map out water deposits in the Moon’s southern polar region. It’s known as the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) and it is scheduled to be delivered to the lunar surface by 2022. This mission will gather data that will help inform future missions to the South Pole-Aitken Basin and the eventual construction of a base there.

Once there, the rover will travel for several kilometers and rely on a suite of scientific instruments – which includes a 1 m (3.3 ft) drill – to sample various soil environments. Over the course of 100 days, the data that VIPER collects will be used to create the first global water resource maps of the Moon. This will come in very handy once a permanent human settlement is established there.

Conceptual illustration of permanently shadowed, shallow icy craters near the lunar south pole. Credits: UCLA/NASA

Daniel Andrews, the project manager of the VIPER mission and director of engineering at NASA’s Ames Research Center, said in a recent NASA press statement:

“The key to living on the Moon is water – the same as here on Earth. Since the confirmation of lunar water-ice ten years ago, the question now is if the Moon could really contain the amount of resources we need to live off-world. This rover will help us answer the many questions we have about where the water is, and how much there is for us to use.”

For many years, scientists have known that there are abundant amounts of water ice in the lunar polar regions. This ice would be indispensable to the creation of a sustainable human presence on the Moon since it could be used for everything from irrigation and drinking water to the manufacture of oxygen gas and hydrogen fuel.

The presence of this ice was confirmed in 2009 when NASA crashed the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) near the South Pole and measured the resulting dust that was kicked up. Data from this and other missions have amassed data that indicates that there are potentially millions of tons of water ice there.

The presence of this ice is due to the Moon’s axial tilt, which ensures that the polar regions are permanently shadowed. As ice accumulated over time from comet and meteor impacts (as well as interactions between solar wind and lunar soil), the absence of direct sunlight prevented the ice from sublimating into oxygen and hydrogen gas and being lost to space.

A VIPER mobility testbed, an engineering model created to evaluate the rover’s mobility system. Credits: NASA/Johnson Space Center

To access this water requires that scientists learn more about the location and nature of the deposits, not to mention coming up with strategies for extracting it from the lunar soil. As Anthony Colaprete, VIPER’s project scientist, said:

“It’s incredibly exciting to have a rover going to the new and unique environment of the South Pole to discover where exactly we can harvest that water. VIPER will tell us which locations have the highest concentrations and how deep below the surface to go to get access to water.”

To do this, VIPER will examine how different light and temperature conditions lead to the creation of different soil environments. By collecting data on the amount of water and other elements in each, NASA will be able to map out where water is likely to be found in other locations across the lunar surface. Detecting and analyzing will fall to four scientific instruments.

First, there is the Neutron Spectrometer System (NSS), which will be used to identify deposits of water below the surface that warrant further investigation. VIPER will then deploy the Regolith and Ice Drill for Exploring New Terrain (TRIDENT), which is being developed with the help of Honeybee Robotics, to obtain drill samples from up to a meter beneath the surface.

Artist's illustration of Project Artemis lunar lander. Credit: NASA
Artist’s illustration of Project Artemis lunar lander. Credit: NASA

These drill samples will then be analyzed by the Mass Spectrometer Observing Lunar Operations (MSolo) – developed out of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center – and the Near InfraRed Volatiles Spectrometer System (NIRVSS) developed by Ames. These two instruments will determine the composition and concentration of water and other potentially-accessible resources brought up by the drill.

The VIPER rover is part of the Lunar Discovery and Exploration Program – which is managed by NASA’s Science Mission Directorate – and is the result of considerable inter-agency cooperation. The NASA Ames Research Center is responsible for managing the operation of the rover, as well as the development of its software, systems, and mission science.

Meanwhile, the hardware for the rover is being designed by the Johnson Space Center while the scientific instruments are being provided by Ames and the Kennedy Space Center. In addition to Honeybee Robotics, the launch and lander services that will transport the rover to the Moon are being provided by commercial partners like United Launch Alliance and Astrobotic.

This is being done through NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS), which is seeking partners to send payloads to the Moon in advance of astronauts by 2024.

Further Reading: NASA