NASA’s first-ever robotic moon rover is preparing to head to space next year to study lunar water ice, and engineers at Ames Research Center in Mountain View are busy getting it ready to make the voyage.
Engineers tested out the rover on June 28 at NASA Ames, carefully guiding it down a landing ramp just like it will eventually do on the moon. The NASA robot is called VIPER (Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover), and will use an Astrobotic-made lander to get from the rocket to the moon once it lands. The mission is slated for November 2024.
Astrobotic Mission Director Hahna Alexander told the Voice that engineers must practice navigating all the things that could possibly go wrong while the rover egresses the rocket upon reaching the moon.
“We can stack a couple of different worst cases – things like various slopes, whether or not the ramp lands in a minor crater, or if one of the ramps gets stuck between a large rock,” Alexander said. “We think about all these different sorts of wonky ways that we could potentially land, and we egress under those scenarios.”
NASA director of engineering and VIPER project manager Dan Andrews said the mission is a direct follow up to the LCROSS (Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite) mission that Ames developed and launched in 2009, which confirmed the presence of water ice on the moon’s polar regions.
“The VIPER mission is all about understanding that,” Andrews said. “So we’re going to drop this rover down in an area in the south pole and explore four different ice stability regions. We have models for how we think each of them will behave, but the beauty is we do the mission to see if we’re right or not.”
Once it dismounts, VIPER can go a maximum speed of 20 centimeters per second while traveling on the moon’s surface, and 10 centimeters per second while collecting scientific data. While this might sound slow compared to the four-wheeled vehicles humans are used to on Earth, the rover is actually four to five times faster than any of those on Mars, Andrews said.
While the engineers testing out VIPER on June 28 were able to watch it move in real time, when the robot actually makes it to the moon, everything the navigators see will be coming through cameras.
“We actually practice doing this in another room,” Andrews said. “You can’t cheat. You have to see through the eyes of both the lander and the rover.”
Along with the ice-searching mission, VIPER is significant in that it's NASA's first robotic moon rover. Andrews said technology has advanced tremendously since the Apollo-era, allowing NASA to do more than just moon buggies. Meanwhile, the moon has come “back into great popularity,” allowing NASA to obtain the commercial resources to support these missions.
“Now the idea of going to what could be a really inhospitable area with a robotic rover seems like such an obvious thing to do,” Andrews said. “And it will help answer some of those foundational, early questions so that when humans get there, we’re going to be just that much better informed.”