NASA reveals launch plan for VIPER, its first mobile lunar robot

NASA plans to send its Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) to the Moon in 2023, the space agency has announced. This will be its first mobile robot, NASA said, and it'll be tasked with exploring the lunar surface's most extreme areas. The goal is to map resources found around the Moon's South Pole, ones that astronauts may be able to harvest one day.

VIPER will be the first rover to feature headlights, according to NASA; they'll be a key tool for exploring the dark regions of the Moon. The space agency notes that the lunar surface's permanently shadowed regions have been hidden from sunlight for billions of years, shielding mysteries and resources that humanity is only beginning to explore.

NASA plans to launch the mobile robot toward the end of 2023. Once it arrives, the small rover will search the Moon's craters using four instruments, including an ice drill, hammer, mass spectrometer, and near-infrared spectrometer. VIPER replaces the Resource Prospector NASA canceled back in 2018, and it'll be better equipped for the job.

NASA says that it will test early versions of these instruments on the Moon before VIPER to help ensure they'll perform as expected. The rover has a specially designed suspension system and wheels that will enable it to handle different types of soil and various inclines in these craters.

VIPER plays a key role in NASA's overall Artemis program, with mission program scientist Sarah Noble explaining:

VIPER will be the most capable robot NASA has ever sent to the lunar surface and allow us to explore parts of the Moon we've never seen. The rover will teach us about the origin and distribution of water on the Moon and prepare us to harvest resources 240,000 miles from Earth that could be used to safely send astronauts even farther into space, including Mars.