The National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) upcoming Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) will land at the Moon's South Pole, near the western edge of the Nobile Crater. VIPER, a part of the Artemis mission, is expected to launch by late 2023. The mission aims to map and explore the South Pole's surface and subsurface for water and other resources.
The rover will take off for its destination in a SpaceX Falcon-Heavy rocket by Astrobotic's Griffin lander under the Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative of NASA.
The planned landing site of the VIPER is of significant interest to scientists. The Moon's South Pole is one of the coldest areas in our solar system, with no prior lunar missions having explored the region. As per Daniel Andrews, project manager of VIPER, the rover will venture into uncharted territory for hypotheses and revealing critical data for future space exploration.
The area has been explorer to date using only remote sensing instruments including the ones installed on the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite and NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.
The data from these instruments have helped scientists glean that potential reserves of ice and other resources exist in the shadowed areas near the Moon's poles.
An impact crater, the Nobile Crater came into existence through a collision with another smaller celestial body. The crater allows ice to exist as it is almost permanently covered in shadows. The perimeter of the Nobile crater is surrounded by smaller, more accessible craters that would provide VIPER with ideal locations in its investigation.
According to Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters, the data sent by the rover would be crucial to future Artemis missions, as well as "scientists around the world with further insight into our Moon's cosmic origin, evolution, and history". He added that the rover would also improve understanding of the lunar environment in previously unexplored areas.
The VIPER team also plans to figure out how resources such as frozen water arrived on the celestial body in the first place. The team also plans to identify how they were preserved for billions of years, how they escape, and where they end up.
The rover will use a number of instruments such as Regolith and Ice Drill for Exploring New Terrains (TRIDENT) hammer drill, the Near-Infrared Volatiles Spectrometer System (NIRVSS), the Mass Spectrometer Observing Lunar Operations (MSolo) instrument and the Neutron Spectrometer System (NSS) to glean data from the surface of the Moon.
According to NASA, astronauts will "follow in VIPER's wheel prints and land at the lunar South Pole" when they return to the Moon after the Apollo mission.