Pittsburgh Startup Awarded by NASA with a $199.5 Million Fund to Send a Water-Hunting Rover on the Moon



NASA has awarded Astrobotic of Pittsburgh $199.5 million to deliver NASA’s Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) to the moon’s South Pole in late 2023. NASA has selected a company to fly its VIPER to the moon. Its mission will be a crucial step in the Artemis program as it will help the agency determine where and how it can establish a long-term presence on the lunar surface. The Astrobotic will be NASA’s commercial partner in delivering the payload, with the mission currently scheduled for a 2023 moon surface landing.

Moreover, the roughly golf cart-sized robotic rover will be scouring the moon’s south pole region for ice, as well as water beneath the surface if it exists. This is a key intermediary step for the Artemis program, which still intends to return the next American man and the first American woman to the lunar surface by 2024. Besides, having a handy source of water will be an important part of establishing any long-term sustainable base on the moon, since it can provide the necessary ingredients for a self-contained lunar fuel production facility.

Meanwhile, NASA’s choice of astrobotic for this mission is not surprising. The agency has already contracted Astrobotic as part of its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. The company is set to transport scientific payloads to the lunar surface aboard its Peregrine lander for its first CLPS mission in 2021, using a ULA Vulcan rocket. This is a separate contract, timed for a 2023 window.

Astrobotic will be using its Griffin lander for this VIPER mission, not Peregrine. Griffin is a much larger lander than Peregrine, standing roughly 6.5 feet tall, with the ability to carry payloads just over 1,000 pounds (454 kilograms). It can land within 328 feet (100 meters) of a specific target, and can detect and avoid hazards as small as 6 inches across.

However, Astrobotic will be responsible for everything from launch to landing of the rover, and while it will be using Griffin to actually carry VIPER to the surface, it will be contracting with a launch provider to get it to the moon to begin with. Since the rover will have a mass of approximately 1,000 pounds (454 kilograms) when complete, so it will be outfitted with three water-hunting sensors that will fly on-board earlier payload delivery missions in 2021 and 2022 for testing, and also a drill capable of piercing up to three feet below the lunar surface.

According to NASA’s Associate Administrator for Science, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA is “doing something that’s never been done before-testing the instruments on the Moon as the rover is being developed. VIPER and the many payloads we will send to the lunar surface in the next few years are going to help us realize the Moon’s vast scientific potential.”

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