NASA has awarded a $199.5 million contract to Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic to deliver its VIPER rover to the moon’s south pole in 2023, marking one more not-so-small step for the commercialization of lunar exploration.
VIPER, which stands for Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, will conduct a detailed on-the-ground assessment of water ice buried in lunar soil. In the years and decades ahead, NASA hopes that frozen H2O could be converted into drinkable water, breathable oxygen and hydrogen fuel for crewed missions.
Last year, NASA chose Astrobotic to deliver up to 14 smaller payloads to the lunar surface on its Peregrine lander in 2021, with United Launch Alliance’s next-generation Vulcan rocket serving as the launch vehicle. For the 2023 mission, Astrobotic will use its larger Griffin lander; the launch vehicle hasn’t yet been selected.
In a statement, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said VIPER will provide a “big boost” for the Artemis program to start sending astronauts to the moon by as early as 2024. Astrobotic CEO John Thornton said the mission could have longer-term implications as well, calling it “potentially a massive breakthrough for commercial opportunity in space.”