NASA Selects Astrobotic to Deliver the VIPER Rover to the Lunar Surface

by Joseph Navin

Astrobotic of Pittsburgh, PA has been selected to deliver NASA’s future Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER, to the Moon.

The Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative will provide NASA a “rapid acquisition” of commercial Lunar abilities, which will further the agency’s capability of science and commercial development of the moon.  The first CLP contracts to commercial companies were announced by NASA in 2018. In 2019, five more were added.

This VIPER contract is another payload assignment for the Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative.  In 2021, the Astrobotic Peregrine lander, which will be the first payload on United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan rocket, will land at  Lacus Mortis.

The same year, Intuitive Machines will deliver five payloads to Oceanus Procellarum. In 2022, Masten Space Systems is scheduled to deliver nine instruments to the South Pole on the Moon.

Commercial Lunar Payload Services is similar to the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) contracts, Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contracts, and the Commercial Crew Program.

COTS can source its origins from the 2004 U.S. Space Exploration Policy, which was announced by President Bush and led to NASA selecting Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) and Rocketplane Kistler in 2006 to develop two vehicles to deliver cargo to the International Space Station (ISS).

A rendering of Masten’s XL-1 lunar lander Photo Credit: Masten Space Systems.

NASA would later terminate the contract with Kistler due to financial issues and Orbital Sciences Corporation would later be selected to develop their Taurus II rocket (which was later named the Antares rocket).

The CRS contracts are an extension of the progress made by SpaceX and Orbital (which became Orbital ATK, and now Northrop Grumman) during the COTS contracts.

SpaceX completed the CRS1 series contract, which consisted of 20 cargo flights using the Dragon 1 vehicle this year. They will launch their first CRS2 flight later this year using a cargo variant of the Dragon 2 spacecraft.

Northrop Grumman completed 11 CRS1 flights and readying their third CRS2 flight with their Cygnus spacecraft.

The Commercial Crew Program was the next step in these private commercial contracts.

SpaceX and Boeing are contracted to launch NASA astronauts using the Crew Dragon and CST-100 Starliner, respectively.

SpaceX was the first to achieve a crew launch of the two, with the Falcon and Crew Dragon launching Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the ISS on the Demo-2 mission.

Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket. Credit: Joseph Navin.

NASA also recently announced contracts to Dynetics, SpaceX, and The National Team (Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman, and Lockheed Martin) to develop crewed Lunar landers for the Artemis Program.

And those human lunar mission will connect the robotic explorers of the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS).

VIPER’s future mission, along with other CLPS missions, will help NASA with the Artemis Program.

The scientific knowledge gained from VIPER will also assist NASA with selecting the landing sites for the Artemis moon program.

VIPER will also search for water on the lunar surface.

“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 in 2024 through the Artemis program,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.

The mission is currently being managed by NASA’s Ames Research Center while the hardware is designed and built by NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The rover software is being developed by NASA Ames and the Kennedy Space Center, along with Honeybee Robotics from Altadena, California.

An engineering model of VIPER at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, OH. Credit: NASA.

The VIPER contract from NASA gives Astrobotic $199.5 million to deliver the rover to the South Pole of the Moon. Astrobotic is responsible for the integration of the spacecraft to the Griffin lander, and then from launch to landing on the Moon.

“It is an enormous honor and responsibility to be chosen by NASA to deliver this mission of national importance,” said John Thornton, CEO of Astrobotic.

Once on the Lunar surface, VIPER will use its four science payloads to sample soil as it roams around. VIPER will also be able to drill 3 feet into the lunar surface and early variants of three water detecting instruments will fly on other CLPS missions in 2021 and 2022 to help test them prior to VIPER’s launch in 2023.

The launch vehicle has yet to be selected by Astrobotic.

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