SpaceX to Launch Astrobotic Lunar Lander, NASA VIPER Rover

SpaceX now has a contract to launch a lunar lander built by Astrobotic and NASA’s Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER), which will search the lunar surface for water. The lunar lander, named Griffin Mission 1, will carry VIPER on its way to the Moon.

NASA selected Astrobotic’s Griffin lunar lander for the lunar mission in 2020. The Griffin can deliver a payload of up to 475 kilograms to the lunar surface, making it attractive for sending rovers that would be expected to have everything they need to operate independently. The Griffin is also capable of relaying signals from a rover using a WLAN modem and antennas mounted on the lander.

The mission is slated to launch on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in 2023. Griffin will land at the lunar south pole. Scientists have previously discovered water in parts of the south pole that are not exposed to sunlight very much, but VIPER will provide a better understanding of where and how much water exists in this region. These surveys will help NASA gain a better understanding of the presence of lunar resources before it sends future crews as part of its Artemis Program.

A future crewed lunar base on the south pole may make use of this water using processes officially known as In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU). ISRU can make missions to other worlds less expensive because they can make use of resources that are already on those worlds instead of having to pay the high cost of sending supplies like oxygen and water between Earth and the Moon or Mars. The below video provides a brief explanation of the basic principles of ISRU.

This works because the same chemistry that works on Earth can also work on other worlds. Methods for harvesting those resources may have to be adapted for the unique environments on those other worlds. As the below video shows, NASA is already looking for possible methods for harvesting water on the Moon.

SpaceX also has contracts to launch lunar landers for Intuitive Machines as part of early development of hardware that could be used to harvest water. The first will launch in the fourth quarter of 2021. The second is slated to launch as early as 2022. Intuitive Machine’s Nova-C landers are delivering payloads of up to 100 kilograms to the lunar surface and will attempt to take the first images of the Milky Way from the lunar surface. They will also study the feasibility of harvesting resources on the Moon using a spectrometer and an experimental mining drill.

“Gaining a better learning of resources on the moon is critical to advancing humanity’s reach beyond Earth, and we are honored to support this exciting mission,” said SpaceX senior director of commercial sales Stephanie Bednarek in a statement announcing the deal with Astrobotic.

Astrobotic also has a contract with NASA to send a Peregrine lunar lander to the Moon later this year. Its more lightweight Peregrine landers can deliver a payload of up to 90 kilograms to the lunar surface.