Spaceflight Insider


Illustration of NASA’s Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) on the surface of the Moon. Credit: NASA Ames/Daniel Rutter

NASA awarded a nearly $200 million contract Thursday to Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic, to deliver NASA’s VIPER rover to a destination at the moon’s south pole in 2023.

VIPER stands for Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover. It is designed to search for and assess water ice buried in the lunar soil in regions of permanently shadowed craters at the lunar south pole. This water ice was detected by previous lunar orbital spacecraft missions.

“VIPER is going to be the first robot to actually touch this water ice that we’ve detected,” said Steven Clarke, NASA’s Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration at Thursday’s virtual press conference

The mission is part of NASA’s effort to develop a permanent and sustainable presence on the moon in preparation for the crewed missions of the Artemis program, which aims to land the first woman and the next man on the moon by 2024.


As part of its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, NASA last year chose Astrobotic to deliver 14 smaller payloads to the lunar surface in 2021, using Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander. United Launch Alliance’s upcoming Vulcan rocket is scheduled to serve as the launch vehicle for that mission. A launch vehicle has yet to be chosen for the VIPER mission.

VIPER will take its ride to the moon aboard Astrobotic’s larger Griffin lander. The golf-cart-sized rover will occupy nearly all of the payload size and weight capacity of Griffin, with the possibility of a couple of much smaller payloads being added later.

John Thornton, CEO of Astrobotic Technology, Inc., a space robotics company that seeks to make space accessible to the world. The company’s line of lunar landers and rovers deliver payloads to the Moon for companies, governments, universities, non-profits, and individuals. Credit: Astrobotic

John Thornton, chief executive officer of Astrobotic, was thrilled with the opportunity to work with NASA on VIPER: “My first rover I built 13 years ago was a rover called Scarab to drill for water at the poles of the moon”. Continuing in his exclusive interview with SpaceFlight Insider, “and now, 13 years later, to have the honor to deliver that same payload package on a NASA rover to the moon is just an unbelievable big moment, and really emotional to have that come full circle.”

Equipped with Astrobotic’s newly developed Terrain Relative Navigation (TRN) system, the Griffin lander should set the 1,000 pound rover down within 100 meters of its targeted landing site. The TRN system will be tested on the moon aboard Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander mission next year.

VIPER will then embark on a 100-Earth-day mission to explore an area several miles from the lander, using its four science instruments to conduct a detailed assessment of various lunar soil environments. Test versions of the rover’s three water-hunting instruments will be carried to the moon and operated on other CLPS lander missions scheduled for arrival in 2021 and 2022, in order to evaluate their performance prior to their mission on VIPER.

NASA’s Ames Research Center will manage the VIPER mission from its California headquarters. The VIPER rover is being designed and built at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, while the instruments are provided by Ames, the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and commercial partner Honeybee Robotics in Altadena, California.

The $199.5 million NASA contract with Astrobotic is for a full service delivery of VIPER to the moon. A strikingly new way for NASA to do business.

“The contract to us is for us to get the rover, which will be delivered to us, to the moon,” Thornton said. “So we go out and buy a launch. We build the lander. We do the full end-to-end service from start to finish. When our job is done, VIPER will be on the moon.”

NASA’s water-seeking robotic Moon rover just booked a ride to the Moon’s South Pole. Astrobotic of Pittsburgh has been selected to deliver the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER, to the Moon in 2023. During its 100-Earth-day mission, the approximately 1,000-pound rover will roam several miles and use its four science instruments to sample various soil environments in search of water ice. Its survey will help pave the way for a new era of human missions to the lunar surface and will bring us a step closer to developing a sustainable, long-term robotic and human presence on the Moon as part of the Artemis program. Credit: NASA/Ames Research Center

The new contract essentially sets forth an arrangement in which Astrobotic is not just providing the lander. It will also shop for and make arrangements for the launch vehicle, and provide the management integration of the rocket, lander, and rover. A full delivery service package.

“I think it’s a great opportunity to build and leverage the commercial sector,” Thornton said. “And I’ve got to give NASA a ton of credit for this. They really are leading the rest of the world in this thinking, of building commercial success.”

Astrobotic’s own success is bringing about many changes in a company that began 13 years ago as a startup to initially compete for the Google Lunar Xprize.

“We’ve had a lot of growth over the last year,” Thornton said. “We are currently at 74 employees here in Pittsburgh. And we are expanding into a new facility that will be coming online in the next few weeks that will be capable of housing 150 people. But in terms of hiring, the current plan with the VIPER is that it will probably take our number over 100 for the first time.”

Thornton believes that Thursday’s VIPER award is just the beginning for his company and many other companies and enterprises gearing toward a new commercial space era.

“There will be many more opportunities to come,” he said. “It’s really exciting that this truly is a new era of space exploration for the moon, and will unlock the secrets of the moon for science and exploration. It’s the golden age of science for the moon.”


Michael Cole is a life-long space flight enthusiast and author of some 36 educational books on space flight and astronomy for Enslow Publishers. He lives in Findlay, Ohio, not far from Neil Armstrong’s birthplace of Wapakoneta. His interest in space, and his background in journalism and public relations suit him for his focus on research and development activities at NASA Glenn Research Center, and its Plum Brook Station testing facility, both in northeastern Ohio. Cole reached out to SpaceFlight Insider and asked to join SFI as the first member of the organization’s “Team Glenn.”

⚠ Commenting Rules

Post Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *