Once you get offworld, count water among your most valuable resources: drink it, wash in it, use it to power your spacecraft. This humble molecule is critical to space exploration and exoplanetary colonization which is why, ahead of an international effort to establish a permanent human presence on the Moon (aka the Artemis Program), NASA scientists plan to land the world’s first autonomous lunar rover there in search of dihydrogen-monoxide deposits worth their weight in gold.
We’ve known that there is water ice on the Moon’s surface for nearly thirty years — potentially hundreds of millions of gallons buried amid regolith at the poles — thanks to the pioneering efforts of the Lunar Prospector, LCROSS, and SOFIA missions.
“Every mission, no matter what type, whether roving or not, will be standing on the shoulders of what was learned by other missions before,” Dan Andrews, VIPER project manager, told Engadget. “Otherwise you’re just throwing away really good learning.”
However, we don’t necessarily have a great understanding of how those frozen molecules are actually distributed or how to best extract them from the lunar soil — and that’s where the upcoming Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) mission comes in.
This golf cart-sized machine will be delivered to the Moon’s South Pole in late 2023 and spend its scheduled 100-day mission scouring the area for four “ice stability regions” — surface regions where we might find ice just laying about, shallow regions where the ice is covered by 50 centimeters of regolith, deep regions where the ice is buried up to 100 centimeters, and dry regions where there is no ice present below 100 centimeters. Andrews notes that “those regions exist all over the place in both the North and the South Pole. There’s thousands of them.”
As the VIPER trundles about, it will employ its Neutron Spectrometer System (NSS) to indirectly survey the soil around itself in search of water at depths up to three feet (.9m) by looking for the energy losses in cosmic rays (mostly in the form of neutrons) that occur when they strike hydrogen molecules. And where there’s hydrogen, there could well be water.
Once the NSS finds a suitable concentration, the VIPER will deploy its meter-long TRIDENT (The Regolith and Ice Drill for Exploring New Terrains) to drill down and pull up soil samples for examination by the onboard Near-Infrared Volatiles Spectrometer System (NIRVSS pronounced “nervous”), which can identify the hydrogen’s form, whether that’s free hydrogen atoms or slightly more complex hydroxyls. And even before the rover sets a wheel off its orbital delivery vehicle, the Mass Spectrometer Observing Lunar Operations (MSolo) will be sampling gases kicked up during landing in search of stray hydrogen atoms.
When the LCROSS mission slammed a probe into the moon’s surface, it measured and analyzed the resulting ejecta for water ice using variations of nine commercially available instruments that could be traced back to “everything from NASCAR car instrumentation to manufacturing.” The VIPER mission is taking a similar tack. While not directly a part of the mission itself, other units of the instruments that will land aboard VIPER will also be delivered to the Moon in both 2021 and 2022 as part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program for use in various experiments. This will serve as a sort of shake-down cruise for the instruments, allowing the VIPER team to see how the gear they’re sending will operate under real-world conditions. “If the instruments work beautifully, well great,” Andrews said. “If the instruments have a peculiar behavior that was unexpected, we can plan that in. And if they outright fail… we at least have the chance to try to diagnose why it did go wrong.”
While it won’t be the first wheeled vehicle to roll across the Moon, it will be the first autonomous vehicle to do so with a mission far more important than ferrying astronauts around. But the Moon is a harsh and unforgiving mistress, presenting an entirely unique set of challenges not faced by the larger rovers currently crawling over Mars. For one thing, Mars has an (albeit thin) atmosphere, the Moon has none, “which means it gets really, really hot, and it gets really, really cold,” Andrews said. “There’s no moderating atmosphere so that becomes a really strong design point for the rover.”…Read more>>