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NASA delays launch of rover designed to search and drill for water on the Moon

VIPER is staying on the ground for another year at least

An artistic rendering of NASA’s VIPER lander on the Moon
Image: NASA

NASA is delaying the flight of its VIPER rover — a specialized bot designed to hunt for water on the surface of the Moon. Originally set to embark on its lunar expedition in November of 2023, VIPER is now targeting a launch in November of 2024 in order to allow for testing of the lander that will deliver the vehicle to the Moon’s surface, according to NASA.

Standing for Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, VIPER is a big component of NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to send humans back to the Moon. The robotic rover is, in essence, a prospector. Equipped with specialized agile wheels, science instruments, and a drill, VIPER is designed to hunt for water ice that is thought to be located on the Moon’s surface in order to determine how much is up there, how spread out the water is, and what kind of shape the water is in. That way, if future missions want to mine the Moon’s water, they’ll have a better idea of where to look and what tools they’ll need.

To get VIPER to the Moon, NASA is contracting with a commercial company called Astrobotic through the space agency’s CLPS program — an initiative to galvanize private companies into building commercial lunar landing platforms. Astrobotic, which is working on a fleet of robotic lunar landers, plans to use its future Griffin lander to carry VIPER to the Moon’s surface. But today, NASA announced that it had requested additional testing of the Griffin lander, pushing the projected launch date back to late 2024. With the change, NASA is giving Astrobotic an additional $67.8 million, bringing the total value of the company’s contract for the VIPER mission to $320.4 million.

Though the rover is delayed, NASA plans to fly versions of VIPER’s instruments on two upcoming commercial landers headed toward the Moon later this year. The two landers include one being developed by Houston-based company Intuitive Machines, as well as another smaller lander called Peregrine being developed by Astrobotic.