NASA is going to the dark side of the Moon. Now, we know exactly where.
This week, NASA announced the specific landing site for its Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER), which is scheduled to land on the Moon’s South Pole in late 2023 in a landmark mission to explore the region’s surface and subsurface for water and other resources. VIPER will land near the western edge of the Nobile Crater, chosen for its rover-accessible terrain and array of nearby sites of scientific interest.
The Moon’s South Pole is one of the coldest areas in our solar system. No prior missions to the Moon’s surface have explored it. Scientists have thus far only studied the region using remote sensing instruments, including those on NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite. Data from these and other missions helped scientists conclude that ice and other potential resources exist in permanently shadowed areas of the Moon near the poles. After an extensive landing site selection process, the mountainous area west of Nobile Crater was chosen as VIPER’s landing site.
“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,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters. “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.”
As part of Artemis — NASA’s campaign to establish a sustainable presence on the Moon and eventually reach Mars — VIPER will launch on a SpaceX Falcon-Heavy rocket for delivery to the Moon by Astrobotic’s Griffin lander under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative.
Nobile Crater is an impact crater that was formed through a collision with another smaller celestial body and is almost permanently covered in shadows, making it cold enough for ice to exist there. Smaller, more accessible craters surrounding Nobile’s perimeter will also provide VIPER with ideal locations to investigate in its search for ice and other resources.
“Our evaluation of the landing site was driven by science priorities,” said Anthony Colaprete, VIPER lead project scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. “We seek answers to some pretty complex questions and studying these resources on the Moon that have stood the test of time will help us answer them.”
Researchers using data collected by VIPER hope to uncover how frozen water and other resources arrived on the Moon in the first place, where they came from, how they remained preserved for billions of years, how they escape, and where they go. The mission will also help NASA learn how it can harvest lunar resources to support human life on the Moon and propel future space exploration missions.
VIPER will collect samples from at least three drill locations with a variety of depths and temperatures which, when analyzed, will help scientists to better predict where else ice may be present on the Moon based on similar terrain. NASA will use this data to produce a global resource map, which will enable scientists to better understand the distribution of resources on the Moon and help inform future crewed missions to establish a long-term presence on the lunar surface.
NASA’s team evaluated viable traverse paths, considering where VIPER could use its solar panels to charge and stay warm during its 100-day journey. The landing site provides flexibility, allowing the rover to visit at least six sites of scientific interest in its current planned trajectory, with additional time to spare. The rover will study an area covering approximately 36 square miles, 10-15 miles of which it is expected to traverse during the course of its mission.
“Selecting a landing site for VIPER is an exciting and important decision for all of us,” said Daniel Andrews, VIPER project manager. “Years of study have gone into evaluating the polar region VIPER will explore. VIPER is going into uncharted territory—informed by science—to test hypotheses and reveal critical information for future human space exploration.”