NASA is currently working on putting a new lunar rover on the moon’s surface, and part of that work is developing a map of where exactly the rover will travel. Knowing where the rover will drive is critically important to help avoid obstacles and get the rover close enough to objects of interest to perform its mission. VIPER, or Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, is part of the NASA Artemis program.
VIPER mission planners have created a new high-resolution digital elevation map of the surface of the moon. Using those maps, the rover will be able to more safely and efficiently travel across the moon’s surface while looking for resources at the lunar South Pole. A resource of particular interest for scientists is ice. Ice can be converted into other resources to further explore the solar system, including oxygen and rocket fuel.
Ice could also potentially be a source of drinkable water for humans carrying out extended missions on the surface of the Moon. The maps NASA is creating are at a three-foot scale and provide a 3D model of large swaths of terrain at the lunar South Pole. The maps also show quickly changing lighting and temperature conditions caused by long shadows that cross the surface.
The maps will help prevent the rover from crashing as it traverses a landscape filled with craters with steep sides. Mission planners will also use the information on shadows to ensure that the solar-powered batteries inside the rover stay charged. The rover also has to be able to find safe places to hibernate during communications blackouts with the earth.
The maps have revealed features of scientific interest on the moon’s surface, including features called “mini cold traps” that are perpetual shadows measuring between six and 16 feet across the could be cold enough for ice to collect. Those areas are of particular interest in the search for ice. Researchers note they have to plan ahead to prevent VIPER from being overtaken by shadows, which move around the moon’s south pole at about the same speed as the rover. A mistake could leave the rover in perpetual darkness rendering it useless.