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NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland conducting testing for VIPER rover moon mission

In 2023, NASA will send a lunar rover to the moon's south pole to search for water. The trickiest part of the mission is being tested at NASA Glenn Research Center.

CLEVELAND — NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland is testing a full-scale Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) prototype. Once VIPER arrives at the moon's south pole, it will need to perform one of the trickiest parts of its 100-day mission.

"Actually, the test that we are doing here is one of the key challenges," VIPER Mission System Engineer Jasper Wolfe says, "driving off the lander onto the Moon."

VIPER moves slowly down the ramp, only a few inches at a time. It waits for commands from the co-drivers who review each instruction before sending it to the rover.

"We have to make every signal decision right," co-driver Aron Rogg, a rover systems engineer, stated. "At any moment, a single command can get the rover stuck, for example, and that would be end of mission."

The final VIPER will look a little different than its prototype.

"The actual system will have batteries on there, the thermal system, communication, all the instrumentation," Wolfe explained. "There is a lot more that gets packed on top."

VIPER made it off the test rover safely this time, but this isn’t its only challenge.

"This rover is solar-powered," Rogg remarked, "and we are going to an environment that is cold, that is extremely cold, which is a great challenge."

And with the commands coming from Earth, the team will have control of the rover for about two weeks before losing contact for about two weeks, on and off again through the entire mission.

"I will be holding my breath," Wolfe said, with a smile, "but we will be practicing a lot."

VIPER will travel to the moon on Griffin, a lunar lander built by Pittsburgh-based private space company Astrobotic. The 12-foot-by-12-foot lander will be the largest item to land on the moon since Apollo 17.

"It's crazy to think what we are able to do with a small time," Pete Fry, mechanical engineer manager for Astrobotic, told us. "Commercially it had never been done before."

Back in April, Astrobotic unveiled another lunar lander, Peregrine, which will launch later this year and will be part of the first American mission to the lunar surface since the last Apollo mission back in 1972. Peregrine will take several experiments to the Moon, including one designed at NASA Glenn.

"We continue to be excited about that partnership with NASA Glenn and flying together to the surface of the moon," Astrobotic CEO John Thornton said. "We think that is core to the strength of our region."

The Photovoltaic Investigation on the Lunar Surface, or PILS experiment, is designed to understand the solar power challenges and opportunities on the moon. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, who attended the Peregrine unveiling, spoke about the importance of these lunar lander missions.

"This is very important," Nelson said, "because their next one [Griffin] in '23 is going to be us landing on the south pole where the resources are, where water is. And if we have water, we have rocket fuel."

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