Nasa is sending a robotic rover to seem for water-ice near a crater at the Moon’s South Pole .
In 2023, the golf cart-sized vehicle will land near the western fringe of Nobile Crater, a 73km-wide depression that’s almost permanently in shadow.
The Viper mission will support plans for human exploration of the Moon, because the ice might be mined to be used as beverage and rocket propellant .
Nasa wants to return astronauts to the lunar surface this decade.
The space agency’s Artemis programme will see the primary woman and therefore the person of colour land on the Moon. It could pave the way for a long-term human presence on Earth’s sole natural satellite.
Daniel Andrews, Viper’s project manager from Nasa’s Ames research facility in California, said the 2023 rover mission would help scientists understand how easy or difficult it might be for humans to extract the water-ice.
“If resources are plentiful and accessible, it’ll really change the character of sustaining humans [on the Moon]and also help us understand the character of how we retrieve those resources,” he explained.
Various lines of evidence suggest there are billions of tonnes of lunar ice locked up in polar craters that never see sunlight and where temperatures dip as low as -223C (-370F). Being in permanent shadow creates the stable and really cold environment necessary to preserve large frozen deposits.
Daniel Andrews said Viper – which stands for Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover – could help scientists understand key questions on the ice deposits, like “where the ice is, what concentrations, how deep”.
Anthony Colaprete, the lead project scientist on Viper, also based at Nasa Ames, said: “We’ve never seen anything quite like what we’re getting to see once we reach the South Pole .
“The poles of the Moon are dramatic, especially the South Pole , where ancient impact basins lifted mountains that dwarf Everest … it’s getting to be something that’s truly out of this world.”
But there are obstacles to exploring this unfamiliar, ice-bearing region. It’s challenging to style a rover ready to operate during a location that’s extremely cold in the dark then warm during the day.
In 2019, Astrobotic’s chief executive John Thornton told me: “I think what positions Astrobotic rather well to capture whatever flies commercially on the Moon is that we are the elemental service, we are the transportation .
“We do have our guesses on what we expect goes to be subsequent biggest thing on the Moon. and that i think that the mining goes to be one among the most important ones – mining specifically for rocket propellant .”
The water might be chemically split into hydrogen and oxygen, providing the propellants burned in spacecraft engines.
Re-fuelling vehicles at the Moon could bring down the value of spaceflight and make a lunar outpost cheaper . A 2018 report suggested that rocket fuel might be produced at a price of $500 (£365) per kg on the lunar surface. That’s 20 times cheaper than the $10,000 per kg projected cost of transporting it from Earth to lunar orbit.
Meanwhile, preparations for the primary missions within the Artemis programme are proceeding apace.
The Space Launch System (SLS) rocket for the primary – uncrewed – Artemis mission is nearing full assembly at Nasa’s Kennedy Space Center launch complex in Florida. Engineers will stack the ultimate remaining piece – the Orion spaceship – atop the SLS in coming weeks.
Earlier this month, Nasa also completed welding the structure of the Orion capsule which will carry astronauts during the primary mission to land on the Moon since 1972.