NASA just picked commercial aerospace company Astrobotic to land the first US moon rover in 48 years — a robot that will hunt for ice

An illustration showing Astrobotic's Griffin moon-landing system deploying a ramp to deliver NASA's VIPER robot to the lunar surface.Astrobotic; Business Insider
  • NASA is preparing to land a spacecraft on the moon for the first time in nearly half a century.
  • The agency is giving rocket company Astrobotic nearly $200 million to deliver the moon rover in late 2023, through a government program called Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS).
  • Commercial partners will provide the rockets and spacecraft for NASA's Artemis program, which aims to send humans back to the moon in 2024.
  • The lunar rover, called VIPER, will hunt for water ice on the moon's unexplored south pole — a resource that could help establish a permanent base there and, eventually, send astronauts to Mars.

NASA is partnering with rocket company Astrobotic to send a new water-hunting rover to the moon's unexplored south pole.

The Pittsburgh-based company will use its Griffin lander to deliver the robot — called the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) — to the lunar surface in late 2023.

VIPER will ostensibly be NASA's first moon rover since the Apollo program ended in 1972. If successful, it'd be the first rover to explore the moon's mysterious south pole.Advertisement

The mission is the next step in NASA's plan to pave a new path to space, the moon, and Mars by partnering with commercial providers. The agency hopes to land humans on the lunar surface in 2024 as part of its Artemis program.

The announcement came less than two weeks after the first commercial launch of astronauts, when SpaceX sent NASA's Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station aboard the company's Crew Dragon spaceship.

That historic launch marked the first time that astronauts have flown in a US spacecraft or launched from US soil since the space-shuttle program ended in 2011. The mission was the product of NASA's Commercial Crew Program, through which the space agency vetted dozens of companies and emerged with two partners for human spaceflight: SpaceX and Boeing.
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Now, the agency is beginning a similar process with its lunar launch program, called Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS). The $2.8 billion initiative allows 14 companies to bid on contracts to deliver NASA's payloads to the moon.

Astrobotic won the first major bid. NASA will give the company $199.5 million to carry VIPER to the moon.

'We look forward to making you and our nation proud'

NASA Associate Administrator Thomas Zurbuchen (second from right) speaks to Astrobotic CEO John Thornton (left) and Astrobotic mission director Sharad Bhaskaran (second from left), about the company's Peregrine lunar lander, May 31, 2019, at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.NASA/Aubrey Gemignani
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Astrobiotic's plan calls for VIPER to ride on top of the car-size Griffin lander during its descent to the moon, then roll down a set of ramps that'd unfurl after landing.

"Thirteen years ago, we started Astrobotic to make the moon accessible to the world. Today we are so excited to announce that our Griffin lander will deliver NASA's VIPER rover to the pole of the moon in 2023," Astrobotic CEO John Thornton told Business Insider in an emailed statement. "This is a truly momentous opportunity for Astrobotic. Thank you to our friends at NASA for this great honor. We look forward to making you and our nation proud."

The rocket system that would actually get Griffin off of Earth, however, "is still to be determined," a spokesperson for Astrobotic told Business Insider. A promotional video released by NASA on Thursday appears to show Griffin launching on an Atlas V rocket, which is built by United Launch Alliance (ULA), but a spokesperson for ULA declined to comment.Advertisement

Regardless, the launch would achieve the first major goal in NASA's Artemis program, which was created as a successor to Apollo.

"The VIPER rover and the commercial partnership that will deliver it to the moon are a prime example of how the scientific community and US industry are making NASA's lunar exploration vision a reality," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a press release. "Commercial partners are changing the landscape of space exploration, and VIPER is going to be a big boost to our efforts to send the first woman and next man to the lunar surface."

NASA's long-term aim is to make space exploration cheaper and faster by leaning on privately developed technologies.Advertisement

Astrobotic's mission is the first step toward a permanent moon base

An artist's concept of NASA astronauts returning to the surface of the moon via its Artemis program.NASA

Astrobotic formed in 2007 during the Google Lunar X Prize, a $20 million competition intended to spur private exploration of the moon. The contest closed in 2018 without a winner, but Astrobotic continued developing a small lunar lander called Peregrine.

In 2019, Astrobotic announced that Peregrine would launch to the moon in 2021 aboard a ULA rocket.Advertisement

The contract to launch VIPER is not Astrobotic's first with NASA. The company received $10 million from the space agency in 2018 to create a "low-cost, reliable, high-performance, stand-alone" system to land a lunar spacecraft on the moon. The funding was part of $44 million in awards that NASA gave to companies developing "tipping point" technologies for space exploration.

That previous work laid the groundwork for the more ambitious Griffin lander and VIPER mission. "It is an enormous honor and responsibility to be chosen by NASA to deliver this mission of national importance," Thornton said. "Astrobotic's lunar logistics services were created to open a new era on the moon."Advertisement

According to NASA's vision, that new era will culminate in a permanent moon base, and then potentially spring-board missions from there to Mars.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine answers questions during an event where nine companies where named as eligible to bid in the agency's Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, November 29, 2018 in Washington.NASA/Bill Ingalls

A moon base could enable NASA to build unprecedented radio telescopes, far from the polluting hum of human activities on Earth. Astronauts there could also test technologies that might help them live on Mars and collect evidence that could paint a better picture of the violent collision that created the moon. A lunar base could even spur an off-world economy, perhaps one built around lunar space tourism.Advertisement

"A permanent human research station on the moon is the next logical step. It's only three days away. We can afford to get it wrong and not kill everybody," Chris Hadfield, a former astronaut, previously told Business Insider. "And we have a whole bunch of stuff we have to invent and then test in order to learn before we can go deeper out."

A major prerequisite for making the moon base possible — and one of the goals of the Artemis program — is to scout for and harvest lunar ice. That's because water can give humans something to drink and grow food with, and it can also be split into hydrogen and oxygen. The two fuels can then be used as power rockets and pursue more ambitious deep-space exploration.

The rover will map water on the moon's unexplored south pole

An illustration of NASA's Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) on the surface of the moon.NASA Ames/Daniel Rutter
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If successful, NASA's moon rover will be the first machine to ever land on the moon's south pole (without deliberately crashing into it, that is).

The golf-cart-size VIPER robot is scheduled to land in December 2022 and spend about 100 days collecting data. It will map the south pole's water ice for the first time. Using that data, NASA plans to build the first global water resource maps of the moon.

Those maps will be crucial to planning and fueling a lunar base.Advertisement

"Since the confirmation of lunar water ice 10 years ago, the question now is if the moon could really contain the amount of resources we need to live off-world," Daniel Andrews, the mission's project manger, said in October. "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."

In 2021 and 2022, NASA plans to send versions of the rover's water-hunting instruments to the moon to test them out. "We're doing something that's never been done before – testing the instruments on the moon as the rover is being developed," Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's Associate Administrator for Science, said in the release. "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."Advertisement

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