ORLANDO, Fla. – Before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon, NASA sent robots and the U.S. space agency will follow that "robots first" plan more than 50 years later as it readies to send the first woman and the next man to the moon.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine revealed Friday that the space agency plans to launch a golfcart-sized roving robot, called the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER, to roam the surface collecting samples and mapping resources.
NASA says it plans to deliver VIPER to the moon in December 2022. That's two years before the goal set by the Trump administration to land astronauts back on the moon by 2024.
VIPER will "collect about 100 days of data that will be used to inform the first global water resource maps of the Moon," according to a NASA news release.
NASA plans to create a sustainable base on the lunar surface within a decade. If NASA and commercial partners can use resources found off Earth, such as water ice, it will dramatically cut down costs of deep space travel.
"The key to living on the Moon is water – the same as here on Earth," VIPER mission project manager Daniel Andrews said. "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."
Thanks to NASA's Craters Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter NASA already has mapped areas on the moon near the lunar poles that have been in total darkness for billions of years possibly containing ice that can be mined and used to create propellant and other resources.
VIPER will collect data on the lunar south pole, which scientists have long considered a promising area to find water ice.
NASA did not announce what launch provider would deliver the rover to the moon. The spacecraft lander and launch vehicle will be funded through NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Services contracts.
NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley will manage the rover mission. The rover’s hardware is being designed by the Johnson Space Center, while the instruments are provided by Ames, Kennedy, and commercial company Honeybee Robotics.