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NASA Tests VIPER Prototype on Earth, Tricks It Into Believing It’s on the Moon

The Moon is presently at the center of humanity’s space exploration efforts. Although the Artemis program is the most prominent and visible such endeavor, there are other missions planned, all aimed at making the place a second home for at least some of us humans.
VIPER rover prototype 8 photos
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One such mission is the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER. That would be a machine meant to find out how much water there is at the Lunar South Pole. Described by NASA as the “first resource mapping mission on another celestial body,” VIPER is scheduled to depart in late 2023 on board a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, and targets the Nobile Crater.

The machine is the size of a golf cart, measuring 5 feet by 5 feet by 8 feet (1.5 meters by 1.5 meters by 2.5 meters). It weighs 992 pounds (450 kilograms), which by all accounts makes for the heaviest cargo sent into space by NASA using a commercial partner.

But those are not the impressive bits. For about 100 days or so, the rover will cover a distance of 12 miles (20 km), looking left and right with three spectrometers, digging for samples with a drill, and collecting them to analyze their contents.

As it stands, the final version of the VIPER is not yet ready, with scientists hard at work putting it together. But prototypes do exist, and they’re being tested by NASA engineers.

The one we have here is a decked-out version, the most realistic yet, and it was deployed at the famous Rock Yard at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, and at the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. The thing was there to simulate its Moon mission, and for all intents and purposes, it believed it was doing the actual job.

The prototype was fitted with a mast to carry cameras and antennas, a computer, flight software, and motor controllers, and they were all put through their paces. A direct focus fell during testing, NASA said earlier this month, on the rover’s ability to “drive while keeping its antenna pointing in the exact same direction,” a crucial aspect if it is to send back to Earth data about whatever it finds out there.

Although it may not seem like it, the rover is crucial for our race’s future in space, as it will help determine future landing sites for Artemis missions, in locations that could allow in-situ resource utilization (ISRU).

 
 
 
 
 

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