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NASA plans to send lunar rover to Nobile region of moon's South Pole

NASA plans to send lunar rover to Nobile region of moon's South Pole
This is a NASA image of Nobile Crater on the moon's South Pole, where the space agency said Monday it will land the first U.S. robotic lunar rover. Photo courtesy of NASA

ORLANDO, Fla., Sept. 20 (UPI) -- NASA's ice-hunting VIPER lunar rover, scheduled to arrive on the moon in 2023, would land near the Nobile Crater on the lunar South Pole, the space agency announced Monday.

The crater offers a relatively safe area to hunt for water ice, which is considered crucial for long-term Artemis missions to explore the moon and eventually Mars, NASA officials said. The ice could provide a water supply and even liquid oxygen rocket fuel.

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"The Nobile region offers a high elevation with a big mountain range ... making communication with Earth, actually, very good," Tony Colaprete, NASA's VIPER lead project scientist, said during a press conference. "It's more toward the near side of Earth than say Shackleton Crater is."

The high elevation of the Nobile region also means the VIPER rover's solar panels, which are to power the robotic explorer, should receive adequate sunlight.

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The Nobile region also offers several areas that are in permanent shadow, which is where the space agency believes ice may exist just below the surface.

NASA has awarded $199.5 million to Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic to deliver VIPER to the moon in late 2023. Astrobotic, in turn, has selected a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket to launch the mission. NASA has budgeted a little over $600 million for the effort.

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VIPER stands for Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, which refers to the volatility of oxygen or hydrogen gas that escapes from the lunar surface when water sublimates, or evaporates.

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The mission would be the first U.S. robotic rover to land on the moon and is expected to operate for at least 100 days.

The rover would use drills and scanning equipment to map out water ice deposits that NASA hopes to find within a little over 3 feet below the surface.

The Nobile region also offers slopes that aren't "too steep" for the rover to navigate, Colaprete said.

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NASA emphasized that rover technology used repeatedly on Mars won't necessarily work on the moon because there is virtually no lunar atmosphere. That means temperatures can change by a range of 500 degrees F, while the Mars surface range of temperature is about 150 degrees F.

The space industry and science community will be watching the VIPER mission closely, Daniel Britt, professor of astronomy and planetary sciences at University of Central Florida, said Monday.

"We are almost certain there is ice in the polar craters, but there's no substitute for actually going and measuring," Britt said. "The mission may not find exactly what is needed to establish a lunar base, but whatever it finds will be vital to understanding the lunar geology."

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Out-of-this-world images from space

This composite image made from six frames shows the International Space Station, with a crew of seven aboard, in silhouette as it transits the sun at roughly 5 miles per second on April 23, 2021, as seen from Nottingham, Md. Aboard are: NASA astronauts Shannon Walker, Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover, Mark Vande Hei; Roscosmos cosmonauts Oleg Novitskiy, Pyotr Dubrov; and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Soichi Noguchi. Joining the crew aboard station the next day were Crew-2 mission crew members: Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur of NASA, JAXA astronaut Akihiko Hoshide and ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet. Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA | License Photo

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