NASA's first robotic moon rover test drives in Silicon Valley

Lauren Martinez Image
Thursday, June 29, 2023
NASA's first robotic moon rover test drives in Silicon Valley
NASA's VIPER rover will explore the Moon as it collects ice samples while being remotely navigated from the Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley.

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. (KGO) -- Before this robot can drive safely on the Moon, it's undergoing test drives on earth inside the NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley.

VIPER, short for Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, is basically a water-hunting robot.

Engineers are testing its ability to descend from a ramp on a lunar lander.

Test director, Jasper Wolfe, said the prototype is designed for Earth's gravity so it weighs one-sixth of the actual rover which weighs half a ton. The prototype moves one centimeter per second.

"Starting at the top of the lander there driving down and ensuring that we can get down safely," Wolfe said.

Flight director Rusty Hunt said this is the third time they've run the egress test. Each time they're learning something new.

Hunt said they have a 'roverscape' on campus where they test the rover.

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"That's a flat area with a lot of sand much like the lunar surface and we'll do a lot of driving there both for testing the rover, testing things like the navigation cameras and hazard detection," Hunt said.

VIPER's mission is to explore the Moon's South Pole. It will investigate, drill and collect samples of water-ice.

"We want to put people on the Moon, we want to build a lunar base on the Moon, and if we can use water that's already there we don't have to bring it up there with us," Hunt said.

VIPER will have three different payloads to read neutrons, light, and mass of different elements on the Moon.

"When we bring the ice up into the sun it evaporates very quickly and we'll measure what comes off of that and it's mostly ice but there's a lot of things in there so it tells us a lot of science about the Moon about what's built up there," Hunt said.

Hunt said they won't know what it's really going to look like until they're there.

"There's a lot of theories it could be hard solid, could be kind of frost pinnacles, it could be very fluffy. So we're not going to know until we drive in there and turns the lights on and see what it looks like- what it's really going to be like," Hunt said.

This is NASA's first robotic Moon rover. Instead of astronauts, drivers will be navigating it from a building on the Ames campus.

Lead driver Matthew Deans said they will be operating the rover 24 hours a day seven days a week as long as there's sunlight.

Deans said they're building up intuition of how the rover moves with time they have with it in person and remotely.

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"I think one of the great values of the egress testing is we spend half of the time in the high bay with the hardware operating it from the desk behind me and watching what happens," Deans said. "And then half the time we spend in another building across the campus is where all we have is our remote control displays and remote control command abilities and we try to understand what's happening to the vehicle without being near it."

Deans said there are a range of conditions to expect but they won't know until they land on the Moon and drive on the surface.

"Sometimes the sun goes down on the Moon and we'll have to park the rover - put it in a hibernation mode and hope it stays warm enough to survive turn back on when the sun comes back up," Deans said.

San Jose Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren said support for space programs is bipartisan.

"The idea that we're going to the South Pole of the Moon, we're going to find out what's there it's just part of what we're doing in space," Lofgren said. "We're going to go to asteroids, we're going to go to Mars. It's really the beginning of mankind moving out into space and at the center of it is NASA."

The rover is set to launch in late 2024 from Cape Canaveral.

Astrobotic's Griffin lander will transfer VIPER to the moon's surface.

Astrobotic's Marketing Director Alivia Chapla said the final flight build is being built in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania.

"The final flight build actually has two ramps on either side of Griffin so VIPER can see which ramp it might egress or exit safely off of once it gets to the lunar service," Chapla said.

Griffin will be traveling aboard a SpaceX Falcon.

VIPER will remain on the Moon and will have around six months of operations.

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