New NASA Moon Maps Help Developers Plan Lunar Road Trip for VIPER’s Artemis Mission


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Animation of NASA’s Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) on the floor of the Moon. Credit: NASA Ames/Daniel Rutter

As any seasoned road-tripper is aware of, to get essentially the most out of an journey, an excellent map helps. It’s no totally different for NASA’s first lunar robotic rover deliberate for supply to the Moon in late 2023 to seek for ice and different assets on and beneath the lunar floor. The Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER, is a part of the company’s Artemis program. Without a Moon journey information, VIPER’s mission planners are creating new excessive decision, digital elevation maps of the lunar floor.

When outfitted with these maps, the rover will likely be in a greater place to soundly and effectively traverse the Moon whereas searching for assets on the lunar South Pole. Ice is a useful resource of specific scientific curiosity as it might have purposes if present in area and transformed to different assets to additional our exploration into the photo voltaic system reminiscent of oxygen and rocket gas.

At about three-foot (one-meter) scale, these maps present a 3D mannequin of huge swaths of the terrain on the lunar South Pole and present the ever-changing lighting and temperature situations brought on by lengthy shadows that sweep throughout the panorama. 


Illustration of NASA’s Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) on the floor of the Moon. Credit: NASA Ames/Daniel Rutter

Besides stopping the rover from tipping down the sides of steep-sided craters, this up-close view of the Moon’s floor supplies mission planners important data to make sure the rover’s solar-powered batteries keep charged and information the rover towards protected spots to hibernate throughout communication blackouts with mission operations on Earth.

“We are sending VIPER to one of the Moon’s most dynamic environments, and the rover needs to be able to take what the Moon gives,” mentioned Anthony Colaprete, VIPER’s venture scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. “That’s why we are creating these unique maps – at human scale – to help us carefully plan routes for the rover while operating safely and collecting the best science possible.”

Already, the maps are revealing new options of scientific curiosity on the Moon’s floor, together with quite a few “mini cold traps” – that are shadowed pockets on the lunar floor 6 to 16 toes (2 to five meters) throughout – that could possibly be chilly sufficient for ice to doubtlessly gather. These micro chilly traps supply areas to discover along with the a lot deeper and older craters which can be a spotlight of the VIPER mission.

Shackleton Crater Rim Moon

A spectacular indirect view of the rim of Shackleton Crater close to the South Pole of the Moon. The crater is about 13 miles (21 kilometers) in diameter. While no location on the Moon stays repeatedly illuminated, three factors on the rim stay collectively sunlit for greater than 90 % of the 12 months. These factors are surrounded by topographic depressions that by no means obtain daylight, creating chilly traps that may seize ices. The slim angle digital camera aboard NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter took this picture on August 1, 2006. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

“We used to think of water ice collecting only in deep, dark craters on the Moon,” mentioned Colaprete. “But we now believe that even small, shadowed craters can be cold enough to retain water molecules. These small cold traps are much more common than their larger counterparts, so understanding how they may store water is important to answering the broader question of how water behaves on the Moon.” 

To create the elevation maps, a workforce at Ames is utilizing NASA’s open supply Stereo Pipeline software program device in addition to the processing energy of Ames’ Pleiades supercomputer to layer hundreds of satellite tv for pc pictures taken by cameras aboard the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Engineers are pairing these highly effective instruments and experience with a photograph processing functionality known as photoclinometry. This approach, also referred to as “shape from shading,” combines the identified angles of daylight with the greyscale ranges of many two-dimensional pictures to deduce the three-dimensional shapes of the lunar floor. The ensuing mannequin of the lunar terrain permits engineers to calculate how gentle and shadows play throughout the floor at any time up to now or future. For instance, utilizing the mannequin they’ll predict the lighting on the time and place the rover will land, and plan the rover’s actions to maintain it in daylight and keep away from the shadows.

NASA Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover

Illustration of NASA’s Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) on the floor of the Moon. Credit: NASA Ames/Daniel Rutter

With the lighting situations identified, the workforce can create detailed temperature maps throughout the various terrain, on the floor, and as much as a bit greater than eight toes (2.5 meters) beneath. Temperatures can swing broadly between 400 levels beneath zero and 170 levels Fahrenheit, making the Moon’s floor a checkerboard of probably promising and most unlikely places to detect ice. Equipped with these new maps, the workforce can choose spots the place ice could possibly be and ship VIPER to pattern and confirm whether or not ice seems, and if that’s the case, how steady it’s in varied lunar situations.

“These high-resolution maps have entirely changed our thinking,” mentioned Kimberly Ennico Smith, a deputy venture scientist for VIPER at Ames. “We’re beginning to see how extremely varied the soil conditions on the Moon are, even within areas we once thought as fairly uniform. This will allow us to pinpoint the rover’s drill sites much more carefully and lead us to collect even better science data.”   

The VIPER workforce members accountable for conserving the rover buzzing alongside have a eager curiosity in seeing what the rover will face day-to-day – or relatively minute-to-minute. 

“Shadows move around the South Pole of the Moon at about the same speed the rover drives,” mentioned Mark Shirley, mission operations planning lead at Ames. “We have to plan ahead to avoid VIPER being overtaken by darkness – there’s not much room for error.” 

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