NASA's Viper moon rover gets its 'neck' and 'head' installed for mission later this year

NASA”s Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) has earned its “neck” and “head,” aka its “mast,” meaning it now stands proudly at 8 feet (2.4 meters) tall.

The photo below,  taken in a clean room at NASA’s Johnson Space Center earlier this month, shows progress on quite the impressive robot. It is expected to take a trip to the South Pole of the moon later this year, embarking on a 100-day mission. The mission  will involve learning more about water on the moon and gleaning what other resources may be available in the region. VIPER may also help scientists understand what conditions astronauts should expect during NASA‘s future Artemis missions. These missions are part of a program that aims to bring boots back to the moon as well as send the first woman and first person of color to the lunar surface.

A foil-wrapped robotic explorer is stowed on a yellow mounting pad. a brass-pipe-looking frame of supports circles the body in a hexagonal pattern, with a rectangular shelf resting flat above. A mast in the top middle front supports an apparatus. The rover stands in a white room with a white floor and white ceiling. A NASA logo is painted on the wall in the background, above mounted data displays with red numbers.

The rover’s design will aid the team of scientists controlling it as they face the challenges of the lunar surface. For instance, VIPER will need to navigate around big rocks, dip in and out of craters and meander through dead zones where communication could temporarily cease for extended periods of time. On board VIPER will be dual stereo navigation cameras, low- and high-gain antennas to connect with Deep Space Network (DSN) antennas on Earth, and a set of headlights — the first to ever sit on a planetary rover.

Related: NASA’s ice-hunting VIPER moon rover getting ready to slither to the launch pad

Here’s what each aspect will do.

With its stereo navigation cameras, the rover will be able to “see” with a pan range of up to 400 degrees, referring to how far it can rotate, and tilt vertically in both directions at a maximum angle of 75 degrees. This will allow the cameras to sweep the surface and detect rocks and craters of all sizes from as far as 50 feet (18.3 meters) away! And remember, as it measures to the height of a standard home ceiling at 8 feet (2.4 meters), this machine will have quite the view.

Four white-coated, yellow hard hat-wearing technicians assemble a robotic explorer in a white room.

Four white-coated, yellow hard hat-wearing technicians assemble a robotic explorer in a white room.

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VIPER will be riding in style with headlights that can illuminate its path and, like a radar detector, provide a heads up to objects out ahead that could pose challenges or need to be navigated around. The high-gain antenna will be the major player in VIPER’s toolkit, transmitting data from the 240,000 miles (384,000 km) between the moon and Earth so it can communicate with its team and stay on track with mission goals. The DSN will serve as an in-between for the data and radio waves connecting the rover with the Multi-Mission Operations and Control Center at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley.

Later this year, VIPER will take its flight to the moon on Astrobotic‘s Griffin lunar lander, perched atop a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket; if all goes to plan, it should reach its destination at Mons Mouton near the moon’s South Pole by the end of the year.

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