Space News is reporting that NASA intends to send a rover to the surface of the moon to prospect for ice at the south pole of Earth’s nearest neighbor. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced at the recent International Astronomical Conference that took place recently in Washington D.C.
“We actually have a mission right now that I’m very pleased to announce, it’s called VIPER,” he said. VIPER would fly to a moon on a commercial lander through the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program.
“VIPER is going to rover on the south pole of the moon and VIPER is going to assess where the water ice is,” he continued. “We’re going to characterize the water ice, and ultimately drill and find out just how the water ice is embedded in the regolith on the moon.”
When the original Apollo expeditions voyaged to the lunar surface, scientists thought that the moon was bone dry. The idea was that water could not persist on the lunar surface as it would immediately be vaporized by the sun and the water vapor expelled into space.
However, some scientists theorized that some water may have been deposited on the moon by billions of years of comet impacts, migrating to the bottoms of craters on the lunar poles that were forever shielded from sunlight. The Clementine and Lunar Prospector probes in the 1990s found indications that water ice existed at the poles, but no conclusive proof.
The Indian Chandrayaan-1 orbiter acquired further evidence of water ice on the moon, thanks to data acquired by an instrument provided by NASA, in 2009. NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, around the same time, found similar indications. A probe called LCROSS, which observed the plume kicked up by the crash of a Centaur upper stage of an Atlas rocket before crashing itself, detected further evidence of water ice. Scientists now theorized that as much as 600 million metric tons of ice exist at the lunar south pole.
The implications of readily available water on the moon are mind-boggling. Water can be used for drinking and agriculture. Since ice can be mined from the poles, water would not have to be delivered to future lunar settlers from Earth at great expense.
The water ice can also be used to create rocket fuel. Water is comprised of oxygen and hydrogen, the components of the most common kind of propellant used to launch spacecraft from Earth and then across the solar system.
MIT once conducted a study that suggested that using the moon as a refueling stop would greatly cut the cost and complexity of a crewed mission to Mars. Instead of carrying all of the rocket fuel needed to go to Mars and back from Earth, a Mars ship would stop in lunar orbit and top off its tanks with rocket fuel refined from the moon’s water. The availability of the moon as a refueling stop is one reason why experts at NASA believe that the road to Mars leads through the moon.
VIPER, or the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, is the next step in exploring the deposits of ice on the moon and determining how they can be accessed and mined.
“The $250 million VIPER mission would launch in late 2022 and operate at the south pole of the moon for 100 days. The rover will use a neutron spectrometer to detect potential ice deposits below the surface, then access them with a drill than can go as deep as one meter into the surface. Subsurface samples retrieved by the drill would then be examined by a mass spectrometer and near-infrared spectrometer.”
The VIPER mission would also prove to be another test of NASA’s CLPS program to develop small, commercial landers, to deliver payloads to the lunar surface. Two companies, Astrobotic, and Intuitive Machines have already been contracted to conduct missions in 2021. Other missions from a variety of commercial companies are being studied and will be announced and funded in short order.
Everything is leading up to a planned NASA mission to the moon that will feature “the first woman and the next man” to walk on the lunar surface for the first time since the mission of Apollo 17 in 1972. The new lunar program, called Artemis after the sister of the god Apollo, was mandated by President Donald Trump by executive order. When and even if Americans will return to the moon depends on funding from Congress.