We tend to think of the moon as a dusty and bone-dry place, which is true to some extent. But, the deep and shadowed Shackleton Crater near the South Pole of the moon is one such location where a team of scientists has directly observed definitive evidence of water ice. In a mission to explore this uncharted territory, the US space agency, NASA has announced the launch of its first mobile robot to the moon in late 2023 in search of ice and other resources on and below the lunar surface. As these craters are some of the coldest places in the solar system, it tends to make exploration tricky.
The mission will be a part of the Artemis programme and the data received from the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration rover (VIPER) would reveal insights into the history of the moon and the solar system. It will also help scientists and researchers to map resources at the lunar South Pole that could potentially be useful to future moon explorers.
*VIPER on the Moon*
VIPER is designed in a way to explore the darkest and the coldest regions of the moon; the regions that haven’t seen sunlight in billions of years and which are identified as the coldest spots in the solar system. VIPER will use the first headlights on a lunar rover which are running on solar power. Once on the Moon, the rover will mark the exploration of lunar craters by using a specialised set of wheels and suspension system to cover a variety of inclines and soil types. This time, the rover’s design has evolved significantly in comparison to the former robotic concept designed to prospect the Moon called Resource Prospector. This was cancelled by NASA in early 2018.
NASA has claimed that the VIPER will be the most capable robot NASA has ever sent to the lunar surface. It will allow them to explore parts of the Moon that they have never seen. The information gathered by the rover will further facilitate understanding the origin and distribution of water on the Moon and will prepare the scientists to harvest resources 2,40,000 miles from Earth which could be used to send astronauts even farther into space including MARS.
*Why is ice on the Moon important?*
Beyond scientifically intriguing aspects, the discovery of small water ice deposits on the Moon could be a real game-changer for future manned lunar exploration. Keeping in mind that there is no source of water on the moon and shipping water for human use would be extremely expensive ($2,000 to $20,000 per kg), the discovery of ice will provide drinkable water for future astronauts and explorers. Along with that, the lunar water could also serve as a source of oxygen, another essential material not readily found on the surface of the Moon. Also, hydrogen could be extracted through lunar water which could be used as rocket propellant for trips back home to Earth or even someday to Mars and beyond.
*Artemis Programme: Paving way for lunar exploration*
In order to establish a permanent presence on the moon, the ambitious Artemis programme aims to lead humanity forward to the moon, in order to prepare for the next giant leap, the exploration of Mars. It has been almost 50 years since the Apollo program when the astronauts last walked on the lunar surface. Since then, the robotic exploration of deep space has undergone decades of technological advancement and scientific discoveries. Sending human explorers 2,50,000 miles to the Moon, then 140 million miles to Mars, requires a bold vision, effective program management. During the Artemis program, NASA will also land the first woman and first person of colour on the Moon, using innovative technologies to explore more of the lunar surface than ever before.