VIPER, or how to find water on the Moon

Not many remember it, but the plans for the Apollo missions carried out by NASA between the end of the sixties and the beginning of the seventies of the last century did not stop at reaching the surface of the Moon, they actually went much further, well they aspired to establish a lunar colony. However, once the race for the Moon had been won over the Soviet Union, many considered that the space race had already come to an end and, therefore, that it made no sense to maintain the enormous public investment made up to that point. It is hard to imagine where space exploration would be today if it had gone ahead at that time.

Be that as it may, and although those who regularly read me know that I am quite critical of the role of Donald Trump during his presidential term, it is undeniable that space exploration underwent an important rebirth at the hands of his administration. A rebirth that we can especially identify with the Artemisa project, whose first major milestone will be the return of human beings to the Moon, half a century after we last set foot on it.

The plans in this regard, in which collaboration between public agencies and private companies plays a key role, are quite ambitious, as they once again contemplate, in the long term, the possibility of establishing a colony in our natural satellitewhich among other things will serve to carry out multiple tests for the first manned missions to Mars, which for the time being are still planned for some time in the coming decade.

A key element to be able to establish a colony on the Moon, or in any other place outside our planet, is water, for obvious reasons. Thus, before seriously considering the establishment of a lunar colony, be it temporary or permanent, as well as any other type of installation, it is essential to have a guaranteed local supply of the liquid element. And that’s where VIPER (Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover) comes into play, a rover that will try to reach the water sources identified at the South Pole of the Moon to confirm their existence and nature.

It is not an easy mission, far from it. The orography of the region in which the greatest presence of water is suspected is formed by cratersand to this we must add the regolith layer (which can become sharp, which could cause damage to the vehicle and its components) that accumulates on the lunar surface. These two peculiarities require a very complex design, both in terms of the wheels and the rover’s suspension system.

Having overcome the complications regarding the lunar transit, VIPER will still have to tackle another important challenge. Although it is suspected that the lunar poles contain greater amounts of water than previously thought, it is frozen in the various craters that the rover will have to explore. Therefore, you will first have to analyze the surface to find these water reserves and, once detected, you will have to remove the regolith and drill to confirm that there is, indeed, solid water below the surface.

To this end, VIPER It will be supported by a hammer drill specifically designed for this purpose. called Regolith and Ice Drill for Exploring New Terrains (TRIDENT), capable of drilling up to 3.2 feet (about one meter), in conjunction with three other spectrometer instruments that can analyze the composition of the samples by observing the light they emit, called the Mass Spectrometer Observing Lunar Operations (MSolo) instrument, the Near Infrared Volatiles Spectrometer System (NIRVSS), and the Neutron Spectrometer System (NSS).

«VIPER will be the most capable robot NASA has ever sent to the lunar surface and will allow us to explore parts of the Moon we have never seen.said NASA VIPER Program Scientist Sarah Noble. «The rover will teach us about the origin and distribution of water on the Moon and prepare us to harvest resources 240,000 miles from Earth that could be used to safely send astronauts even farther into space, including Mars.«.

Images: NASA

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