Meet Griffin, the Lander Ferrying NASA's Next Rover to the Moon

Jennifer Leman
Photo credit: Astrobotic

From Popular Mechanics

  • During a June 11 press conference NASA announced that Astrobotic won a $199.5 million contract to ferry the agency's new lunar rover to the Moon.
  • The Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) is set to explore the lunar surface in search of its most valuable resource: water.
  • NASA plans to launch the rover aboard Astrobotic's Griffin lunar lander in 2023.

NASA has selected Astrorobotic to ferry the agency's new lunar robot to the moon. In 2023, Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) will blast off for the moon's south pole in search of water ice.

NASA made the announcement during an 11 a.m. press conference on June 11. The award is part of NASA's $2.8 billion Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative; Astrobotic will receive a $199.5 million contract to deliver the robotic explorer, which NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., is developing.

"We've learned a lot from all of our missions, but maybe one of the most surprising findings of recent years was that water ice has accumulated in the extremely cold permanently shadowed regions of the moon," director of NASA's Planetary Science Division Lori Glaze said in the press conference. The India Space Research Office's Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft discovered the presence of water ice when it sent an impactor to the lunar surface in 2008. NASA's Moon Mineralogy Mapper instrument on the spacecraft confirmed the finding.

Photo credit: Astrobotic

Water ice will become a precious commodity as we explore and colonize the moon. Water molecules can be broken down, providing both oxygen for us to breath and hydrogen to use for rocket fuel. But there's still a lot to learn about the lunar resource. "We don't know how it's distributed or what form it's in," Glaze said referring to the moon's water. "It might be distributed as ice crystals or water molecules chemically bound to other materials."

VIPER is designed to drill into the moon's surface and analyze samples of the lunar regolith for water molecules using the four science instruments on board. Over the course of its 100 Earth-day-mission, the rover will travel several miles charting the location and concentration of water ice, according to a NASA press release. Ultimately, the rover will play a key role in developing a global lunar water map, which the agency says will dictate where astronauts will land in the coming years.

Astrobotic's Griffin lunar lander, which can haul loads of up to 1,100 pounds, will be tasked with ferrying VIPER to the moon. Once Griffin lands, a ramp will unfurl and VIPER will roll onto the lunar surface, ready to explore.

"The moon can become a destination for refueling our spacecraft and to explore and maybe even go deeper into space," John Thornton, the CEO of Astrobotic said. "Understanding what that water is from a commercial perspective as well as from a science perspective could potentially truly unlock the solar system to exploration and science."

The Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic was founded in 2007. Last year, the company was selected to deliver 14 payloads to the moon aboard its Peregrin lunar lander. NASA awarded the company with $79.5 million to help them ferry materials to the moon's equator starting in 2021. And in July of last year, the company was awarded a contract for its autonomous rover, MoonRanger. The rover will explore and create 3D maps of the lunar surface.

A total of 14 companies bid on the VIPER project. Astrobotic beat out industry veterans like Lockheed Martin, Draper, and Sierra Nevada Corporation as well as flashier contemporaries like Blue Origin and SpaceX, which is coming off of the successful May 30 launch of its Crew Dragon capsule.

Firefly Aerospace Inc., Moon Express, Masten Space Systems, OrbitBeyond, Intuitive Machines LLC, Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems and Deep Space Systems also put in a bid, but Astrobotic emerged victorious.

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