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VIPER (with Griffin lander) [Astrobotic Technology]


NASA's VIPER (Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover) is a mobile robot that will roam the Moon's South Pole looking for water ice. The VIPER mission will give us surface-level detail of where the water is and how much is available to use for NASA's ultimate goal of a sustainable, long-term presence on the Moon. About the size of a golf cart, NASA's Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER, is ideal for traversing the Moon's South Pole.

To scout out water ice, and to get to the most promising ice reserves, VIPER must maneuver a highly cratered surface with soils of varying levels of compaction. Its components are rugged enough to withstand the encroachment of lunar dust, blasts of cosmic rays and dramatic swings in lighting and temperature. With its onboard suite of instruments to find out what lurks within lunar dirt, VIPER will help inform our understanding of how to live achieve a sustainable and robust presence on the lunar surface when NASA's Artemis program sends humans back to the Moon.

Astrobotic will provide an end-to-end delivery for VIPER on board the company's Griffin lunar lander through a $199.5 million contract awarded under the NASA Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, or CLPS. The Griffin lunar lander is Astrobotic's medium capacity lander product line, and is capable of delivering up to 500 kg of mass to the lunar surface. Griffin uses many of the same subsystems and approaches employed by the Peregrine lander, which will fly two years before VIPER. Both lander product lines put a heavy emphasis on safe and reliable delivery of customer payloads to the Moon.

Measuring 2.5 meters tall and 1.5 meters in length and width, this mid-sized rover is built for crawling around craters. Pioneering a new kind of wheel motion, NASA engineered the rover to be agile enough to move through a variety of inclines and soil types - from compacted to fluffy - without getting stuck. During normal operations, the rover will roll across the surface. Should it encounter extremely fluffy soil, VIPER can lift each of its wheels independently, almost like feet, and use them to dig into and sweep along the surface. This gives it a swimming-like motion capable of pulling the rover out of even very soft soils.

Generally, VIPER will drive at about 0.8 km/h over the lunar surface, slowing to 0.4 km/h when prospecting for water and other potential resources. VIPER will explore inside dark craters where the Sun never reaches and is the first NASA rover with headlights - a system specially designed to work with its cameras in the Moon's extreme conditions of light and dark.

VIPER's camera system will allow operators on Earth to visualize the terrain the rover needs to navigate and send commands in near-real time based on what they see - where and how fast to move, and where to stop and search for water ice. Typically, the operators will tell the rover to move between 4 to 8 meters, before downlinking data and reassessing. VIPER will send its science and prospecting data back using an X-band communications system that connects directly with Earth over the Deep Space Network.

VIPER's instruments all use spectrometers - scientific tools that look at light emitted or absorbed by materials to help identify their composition. They work together to accomplish the mission's goals of prospecting for resources like water ice on the Moon.

  • TRIDENT (The Regolith and Ice Drill for Exploring New Terrains): Where NSS finds a promising concentration of hydrogen underground - potentially water ice - the rover will deploy its 1-meter drill. TRIDENT will dig up soil cuttings from as much as 1-meter below the lunar surface. Developed by Honeybee Robotics in Altadena, California, TRIDENT is a rotary percussive drill - meaning it both spins to cut into the ground and hammers to fragment hard material for more energy-efficient drilling. The drill bit at the tip of the long drill string has carbide cutting teeth. These are harder than steel to maintain their sharpness and are similar to what you see on precision drilling or cutting equipment on Earth. That tip also carries a temperature sensor to take readings below the surface. Along the length of the drill string are those spiraling features familiar to any power drill user, called flutes. When TRIDENT is spinning, the flutes transport the drill cuttings up to the surface. A rotating brush sweeps the soil sample off the drill and into a chute, forming a neat pile on the ground where VIPER's next set of instruments can analyze it.
  • NSS (Neutron Spectrometer System): As the rover drives across the lunar surface, VIPER will use the Neutron Spectrometer System, or NSS, to indirectly detect potential water present in the soil, up to 3 feet below the surface, for further investigation. Where there is water, there must be hydrogen, since that element provides the H in H2O. The NSS works by measuring changes in the number and energy of particles called neutrons that are always emanating from the Moon. When these tiny particles strike something that's about their size - like a hydrogen atom - they lose a lot of their energy. That's a change that NSS, developed by NASA's Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley, can detect and use to infer the presence of hydrogen.
  • NIRVSS (Near-Infrared Volatiles Spectrometer System): Once the TRIDENT drill surfaces soil cuttings, it's time for the Near-Infrared Volatiles Spectrometer System to investigate. NIRVSS (pronounced "nervous") is able to tell the nature of the hydrogen in the lunar soil initially detected by the NSS instrument. That hydrogen could belong to water molecules, a close molecular cousin--hydroxyl, or it could exist simply as hydrogen atoms. Any of these forms, however, could be a useful resource for tasks like making rocket fuel. NIRVSS will use its spectrometer to differentiate between water and hydroxyl and to detect the different types of minerals and ices that might be present in the lunar soil - including frozen carbon dioxide, ammonia and methane. Two other tools attached to the NIRVSS instrument will reveal the precise characteristics of the locations it studies. The Spectrometer Context Imager is like a broad-spectrum camera that yields a seven-color image revealing the composition of the soil in fine resolution. The Longwave Calibration Sensor gives surface temperature at very small scales.
  • MSolo (Mass Spectrometer Observing Lunar Operations): With a critical role to play as soon as VIPER arrives on the Moon, the Mass Spectrometer Observing Lunar Operations, or MSolo, will assess gases in the environment after touchdown to understand which ones are truly coming from the lunar surface and which are introduced by the lander itself. Once the rover begins operations, MSolo will work in tandem with NIRVSS to evaluate the drill cuttings for water ice and other volatiles - materials that readily evaporate at only moderately warm temperatures. Adapted by NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida to withstand spaceflight and the harsh conditions on the Moon, MSolo is a modified commercial instrument. Typically, it is used in the semiconductor industry to measure gases and detect leaks that could result in manufacturing defects.

All three of VIPER's instruments will have been battle-tested on the harsh lunar surface before the rover's actual mission begins. Versions of NSS, NIRVSS and MSolo will have flown as payloads on the earlier Peregrine mission to the Moon by commercial providers under NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative. By studying the instruments' performance carefully in the very harsh and challenging environment of the Moon, the VIPER team can use that information to even better prepare for their use on the VIPER mission, greatly reducing the mission's risks.

Nation: USA
Type / Application: Lunar lander and rover
Operator: NASA
Contractors: Astrobotic Technology (lander); NASA (rover)
Equipment: TRIDENT, NSS, NIRVSS, MSolo
Propulsion: ?
Power: Solar cells, batteries
Satellite COSPAR Date LS Launch Vehicle Remarks
VIPER - 2023