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NASA is sending a water-hunting VIPER to the Moon

The space agency's first lunar rover since the Apollo missions could be key for NASA's plans to keep a sustained human presence on the moon.

When NASA returns astronauts to the moon in 2024, its goal stretches beyond short expeditions. The space agency hopes to plant the seeds for long-term exploration missions. But to take lunar occupation from dream to reality, humans are going to need a little help. That's why a robot named VIPER is going first.

NASA is putting the finishing touches on its design for the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER). In 2023 the agency will send the golf-cart sized robot to the moon's South Pole on a 100-day mission to seek out ice deposits below the surface. Scientists hope to learn whether future missions could harvest water from the ice deposits, and use it as a resource. 


Engineers test a prototype VIPER lunar rover at NASA's Lunar Operations Lab.


"We can either bring everything from Earth, which is kind of our fallback position, or we can actually live off the land a little bit by using what's naturally there," Dan Andrews, VIPER project manager, told CNET. Andrews also led the Lunar Crater Observation Satellite (LCROSS) mission that confirmed the presence of ice at the moon's South Pole. It's just not clear exactly where that water is, or how much exists.

That's where VIPER comes in.

The rover is still in the prototype stage, but NASA plans to equip the mission-ready VIPER with a drill and multiple spectrometers to seek, extract and study potential ice pockets below the lunar surface. Click on the video above to see how engineers are testing the prototypes, and how they'll control the rover once it's deployed.

NASA awarded lunar logistics company Astrobotic a contract worth nearly $200 million to deliver VIPER in its Griffin lunar lander. The Griffin lander will be carried on the SpaceX Falcon Heavy