Moon Monday #88: An agile lunar rover, donating lunar regolith, a lander nearly ready, and more updates

NASA’s VIPER rover endures a steep SLOPE

The VIPER rover, launching in 2024 on an Astrobotic lander as part of NASA’s CLPS program, will closely study lunar water and other volatile resources on the Moon’s south pole to inform future robotic and crewed missions. On top of dealing with the numerous challenges in any Moon mission, NASA is designing VIPER to power through one of the harshest planetary environments in the Solar System.

With temperatures during major investigations well below -180 degrees Celsius, a rocky terrain riddled with steep slopes, a near-horizon Sun causing long, moving shadows that the solar-powered rover needs to keep avoiding or face a freeze, NASA is sending VIPER to lunar hell. To get its job done under such extreme circumstances, VIPER is being designed to traverse 15-degree inclines with ease, and even 25 to 30 degree slopes if need be. VIPER should be capable of driving sideways, diagonally, or move in any direction without changing where it’s heading to keep its solar panels pointed at the Sun. If VIPER gets stuck in fluffy soil, it should be able to lift each of its wheels independently to dig into and sweep along the surface—a bit like swimming or inch-worming—to get out of it.

To ensure VIPER will meet these exotic mobility requirements for mission success, NASA’s Glenn Research Center upgraded their SLOPE Lab last year to test VIPER prototypes on a high fidelity lunar-terrain-imitating sand pit. VIPER’s engineering model arrived at the SLOPE lab this year for final mobility testing to inform the flight rover’s upcoming reviews. The rover aced various drive scenarios amid carefully and methodically simulated lunar terrain and rock permutations, including climbing steep slopes while autonomously avoiding the excessive ones, “inch-worming” out of fluffy soil, wheeling over fairly large boulders, and more. This focus on the sheer agility of a planetary rover is unprecedented but called for by the mission’s needs.

The VIPER rover prototype, stripped down to its mobility components, navigating fluffy lunar soil simulant in the SLOPE lab. Credit: NASA

NASA wants a SLS rocket to liftoff every year, eventually

Like it or not, the super heavy-lift big orange SLS rocket is here to stay, apparently for no less than 15 years as a U.S. national capability. Following a Request for Information published on October 26 last year, NASA has now released a pre-solicitation notice saying that it’s preparing to award a contract for future SLS missions to Deep Space Transport LLC, a joint venture between two major SLS contractors Boeing and Northrop Grumman. NASA will transfer ownership of SLS production and associated facilities from the currently multiple hardware contracts per mission to a single launch service contract for Artemis and other missions starting end of decade.

The baseline contract would be for missions Artemis V through IX, at an aspirational rate of one flight per year, and optionally Artemis X–XIV missions and 10 non-Artemis launches. NASA hopes that transitioning the rocket’s ownership to the private industry would slash its cost by 50% or more, and that the agency could then use those saved funds elsewhere in Artemis. After the rocket’s ownership transfer, NASA will remain the primary customer of SLS but the agency says the joint venture should also market the rocket to other potential customers.

The Moon won’t set for the SLS rocket anytime soon, a cause of concern for many hoping for a cheaper, faster timeline for Artemis missions. This view of SLS on the launchpad may be a sight we might want to get used to. Credit: NASA

How anyone taking over the SLS rocket would lower its cost by at least 50% is unclear. Since the launch vehicle alone currently costs a whopping $2.2 billion per flight, even the desired 50% price reduction amounts roughly to $1 billion, and launches once a year at best. In comparison, a SpaceX Starship mission with equivalent or greater launch capacity could fly more frequently for much cheaper by any measure. One of NASA’s biggest concern with launching astronauts on Starship from Earth seems to be the lack of an emergency escape system, which the Orion spacecraft atop the SLS has. Well, I’m just a space enthusiast but it seems to me that even the route of adapting Orion for any other operational or upcoming heavy-lift rocket would save far more money and launch more frequently. Related read from Casey Handmer: Starship is still not understood.

Building a trusted way to manage lunar resources

On July 27, Orbit Fab and Breaking Ground Trust announced the signing a first of a kind agreement for donating lunar regolith. Orbit Fab develops infrastructure such as RAFTI for refueling spacecraft in Earth orbit, and is interested in extending its products and services to the Moon. Breaking Ground is a trust established last year to develop fair, practical and multi-utility approaches to manage extracted lunar resources, especially as the Moon’s south pole gets increasingly crowded later this decade and beyond.

As part of the agreement, Orbit Fab intends to purchase a small amount of lunar regolith from another company, and then transfer it to Breaking Ground to hold it in trust in order to set precedence for promoting sustainable lunar resource management. The regolith could presumably come from any of the missions by the four companies NASA selected in 2020 to collect lunar material for the agency (note: collect, not return to Earth).

Thanks to Epsilon3 for sponsoring this week’s Moon Monday.

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