Before NASA takes humanity back to the Moon, it'll first send a golf cart-sized robot to the lunar south pole where the crewed Artemis mission will also land. The machine, called Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover or VIPER, will look for water ice in the region and will collect samples to help us figure out if Earth's faithful companion has enough water to sustain future missions and inhabitants. VIPER will be equipped with four science instruments to sample various soil environments, including a meter-long drill to be able to collect specimen from underneath the surface.
VIPER project manager Daniel Andrews said:
"The key to living on the Moon is water -- the same as here on Earth. Since the confirmation of lunar water-ice ten 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."
NASA crashed a rocket into the Moon's south pole back in 2009 and was able to detect the presence of water ice. VIPER's mission is to help us zero in on the water's location and understand its nature, so we can make plans on how to access and harness it in the future.
The rover will roam several miles to find wet areas below the surface using an instrument called Neutron Spectrometer System. Whenever it does find one, it will deploy its drill called The Regolith and Ice Drill for Exploring New Terrain or TRIDENT to dig for samples. Its other two instrument -- the Mass Spectrometer Observing Lunar Operations or MSolo and the Near InfraRed Volatiles Spectrometer System -- will then analyze the samples to figure out their composition and concentration of water ice or other resources we can potentially harness.
While there's no exact launch date yet, NASA is planning to deliver the rover to the lunar surface in December 2022.