NASA mission aims to study ice and water on the lunar surface

Credit: NASA

In the fall of 2023, an American rover will land at the south pole of the moon. Its mission: to explore the water ice that scientists know lurks in the moon’s shadows, and which they believe could support humans who might one day explore the moon or use it as a launch pad for more distant space exploration.

NASA recently selected Kevin Lewis, an associate professor in the Krieger School’s Division of Earth and Planetary Sciences who has also worked on missions on Mars, as a co-investigator on the mission. Using part of the rover’s navigation system, he plans to explore the moon’s subterranean geology from his office in Olin Hall.

“I’ve been on other rover missions, but on Mars, so I’m kind of new to the moon,” Lewis said. “We’re going to look into shadows that have never seen the sun, let alone seen by humans. So it could be a very different type of surface than we’ve seen in other photos of the moon’s surface.”

Dryer than a desert

Most of the moon is completely without water. That’s because of the way the satellite formed, in a giant impact between the proto-Earth and a Mars-sized object. The temperatures were high enough to not only melt rock but also vaporize it, leaving a cloud of rock vapor orbiting the Earth. The vapor eventually coalesced to form the moon.

Those temperatures were also high enough to drive water away, not even leaving significant traces in rocks like it is on Earth. But over time, meteors and comets contain water ice bombed the moon and made ice molecules jump around moon surface

The sun’s angle at the moon’s poles is steep, creating long shadows. This means that some polar craters receive no sunlight at all. When the water molecules happen to jump into one of those unlit areas, whose temperatures are among the coldest in the solar system at just tens of degrees above absolute zero, it drains their thermal energy and they stick to the surface.

“So over time you could build up ice deposits in these permanently shaded areas, which could basically be the only source of water on the entire moon in usable amounts,” Lewis said.

Wandering on the moon

The Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER, is a golf cart-sized robot designed for the extremes and unknowns of the moon’s south pole. The rover, which will travel several miles over several Mondays — or about 100 Earth days — will judge things like what shape the water is in, how much of it is present, whether it’s more frost on the surface or ice at depth, and whether there is more in some areas than in others.

VIPER is currently being assembled at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston and needs to be modified for the specific conditions it will encounter at the moon’s south pole. There is the crater floor with different levels of compaction, requiring four independently controlled wheels that can handle slopes of 25 to 30 degrees.

There are drastic temperature changes from the moon, ranging from 225 degrees Fahrenheit in the sun during the day to -400 degrees in those permanent shadows; The square shape of VIPER protects the instruments and calibrations of the high-precision technology are currently underway to prevent these fluctuations.

There’s darkness itself, requiring the first headlights ever used on a rover to illuminate places on the moon that have never seen sunlight before.

And there are the conflicting needs of science and logistics – science calls on VIPER to spend its time in the shade, but the rover will also have to climb out of the craters regularly to recharge its batteries in the sunlight. Most rovers’ solar panels are on their roofs, but the angle of the polar sunlight requires the VIPER arrays to be mounted on its sides.

NASA mission aims to study ice and water on the lunar surface

A prototype of the VIPER moon rover is being tested in the Lunar Operations Lab. Credit: NASA

The quest

NASA selected eight new VIPER co-investigators, in part to bring new ideas and expertise to the team. Lewis’ research actually gives the rover an entirely new scientific tool for exploring the moon.

To track its position and orientation, VIPER is equipped with accelerometers – devices typically used to determine changes in the rover’s position and tilt. These are the instruments that Lewis wants to reuse for his research. The accelerometers are extremely sensitive; they can detect the tiny change in gravity you’d experience if there were an ore deposit beneath the ground you’re standing on.

“Gravimetry has been used for prospecting on Earth. You can look at gravitational anomalies and they will tell you something about the subsurface geology,” Lewis said. “We’ve been able to do that on Mars and calculate the density of the subterranean rocks that we’re driving over. We’re going to do that on the Moon as well and try to figure out the vertical density of the regolith and look for any geological anomalies.” .”

VIPER is part of NASA’s Artemis program, a multi-stage process to return humans to the moon. Artemis I will be the first test of the rocket that will eventually carry people, and the launch is scheduled for this year. Artemis II, planned for 2023, will orbit the moon with people on board. Artemis III is scheduled to land humans on the moon’s surface by 2024.

“It’s pretty wild to work on the VIPER mission, paralleling the human reconnaissance side with the Artemis program,” Lewis said. “Even though those astronauts wouldn’t drink this water directly, it’s really cool to do so against the backdrop of an actual return to the moon.”

As a member of the science team, Lewis is not involved in building VIPER, and he will not be directly controlling it during the mission. But since joining the team, he’s been involved in simulated operations, where the team practices using the rover’s technology and making the kinds of decisions that need to be made on the spot.

The mission is starting to look real. “It’s just really exciting to look for water that could one day be used by human explorers,” Lewis said. “To find water that they could one day drink from a bottle – that will blow your mind. And of course the geological side of it: the history of the Moon and the geological and thermal evolution of its crust are also very interesting questions.”

NASA selects moon location for ice-hunting rover

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