As part of its Artemis mission to the Moon later this decade, NASA will be sending a rover to one of the coldest regions of the solar system – the south pole of the Moon.
This is a region of our closest celestial neighbour that has remained largely unexplored due to the challenge it presents. For one, this region of the Moon only receives sunlight four months out of the year but NASA is intent on sending a rover there by 2023.
The rover has been named the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover or VIPER and it will land near the Nobile Crater located near the South Pole of the Moon.
“Once on the lunar surface, VIPER will provide ground truth measurements for the presence of water and other resources at the Moon’s South Pole, and the areas surrounding Nobile Crater showed the most promise in this scientific pursuit,” explains associate administrator of science at NASA HQ, Thomas Zurbuchen.
“The data VIPER returns will provide lunar scientists around the world with further insight into our Moon’s cosmic origin, evolution, and history, and it will also help inform future Artemis missions to the Moon and beyond by enabling us to better understand the lunar environment in these previously unexplored areas hundreds of thousands of miles away,” Zurbuchen added.
Darkness longer than VIPER can survive
As you might be aware, solar power is how many spacecraft and rovers get around the galaxy. Given that this rover is going to a place where sunlight is uncommon, how does NASA intended to keep VIPER going? The short answer is, it doesn’t at least not for longer than 100 days.
“The rover generally stays in sunlight but can operate for about 10.5 hours in shadow, currently. While in low-power ‘hibernation’ mode, VIPER can survive up to 50 hours in shadow. The limit of ~100 days is related to the ‘summer’ season in the lunar polar region. Once that summer season is over, it’s not possible to find areas where we can operate in sun and in communication with Earth. The shadows will essentially last longer than the rover can survive,” lead mission systems engineer for the VIPER mission, Ryan Vaughn explained.
The goal of the mission is to ascertain how ice was formed on the Moon and whether there is more of it. This is also the first resource mapping mission on another celestial body which is exciting. This would help to understand the resources available on the Moon and inform the viability of long-term stays by humans.
It’s well known that establishing a base of some form on the Moon would help humanity more easily explore the galaxy but we simply don’t have information to make that call just yet.
If you’d like to learn more about VIPER, experts who are working on the mission recently participated in an AMA on the r/space sub-Reddit you can browse through here. It’s incredibly interesting and helps paint a better picture of how tough exploring the dark-side of the Moon can be.
[Source – NASA]