Wanderer VIPER: how the rover is constructed and what it will do on the moon

Cover for the Weird science comic. 50s

NASA is developing rover VIPER (Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover), which will search and map water deposits on the moon. VIPER is planned to be delivered to the lunar surface by the end of 2023. The Ames Research Center is responsible for managing the rover, developing its software and control systems. The equipment is handled by the Johnson Space Center, scientific instruments by the Ames Research Center and the Kennedy Space Center. Company Astrobotic from Pittsburgh won a contract to launch, transport and deliver a rover to the lunar surface. According to NASA, the total cost of developing the mission is $ 433.5 million.

Key facts

  • Delivery method to the moon: launch vehicle and lander;
  • Flight duration: 100 Earth days.
  • The rover should land on the Moon at the beginning of the “summer season” at the South Pole, during the longest periods of sunshine, to make it easier to keep the rover running.

Tasks of the VIPER rover

In the coming years, NASA intends to send people to the moon again (Artemis program). The purpose of the rover mission is to collect data that will help make further plans for the construction of bases on the moon. The lunar polar regions have a large amount of water ice. Its presence is associated with the axial tilt of the Moon, which provides constant shading of the polar regions, and the absence of direct sunlight does not allow ice to sublimate into oxygen and hydrogen gas. Ice will be essential for human life on the moon. It will be used for everything – drinking, irrigation, the production of oxygen gas and hydrogen fuel.

Once on the Moon, VIPER will collect samples of various soil environments to create global maps of the Moon’s water resources, which will be useful when building bases. The rover will help answer questions about where the water is, how deep and in what quantity.

What we know about the design of the VIPER rover

The rover is equipped with:

  • NIRVSS, NSS spectrometer system (will be used to detect water below the surface);
  • instruments for observing lunar operations with the MSolo mass spectrometer;
  • the TRIDENT drilling rig (drill length 1 m) for studying a new area, obtaining and subsequent analysis of soil samples;
  • solar-powered battery (maximum power – 450 W);
  • four wheels.

VIPER parameters:

  • Size – 1.5 mx 1.5 mx 2.5 m,
  • Weight – 430 kg;
  • Maximum speed – 0.8 km / h;
  • The step is from 4 to 8 meters (depending on the instructions of the mission controllers on the ground).

Since at the moment it is not known what the soil will be in the polar regions of the Moon – solid or loose, the rover is distinguished by unprecedented maneuverability and maneuverability. VIPER can move sideways and diagonally, rotate in a circle – move in any direction. If he meets soft ground on his way, he can even walk on wheels, independently moving each wheel to free himself from the ground.

Strong fluctuations of light and darkness at the poles of the moon create very long and fast moving shadows. The solar-powered VIPER must retreat from looming shadows as it searches for a suitable area to collect materials while maintaining contact with Earth. Periods of darkness will be long, around one Earth week, so the rover will “park” at higher elevations to reduce downtime to 4 days. These factors complicate the planning and route planning of the rover.

Also VIPER – NASA’s first rover with headlights, as it will explore dark craters where sunlight cannot penetrate. Research last year showed that water is found all over the moon, including areas exposed to direct sunlight, and in special pockets on the surface, called cold traps, that are constantly in the dark. Many of these cold traps are found in impact craters, making them interesting subjects to explore.

The predecessors of the VIPER rover

Rovers are currently being launched to the Moon and Mars. Some rovers were designed to move the crew of a space expedition, others were research vehicles – remotely controlled robots. The rover must be resistant to overloads, low and high temperatures, pressure, dust pollution, chemical corrosion, and cosmic radiation. It is also important for him to maintain performance without repair for the time necessary for research.

Let’s remember the rovers that have already visited other planets.

Moon rovers:

  1. Lunokhod-1 (1970, USSR) – the world’s first rover that successfully operated on the lunar surface;
  2. Apollo lunar cars (1971-1972, USA) – were used to ensure greater mobility of the crews of Apollo 15, 16, 17;
  3. Lunokhod-2 (1973, USSR) – designed to study the mechanical properties of the lunar surface, photograph and telephoto the Moon, conduct experiments;
  4. Yutu (2013, China) – the first Chinese lunar rover. After 40 days of work, he lost mobility and continued to work in a stationary mode;
  5. Yutu-2 (2019, China) – the world’s first lunar rover to study the far side of the moon;
  6. Pragyam (2019, India) – crashed on the lunar surface as a result of an unsuccessful landing.

Mars rovers:

  1. PrOP-M (1971, USSR) – the name of the first two rovers in the world that reached the surface of Mars, but never started work;
  2. Sojourner (1997, USA) – the first working Mars rover, transferred 550 photographs and carried out chemical analysis of Martian rocks and soil more than 15 times;
  3. Spirit (2004, USA) – the first of two launched Mars rovers, as part of the Mars Exploration Rover project. Carried out the analysis of geological rocks. In 2009, the rover got stuck in a sand dune.
  4. Opportunity (2004, USA) – the second rover of the Mars Exploration Rover project. At the end of April 2010, the duration of the mission reached 2246 Sol (Martian day – 24 hours 39 minutes 35.24409 seconds), which made it the longest Martian operation. In 2019, the mission was officially completed.
  5. Curiosity (2012, USA) – an autonomous chemical laboratory, currently operating, conducting a full analysis of Martian soils and atmospheric components;
  6. Perseverance (2021, USA) – designed to explore the Jezero crater. The rover was the first to process carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere into oxygen;
  7. Zhurong (2021, China) – the first Chinese rover to land on the planet. Its tasks include mapping the structure of the planet, studying the characteristics of the surface layer and the distribution of water ice in it, analyzing the composition of surface materials, measuring the parameters of the planet’s ionosphere, electromagnetic and gravitational fields, and obtaining information about the climate.

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