SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket will launch NASA's Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) to the Moon's South Pole. It was initially planned to lift off next year, the agency announced it delayed the mission --"While VIPER was originally scheduled for lunar delivery by Astrobotic in November 2023, NASA has requested the Astrobotic and VIPER mission teams to adjust VIPER’s delivery to the Moon’s South Pole to November 2024."
SpaceX Falcon Heavy is currently the world’s most powerful operational rocket composed of three Falcon 9 nine-engine cores, its 27 Merlin engines generate over 5 million pounds upon liftoff. Falcon Heavy will launch from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, carrying VIPER to the lunar surface aboard Astrobotic's Griffin Lunar Lander. NASA’s decision to pursue a 2024 launch date results from the agency’s request for Astrobotic to conduct additional ground testing of the company’s Griffin lunar lander, which will deliver VIPER to the lunar surface as part of the agency's Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative. To complete the NASA-mandated tests of the Griffin lunar lander, the agency provided an additional $67.8 million to Astrobotic’s CLPS contract which now totals $320.4 million.
“Through CLPS, NASA has tasked U.S. companies to perform a very challenging technological feat – to successfully land and operate on the Moon,” said Joel Kearns, deputy associate administrator for exploration in NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “VIPER is NASA’s largest and most sophisticated science payload to be delivered to the Moon through CLPS, and we've implemented enhanced lander testing for this particular CLPS surface delivery.”
The Griffin Lunar Lander will land on the lunar surface and VIPER will disembark from Griffin’s ramps to survey and seek for subsurface water-ice. "The measurements returned by VIPER will provide insight into the origin and distribution of water on the Moon and help determine how the Moon’s resources could be harvested for future human space exploration," said agency representatives in a press release. VIPER will roam across the Moon’s Nobile Crater which has an approximate surface area of 36 square miles (93 square kilometers). Scientists believe that the Nobile Crater was formed through a collision with a small celestial object and that the terrain has an abundance of ice-water and other potential resources that researchers aim to investigate in order to learn – ‘how did water arrive on the Moon and how they remained preserved for billions of years?’ VIPER is equipped with a drill and scientific instruments that will analyze the crater’s resources and ice composition. With all the information gathered, NASA plans to create a detailed map to make an informed decision ahead of sending astronauts to build a sustainable base on the Moon.
Featured Image Source: SpaceX / NASA