NASA picks private company Astrobotic to carry its water-seeking VIPER rover to the moon

American space company NASA has selected a private company to send its water-seeking rover to moon in 2023.

Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic has been awarded $199.5 million for delivering NASA’s robotic rover, VIPER or the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, to the Moon’s south pole in later 2023, the agency said in a statement on Thursday.

Under its Artemis programme, NASA’s ultimate goal is to put astronauts on the Moon in a sustainable, long-term presence. The VIPER rover will help NASA map out where the water is on the lunar south pole with the aim of being able to extract water for future astronaut missions beginning 2024

“The VIPER rover and the commercial partnership that will deliver it to the Moon are a prime example of how the scientific community and U.S. industry are making NASA’s lunar exploration vision a reality,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “Commercial partners are changing the landscape of space exploration, and VIPER is going to be a big boost to our efforts to send the first woman and next man to the lunar surface in 2024 through the Artemis program.”

NASA’s associate administrator for science Thomas Zurbuchen said that the VIPER mission “will search for ice and map resources”. In fact, the space agency says the mission will be helpful in eventually exploring Mars.

“The VIPER mission will search for ice and map resources to bring us a significant step closer to NASA’s ultimate goal of a sustainable long-term presence on the moon,” Zurbuchen, told media on Wednesday. “This will help make it possible for humans to eventually explore Mars and beyond.”

VIPER’s flight to the Moon is part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative, which leverages the capabilities of industry partners to quickly deliver scientific instruments and technology demonstrations to the Moon.

As part of the agreement, Astrobotic is responsible for end-to-end services for delivery of VIPER, including integration with its Griffin lander, launch from Earth, and landing on the Moon.

The approximately 1,000-pound VIPER will be on a 100-Earth day mission during which it will roam several miles and use its four scientific instruments to sample various soil environments, the NASA statement said.

The VIPER rover will ride down to the lunar surface on Astrobotic’s Griffin lander, a lander that’s six feet tall and nearly 15 feet across, according to a report in The Verge.

Once it lands, the solar-powered rover will use a drill to try to locate and map out water resources on the Moon. Unlike Mars rovers, VIPER can be directly controlled by operators from Earth, allowing them to explore the area in near real time. Since it will be exploring shadowed spaces, VIPER will be the first rover to feature headlights, the report adds.

The announcement comes a little less than two weeks after NASA partnered with another commercial company – Elon Musk’s SpaceX – to deliver two of its astronauts to the International Space Station. On May 31, Douglas Hurley and Bob Behnken were carried to the ISS aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragaon capsule.

The historic launch marked the first time in nine years when American astronauts were launched in a US spacecraft or from the US soil since the end of NASA’s space shuttle programme in 2011.

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