NASA selects Pittsburgh’s Astrobotic to deliver water-hunting moon rover

VIPER designed to study lunar south pole, search for resources

NASA announced Thursday that private space company Astrobotic will deliver the agency’s moon rover, VIPER, to the moon’s south pole by end of 2023.

VIPER, which stands for Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, will map resources, such as water ice, on the lunar surface that can be used for future human missions.

Lori Glaze, NASA’s planetary science division director, explained that the mission is a culmination of years of studying the moon.

“We’ve learned a lot from all of our missions, but maybe one of the most surprising findings of recent years was that the water ice has accumulated in extremely cold, permanently shadowed regions of the moon, one of the coldest places in our solar system,” Glaze said. “This could potentially be used by future human exploration missions.”

The rover’s delivery to the moon is part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services, or CLPS, program. Under this initiative, NASA will pay private companies to deliver payloads to the moon to establish a lasting presence on the lunar surface.

NASA Administrator said Astrobotic, a Pittsburgh-based space robotics company, was selected to get the job done in a $199.5 million contract with the space agency.

Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, said competition for the VIPER contract was a “healthy response” and all 14 CLPS contractors were eligible.

The company will be tasked with delivering VIPER to the moon will integrate the lander to the rocket, launch and landing on the polar region of the moon. The rover is currently under development at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Astrobotic was founded in 2007 to deliver payloads to the moon for private companies, governments and research groups, according to its website. This is one of many lunar contracts Astrobotic has been awarded from NASA.

Last month, Astrobotic was awarded a $79.5 million CLPS contract from NASA to deliver 14 payloads to the moon on its Peregrine lunar lander in July 2021.

The company doesn’t build or launch rockets and will need to buy a ride from a launch provider such as SpaceX, United Launch Alliance or Blue Origin to launch the mission to the moon.

Astrobotic CEO John Thornton said the company is carefully considering which launch provider they will select, adding that decision will likely come later this year.

“This mission is a big deal and we are really, really excited about it,” Thornton said. “Our company was built for this opportunity.”

Thornton said Astrobotic is capable of building four moon robots or landers at its facility at one time and has been staffing up to support the busy years ahead.

Prior to landing VIPER on the moon, Astrobotic will land its own lunar lander, Peregrine, as early as next year, under a NASA CLPS contract.

The company said it will use its Griffin lander to deliver NASA’s VIPER robot. The Griffin lunar lander is capable of delivering up to 500 kilograms of mass to the lunar surface, according to a news release.

After landing, VIPER will come down from Griffin’s ramp onto the lunar surface and will begin mapping lunar water ice.

NASA studied landing locations on the south and north pole to decide where to send VIPER to search for water ice. The agency decided on the south pole due better sunlight for solar energy sources and promising areas with water ice.

The exact landing site at the south pole is still being determined.

Scientists don’t yet know how the water ice is distributed or what else is chemically bound to the water molecules.

“This is where Viper comes in,” Glaze said. The rover will “roam over several miles of the lunar surface and use it science instruments to detect water molecules on and below the moon’s surface, and also use it to drill to go below the surface and tell us more about the location and physical state of water, an incredibly valuable resource at the moon.”

VIPER will help determine future landing sites under NASA’s Artemis program by determining where water ice and other resources could be harvested to support humans during extended stays on the moon, Glaze said.