NASA has selected the official touchdown site of its first-ever robotic moon rover.
NASA officials said Monday that the ice-hunting Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) will land near the moon's south pole, just west of Nobile Crater.
VIPER will go to the moon in late 2023 aboard Griffin, a lander built by Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic and launched atop a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket.
"Selecting a landing site for VIPER is an exciting and important decision for all of us," Daniel Andrews, VIPER project manager at NASA's Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, said in a statement. "VIPER is going into uncharted territory - informed by science - to test hypotheses and reveal critical information for future human space exploration."
The Nobile site is 36 square miles in size. The solar-powered VIPER, which weighs 950 pounds, will measure and define the water ice beneath its wheels in a range of areas on Nobile, including PSRs, which are among the coldest places in the solar system.
Using three spectrometers and a drill, the rover will collect samples from up to 3.3 feet underground over the period of at least 100 Earth days.
VIPER is a crucial element of NASA's Artemis program, which intends to create a long-term, sustainable human presence on and around the moon by the end of the next decade. According to NASA, achieving this goal will necessitate considerable usage of lunar resources, particularly water ice.
According to observations by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and other spacecraft, the moon has a lot of water ice, notably towards its poles in permanently shadowed regions (PSRs). VIPER is aimed to validate such research by informing scientists about how much ice is actually present and how accessible it is to humans.
The VIPER team had chosen four finalist landing sites for the four-wheeled robot near the lunar south pole. VIPER project scientist Tony Colaprete of NASA Ames revealed during a press briefing that the other three were a region outside Haworth Crater, a ridgeline running from Shackleton Crater, and a point near Shoemaker Crater.
Colaprete said all four finalist sites are intriguing and look to be suitable both scientifically and logistically.
VIPER will be NASA's first uncrewed rover, although it will not be the agency's first wheeled lunar vehicle of any kind: On the final three Apollo missions, in 1971 and 1972, NASA launched astronaut-driven moon buggies.