NASA's moon-exploring Viper will be the first rover to rock headlights

Moon shadows won't stand a chance against Viper's car-like headlight rig.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
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The Viper team tested prototype LED headlight arrays on a simulated lunar landscape.

NASA/Dominic Hart

With a name like "Viper," you know NASA is serious about doing some hard-core rover exploration on the moon. The space agency's in-development four-wheeled lunar vehicle has already booked a ride to space for 2023, but it's in need of some serious candlepower to light up its destination on the moon's south pole.

NASA shared a behind-the-scenes look last week at how it's developing "the first-ever lighting system on a rover." The Viper team put some car-like prototype headlights through their paces at a testing site designed to simulate the lunar landscape at NASA's Ames Research Center in California.

The Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, aka Viper, will be looking for water ice and taking soil samples, but it'll need to avoid what NASA describes as "potentially mission-fatal dangers" such as boulders. It'll also need an assist with navigating steep, dark craters.

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This artist's concept drawing shows NASA's Viper rover heading into a crater on the moon.

NASA Ames/Daniel Rutter

The Viper's lighting gear goals mesh nicely with NASA's definitive evidence of water on the moon and how it can be found tucked into shadowy areas.

"Whether it's on a rover or the next model of sedan, a bad lighting design means a driver can't see details in the landscape. We have to pay extra attention to these challenges on the moon because once Viper gets there, there's no coming back," said Viper team member Uland Wong in a NASA statement

The team is working with LED arrays mounted on a mast, some of which will be able to throw focused beams of light, and some that will light up bigger areas. NASA tested the prototype lighting systems on the simulated lunar landscape under different types of conditions expected on the moon. The team snapped pictures to compare the images and help narrow down the design for the future rover.  

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Viper is one component of NASA's ambitious plans for re-exploring the moon, which includes sending astronauts back to our space neighbor in 2024 through the Artemis program

NASA's Mars Curiosity rover has taken illuminated nighttime images with a small LED setup. Viper will be operating on a different level, able to flood its surroundings with light and bring some much-needed brightness to a shadowy situation.