NASA picks Astrobotic to send water-hunting rover VIPER to the moon

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An artist’s rendering of NASA’s VIPER rover, which will roam the Moon’s south pole looking for water ice.

Source: NASA

NASA awarded Pittsburgh-based space robotics startup Astrobotic with nearly $200 million on Thursday for a key lunar mission, which will hunt for deposits of frozen water the moon.

Astrobotic will be responsible for launching the rover, called VIPER, and landing it near the moon’s south pole in late 2023. The company will use its Griffin lander to deliver the VIPER rover to the lunar surface under the $199.5 million contract.

VIPER, which stands for “Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover,” is a robot that will roam the surface of the moon and represents the first such “resource-mapping mission,” NASA says. The mission is expected to spend 100 days exploring the lunar surface, searching for collections of water ice and other possible resources.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has often pointed to the existence of “hundreds of billions of tons of water ice on the surface of the moon” as a main driver behind the agency’s goal to establish a moon base. The agency plans to land astronauts on the moon by 2024.

The VIPER mission falls under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, which Astrobotic has previously won funding under. Astrobotic won a nearly $80 million CLPS award last year, which will use the company’s Peregrine lunar lander to put 14 research payloads on the moon’s surface in July 2021. Astrobotic will use a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket to launch the 2021 mission. Astrobotic CEO John Thornton said during a press conference that the choice on which rocket will launch the VIPER mission will likely be announced later this year.

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