Surviving for extended periods on the Moon is practically impossible. Not just because it lacks an atmosphere and constantly leaps between deadly temperatures, but because we have no idea where to find water on the lunar surface. The solution? NASA will sacrifice its first lunar rover, the VIPER, to help find a water source on the Moon.
The VIPER rover will begin its 100-day lunar suicide mission in late 2023. Its goal is to comb through the Moon’s South Pole for “ice stability regions,” or regions where ice sits near the Moon’s surface.
Astronomers say that there are thousands of “ice stability regions” on the Moon’s poles. Previous missions, such as the Lunar Prospector, have proven as much. The problem is that we don’t know how these frozen water molecules are distributed, or the best ways to extract them for drinking, bathing, and other basic actives.
VIPER will use a Neutron Spectrometer System (NSS) to scan soil at depths up to three feet. If it finds hydrogen, then it will use a meter-long TRIDENT drill to pull and examine soil samples. Additionally, the VIPER rover monitors any dust that it kicks into the “air,” searching for stray hydrogen and other molecules that could indicate a large frozen water source.
After VIPER completes its 100-day mission, NASA should have a much better idea of how water is distributed on the Moon. But the rover probably won’t get to see the fruits of its labor—once its mission is over, the South Pole will dip into 6 to 9 months of total, freezing darkness. NASA scientists are still debating whether to leave the rover on a hill (where it might get some sunlight and survive) or just drive it into a nasty ditch and see if it happens to find water.