NASA is delaying the launch of a long-lived rover designed to sniff out water on the moon.
The agency announced plans for the new VIPER mission (the name is short for Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover) in October 2019 as part of the Artemis program to land astronauts on the moon by 2024. VIPER is meant to map water ice on the moon, which exploration planners hope could be turned into drinking water and rocket fuel. At the time of the announcement, VIPER was due to launch in December 2022, but the planned date has now slipped to the next year.
“Once this @NASAMoon rover lands, it will collect up to 100 days of data, travel several kilometers and survive lunar nights,” Thomas Zurbuchen, head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said on Twitter yesterday (Feb. 25). “Moving delivery of VIPER to 2023 allows for upgrades so that the rover can conduct longer and more exciting science on the moon!”
Zurbuchen did not provide additional comments about what those upgrades might look like; the 100-day science mission, roving distance and ability to withstand the frigid lunar nights were all components of original announcements about VIPER.
Although VIPER is a new mission, developed as part of NASA’s Artemis program, it is heavily based on designs for a previous mission, Resource Prospector, which NASA canceled in 2018. Two of VIPER’s instruments were adopted from work on that mission.
VIPER’s instrument suite is designed to teach scientists how to convert the orbital data they have about the moon into an understanding of precisely where lunar ice is hidden — not just in the region VIPER visits, but across the moon’s surface.
NASA will build the rover, then hire its ride through the Commercial Lunar Payload Servicesprogram, which currently allows 14 companies to bid on deliveries.
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