After sending four rover to Mars – with a fifth scheduled to launch in July – NASA announced on Thursday a contract to put its first wheel robot on the moon.
Pittsburgh Astrobotic Technology Inc. won a $ 199.5 million contract to deliver the robotic explorer to the moon by the end of 2023. The award includes the rocket to launch the mission and the lander that will bring the rover down to the lunar south pole.
Rover – Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER – is the latest in a series of robotic missions that NASA funds as part of its renewed interest in the moon.
VIPER will spend about 100 days rolling around in search of water ice, which is believed to be in permanently shaded craters near the lunar poles – among the coldest places in the solar system.
That water can provide an invaluable resource for future astronauts. It would give water to drink, and the water molecules can also be broken down into hydrogen and oxygen. It can provide oxygen for astronauts to breathe, as well as fuel for rockets that travel home to Earth or anywhere else in the solar system.
However, the exact location and nature of the water ice is not known. It can be on the surface as frost or buried underground. It can be pure water or bound in minerals. VIPER’s mission is to find out, and the information would help plan where astronauts would land on the moon, which NASA has optimistically planned for 2024.
“VIPER will be the first robot to actually touch on this water ice that we have discovered,” said Steven Clarke, who recently left his post as assistant administrator for exploration in NASA’s Science Directorate for another role at the agency.
The rover will carry a suite of instruments, including a drill that will allow you to examine what lies beneath the surface.
This is the first time NASA has sent a rover to the moon. The Soviet Union sent two in the 1970s and China has sent two since 2013, including one last year as part of the first mission to land on the far side of the moon. An Indian spaceship with a rover crashed last year during the landing attempt.
In a shift from the past when NASA would design the entire mission including the lander, it is now looking for private companies to provide transportation to the moon, often shared with non-NASA payloads, a program established in 2018 as Commercial Lunar Payload Services.
This approach, NASA believes, is cheaper and can also help new companies to establish profitable companies.
It follows a NASA program with a similar commercial approach that recently sent two astronauts, Robert L. Behnken and Douglas G. Hurley, to the International Space Station aboard a spaceship built by Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
In previous rounds, NASA sought deliveries of small and inexpensive experiments, and NASA officials said they expected that maybe half of the missions would fail, but the rewards justified the risks.
Two launches, including one by Astrobotic, are scheduled to begin next year, and a third is due in 2022.
The stakes are higher for VIPER. Weighing close to 1,000 pounds, it is about the size of a golf cart – five feet long, five feet wide and about eight feet high. NASA officials declined to say how much the rover will cost itself.
For Astrobotic, NASA’s newfound focus has changed and accelerated its operations.
The company was founded 13 years ago in the hope of won the Google Lunar X Prize, a competition for the first private spaceship to land on the moon. That competition went out in 2018 without a winner, but even before that, Astrobotic decided to focus on winning commercial payload business.
Astrobotic already had commitments to take about a dozen payloads to the moon, including a Mexican space agency instrument and time capsules. But the NASA contract filled most of the remaining space and helped accelerate the evolution of the market to go to the moon.
“It is dramatically possible to have NASA as the largest customer,” said John Thornton, Astrobotic’s CEO, in an interview. “It’s an important driver.”
When the rover is launched in 2023, it will sit on the company’s Griffin lander, which is larger than the spacecraft that will fly the first mission next year. Once on the surface, the rover will run down one of two ramps and start searching for water.