NASA has launched a new Moon shot. The agency hopes to eventually build a permanent crewed station at the lunar surface. The agency will launch a robot the size of a golf cart to the Moon's shadowy south pole before sending any humans.
The Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, also known as VIPER, will spend 100 days mapping water sources in the first ever such survey of the lunar south pole.
NASA plans to eventually establish a permanent base at the site and then use it as a springboard for the first human missions on Mars in the 2030s. Knowing where water is important. It can be broken down into its components, hydrogen and oxygen. Both can then be used to make rocket fuel.
To fly humans to Mars, you will need a lot propellant. This propellant is too heavy to lift off from Earth. NASA may need to fuel up on the Moon in order to send astronauts to Mars.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson stated Tuesday that "where there's water there's fuel." "That could be a future gas station."
Illustration of the VIPER Landing Zone. (NASA/Ames Research Center/Daniel Rutter)
NASA announced Monday that VIPER, NASA's search for the gas station, has been chosen as a landing spot. It is located in a mountainous area near the Moon's Nobile Crater. NASA plans to send the robot there by 2023.
This area is located high up in a mountain range which will allow NASA to maintain contact with the rover remotely from Earth. The area also has a range of environments, from permanent shadowed craters with temperatures close to -400° Fahrenheit to sunny areas closer to 0°.
NASA is still trying to determine the chemical composition of the water, and the exact location it is. Spacecraft orbiting around the Moon have already detected signs that there is water at the south pole.
Anthony Colaprete (lead scientist for the VIPER project), stated in a briefing Monday that "when we're down on the Moon, using scales that you and me are more familiar than orbital, we really don’t know where that is water."
"We wanted to understand the Moon's diverse environments in a broad way. That was possible with the Nobile region.
VIPER will become NASA's first Moon Rover in 50 years. It will be the first ever machine to land on the Moon's South Pole without intentionally crashing if it succeeds.
VIPER will follow the 'corridors light' and dip into ancient darks
VIPER will land in a very dark area of the Moon.
Colaprete stated that the poles of the Moon are spectacular, particularly the south pole where ancient impact basins have raised mountains that dwarf Mount Everest.
Shadows are created by the sun just barely reaching the horizon. VIPER, which depends on solar power, could be affected. Colaprete explained that the rover would need to follow "corridors light" as shadows move across the pole.
Sometimes, however, the rover may veer into craters in permanent shadow. These are areas that sunlight hasn’t touched for billions of thousands of years. NASA chose this landing site because of these craters, which could protect ancient ice reservoirs.
NASA estimates that VIPER will cover between 10 and 15 miles (16-25 km) and visit six different temperatures, where water ice may be found at different depths below Earth's surface. VIPER will drill to the lunar surface in search of that ice.
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