VIPER Moon Rover’s Instruments Tested for Early Lunar Flight

Engineers at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley assemble the Near-Infrared Volatile Spectrometer System in preparation for its 2021 flight to the Moon. While assembling the instrument inside the NIRVSS clean room, integration engineer Amanda Cook uses ultraviolet light to inspect the four infrared detectors on the NIRVSS Longwave Calibration Sensor for cleanliness, before fastening the board into its enclosure. (Credits: NASA / Ames Research Center / Dominic Hart)

MOFFETT FIELD, Calif. (NASA PR) — When NASA’s new Moon rover, VIPER, lands on the lunar surface to begin its hunt for water ice at the poles, it will be equipped for the job with instruments that have already been battle-tested in this harsh environment.

Prior to the launch of VIPER, the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, versions of these instruments will have flown as payloads on two earlier deliveries to the Moon by commercial providers under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative. The goal of these CLPS deliveries is to perform science experiments, test technologies and demonstrate capabilities to help NASA explore the Moon and prepare for human missions beginning in 2024.

“These payload deliveries under CLPS give us a ‘sneak peek’ of the instruments’ performance in the very challenging environment of the Moon. We will study the instrument’s performance carefully in order to best prepare for our own use of them on the VIPER mission, greatly reducing our own mission risk,” said Dan Andrews, VIPER’s project manager at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. 

Recently, VIPER’s three water-hunting instruments have been undergoing assembly and rigorous testing in preparation for upcoming CLPS launches in 2021 and 2022. At Ames, the Neutron Spectrometer System, or NSS, designed to sniff out water below the surface of the Moon, successfully sailed through a “shake” test to simulate the turbulent conditions of launch. Meanwhile, the Near Infrared Volatiles Spectrometer System, or NIRVSS, designed to determine the concentration of water ice, was assembled in a clean room by NASA engineers after they carefully inspected the components for cleanliness. 

At NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the Mass Spectrometer observing lunar operations instrument, or MSolo, another water-detecting instrument, also completed a successful shake test. There are still some steps to go before the instruments are ready to send off to the delivery companies, and once they’re delivered the instruments will need to be further tested on the lander systems.

Researchers at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley complete a successful vibration test of the Neutron Spectrometer System. This is one of the final tests needed to prepare the instrument for a flight to the Moon aboard Astrobotic Technology’s Peregrine lander, as part of the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program. The vibration test simulates the forces the instrument will be subjected to during launch when the lander blasts off aboard a United Launch Alliance Vulcan Centaur rocket. (Credits: NASA/Ames Research Center/Dominic Hart)

In 2021, Astrobotic Technology, of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, will deliver the first set of VIPER instruments, setting down in the Lacus Mortis crater on the near side of the Moon. The landing itself and the resulting plume of water exhaust from the lander will allow the instruments on this eight-day mission to measure how the water dissipates as the Sun climbs higher in the lunar sky and heats the ground beneath.

In 2022, a second set of VIPER instruments will fly aboard the XL-1 lunar lander from Masten Space Systems, of Mojave, California. While NIRVSS and MSolo will complete measurements from a stationary perch on the lander, NSS will be incorporated into a small, under 30-pound mobile robot called MoonRanger, which will demonstrate communications, autonomous operations and mapping technologies.

VIPER is a collaboration within and beyond the agency. VIPER is part of the Lunar Discovery and Exploration program managed by the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley is managing the project, leading the mission’s science, systems engineering, real-time rover surface operations and flight software. The hardware for the rover is being designed and built by NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, while the instruments are provided by Ames, Kennedy and commercial partner Honeybee Robotics in Altadena, California. The spacecraft, lander and launch vehicle that will deliver VIPER to the surface of the Moon will be provided through NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative, delivering science and technology payloads to and near the Moon.