NASA has chosen a crater near the moon’s south pole as landing location for a robotic rover which is going to look for water ice which could be helpful in future human expeditions. The Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) expedition will land on the Nobile Crater’s western edge, near lunar south pole, NASA said on September 20. Astrobotic’s Griffin lunar lander will deliver VIPER on a flight arranged through NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services project in late 2023.

In a conference call with journalists, agency officials said Nobile was among four finalists who emerged from a selection procedure that initially explored around 15 potential regions. According to Lori Glaze, director in charge of planetary science at NASA Headquarters, Nobile “maximizes science return and versatility to assist ensuring successful mission once VIPER is on the moon.”

When deciding on a landing site, the team took into account several elements. To permit direct-to-Earth communications, the site requires a strong vision of the Earth that is going to be low on horizon at south pole and great illumination for the solar-propelled rover. The site also required “trafficable terrain” that the rover might navigate while avoiding steep slopes, according to Anthony Colaprete, who works at Ames Research Center as a VIPER’s lead project scientist. Finally, scientists desired a place with a range of terrains where water ice may be found at or near the surface.

He said Nobile matched all of the criteria, including a high height that allowed for clear visibility of the Earth and ridgelines that are in the sun for all except around 50 hours of the 2-week lunar night. The rover would be capable of surviving on battery power in those “safe havens.” In contrast to the lit, safe-havens, the rover can enter permanently shadowed parts in the crater that are 500 – 800 meters across to investigate for water ice deposits.

VIPER is fitted with various equipment for detecting and quantifying water ice, including a drill that can explore up to a meter underneath the surface. This research is both scientifically interesting and helpful for potential human missions that may rely on ice for propellant and life support.

Because of the extensive planning required to maximize this mission, which will last around 100 Earth days, NASA chose the VIPER landing location two years in advance. According to Colaprete, the team has already designed a “baseline traverse” for this rover that spans around 25 kilometers and includes 12 sites that will be studied in depth.

“Because of the natural cycles of the polar parts of the moon, the time we possess with a solar-fueled rover is limited,” stated Daniel Andrews, who serves as the VIPER project manager. “After four months or so, the entire region will be in darkness. We only have a limited amount of time to complete this mission, so we need to be strategic about where we go as well as how we do it.”

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