NASA is proceeding full steam ahead with its Artemis program, which will see humans return to the Moon after 2024. The goal is to have a permanent base there but for this to succeed, we're going to need water. Fortunately, there is water ice on the southern pole of the Moon and NASA is planning to send a rover to investigate it.
The Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) is designed to roam the lunar surface for about 100 days, collecting soil samples and roaming for miles. It is expected to land on the Moon by December 2022 and will help produce the first map of water resources on the Moon.
Water is not just important for being water. It can also be used to extract oxygen and hydrogen that can be used for fuel and to create a steady supply of air. Previous observations from orbit suggest that millions of tons of water ice are located on the Moon and VIPER will help us understand how best to access these resources.
“The key to living on the Moon is water – the same as here on Earth,” Daniel Andrews, project manager of the VIPER mission and director of engineering at NASA’s Ames Research Center, said in a statement. “Since the confirmation of lunar water-ice 10 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.”
The ice deposits found in the permanent shadow of certain craters are one of the objectives but the rover will also explore soil exposed to sunlight as well as soil only exposed to occasional light. It will use a Neutron Spectrometer System, which can detect “wet” signatures below the surface. These can then be followed up with the rover's 1-meter (3-foot) drill. The rover is also equipped with two instruments to measure the composition of the collected samples. The focus is water but this is not the only interesting resource on the Moon.
The rover is part of the wider Lunar Discovery and Exploration Program and is a crucial step for exploring the Moon and, in the future, Mars.