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NASA Plans VIPER Lunar Mission to Map Moon’s Water Reserves

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We’ve known about the likely presence of ice reserves on the Moon for decades, but we haven’t actually sent a dedicated ground-based probe to check our nearest neighbor. Instead, the presence of water ice in shadowed craters at the Moon’s south pole has been intuited from various space-based measurements and tests. Now, NASA will investigate the likelihood of water more directly by launching a probe specifically to look for it.

The Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) will deploy four different scientific instruments and a drill capable of penetrating into one meter of rock in its investigation of Luna.

“The key to living on the Moon is water – the same as here on Earth,” said Daniel Andrews, the project manager of the VIPER mission and director of engineering at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. “Since the confirmation of lunar water-ice ten years ago, the question now is if the Moon could really contain the amount of resources we need to live off-world. This rover will help us answer the many questions we have about where the water is, and how much there is for us to use.”

One of the major questions about the water reserves on the Moon is whether they are in the form of pure water ice or if they are a thin coating of ice grains on rocks. Temperatures on the Moon range from 260F to -280F (127C to -173C). Liquid water cannot persist on the Moon’s surface and water vapor is broken down into hydrogen and oxygen by sunlight. Any ice reserves that persist on the Moon were likely deposited there in impact events. If the ice is located in nearly pure frozen reserves it’ll be far easier to tap than if it’s distributed in a thin layer over the regolith.

VIPER will explore by driving over the lunar surface, collecting data on different types of soil based on the amount of sunlight and thermal heating an area receives. When it reaches an area it wants to target for additional sampling, it can deploy the TRIDENT drill to dig up to a meter below the surface. It has a mass spectrometer and a near-infrared volatiles spectrometer for analyzing samples and testing for water content. The probe will attempt to sample environments that lay perpetually in shadow thanks to the Moon’s minimal tilt at the South Pole, as well as areas that are exposed to occasional light, and those that receive light on a regular basis. Sampling each of these areas will allow the probe to measure how they’ve evolved over billions of years.

The $ 250M mission is expected to launch in 2022 and will operate for an estimated 100 days, though if we know NASA they’ll find a way to squeeze some more time out of the project. Assessing the level of ice on the Moon and its recoverability is considered essential for any long-term project of human habitation. Science fiction and real-world project planners have both considered the Moon a potentially ideal location for outer space projects ranging from humanity’s first off-world colony to serving as a launch point for future off-world missions.

In theory, there are a number of projects that could benefit from an expansive lunar presence, including Moon-based telescopes and other types of scientific observatories. Much of these plans, however, would depend on our ability to tap water reserves that may already exist on the Moon’s surface. Without access to those reserves (or if they aren’t there in the first place), we’d have to haul water from Earth to the Moon — and that’s going to be much more expensive than recovering it in situ.

Feature image by NASA Ames Research Center

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