NASA announced on Monday that it would land an ice-searching rover in a region of the South Pole called Nobile Crater in 2023.
The space agency hopes the robot will confirm the presence of water ice just below the surface, which could one day be turned into rocket fuel for missions to Mars and deeper into the cosmos.
“Nobile Crater is an impact crater near the South Pole that was created by a collision with another smaller celestial body,” Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary research division, told reporters.
It’s one of the coldest regions in the solar system and has so far only been surveyed remotely using sensors such as those on board NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite.
“The rover will come close to the lunar floor and even drill several meters deep,” said Glazer.
The robot is called the Volatile Investigating Polar Exploration Rover or VIPER.
Its dimensions are similar to those of a golf cart – 1.5 x 1.5 x 2.5 meters and look somewhat similar to droids from Star Wars. It weighs 950 pounds (430 kilograms).
Unlike rovers used on Mars, VIPER can be controlled in near real-time as the distance from Earth is much shorter – only about 200,000 miles (300,000 kilometers) or 1.3 light seconds.
The rover is also faster, reaching a top speed of 0.5 mph (0.8 km / h).
The solar powered VIPER comes with a 50 hour battery pack, is designed to withstand extreme temperatures, and can “crab” sideways so its panels continue to face the sun to keep charging.
With regard to the scientific goals of the mission, the VIPER team would like to know how frozen water got to the moon in the first place, how it was preserved over billions of years, how it is escaping and where the water is now going.
The mission is part of Artemis, America’s plan to bring people back to the moon.
The first manned mission is technically scheduled for 2024, but will likely take place much later as various aspects are behind schedule.
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