Earth’s Moon is tiny compared to our planet itself, but it’s big enough that our efforts to explore it have really only scratched the surface. Once thought to be little more than a pale, dusty, crater-covered rock, researchers have gradually revealed that the Moon is actually a pretty special place. Water, which isn’t something we ever associated with the Moon, may actually be abundant, though it’s likely locked away as ice in the lunar soil called regolith. Now, as part of NASA’s Artemis program which will see humans return to the Moon in the years to come, the space agency is planning on launching its VIPER mission by late 2023.
VIPER, which stands for Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, is a robot that will be sent to the South Pole of the Moon to hunt for resources that could be used for future missions. The idea is simple: If the Moon has resources that deep-space missions can use, stopping at the Moon to collect those resources before heading deeper into the solar system makes a lot of sense. Also, if we ever hope to set up shop on the Moon on a permanent or temporary basis, we’re going to need resources that the Moon itself may be able to provide.
The mission is important to the future of human space travel, as it could change the way NASA plans for trips deeper into space, but in the short term, it will reveal what resources are available for Artemis astronauts when they eventually make it to the Moon.
“The data received from VIPER has the potential to aid our scientists in determining precise locations and concentrations of ice on the Moon and will help us evaluate the environment and potential resources at the lunar south pole in preparation for Artemis astronauts,” Lori Glaze of NASA’s Planetary Science Division said in a statement. “This is yet another example of how robotic science missions and human exploration go hand in hand, and why both are necessary as we prepare to establish a sustainable presence on the Moon.”
The rover will be equipped with specialized drills for sampling the lunar surface, instruments for studying the material and discovering volatiles that could be useful, and for the first time ever… headlights.
“VIPER’s design calls for using the first headlights on a lunar rover to aid in exploring the permanently shadowed regions of the Moon,” NASA writes. “These areas haven’t seen sunlight in billions of years and are some of the coldest spots in the solar system. Running on solar power, VIPER will need to quickly maneuver around the extreme swings in light and dark at the lunar South Pole.”
At present, NASA wants to launch the mission by late 2023. The space agency’s plans include sending humans to the Moon by 2024, but that date has always seemed a bit unrealistic. Going forward, it’s wise to expect that date to change, but at least we’ll get to watch a rover cruise around on the Moon in the meantime.