NASA chooses landing location at the moon's south pole for ice-drilling robot.


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An illustration of the private Nova-C moon lander built by Intuitive Machines with NASA’s Polar Resources Ice-Mining Experiment-1 (PRIME-1) attached to the spacecraft. (Image credit: Intuitive Machines)

NASA has set its eyes on the moon’s south pole in its hunt for ice.

This week, the space agency and the Intuitive startup Machines identified Shackleton Crater landing location in the moon’s south pole for a small lander slated to launch next year. The site is named the “Shackleton connecting ridge,” and NASA data indicate ice lying below the surface, the agency stated in a statement Wednesday (Nov. 3). (Nov. 3).

The robotic mission comprises NASA’s Polar Resources Ice-Mining Experiment-1 (PRIME-1) that needs solar power and a view of Earth for communications. The ridge zone should supply both, NASA added.

“Finding a landing place where we would locate ice within three feet of the surface was tough,” Jackie Quinn, PRIME-1 project manager at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, said in the release.

“There is enough sunshine to power the payloads, but the surface grows too hot to support ice within the PRIME-1 drill’s reach. A “Goldilocks” location had to be found to suit the mission’s needs while also being a secure area to land with adequate Earth connections.”

NASA sees the PRIME-1 mission as a vital step towards understanding harvesting resources from the lunar surface. The agency wants to land a series of extended human missions on the moon, known as Artemis, later in the 2020s. But to make such an endeavor viable, NASA says, scientists and engineers need to practice in-situ resource utilization (ISRU), which is the practice of exploiting resources in the local environment.

PRIME-1 seeks to launch a drill named The Regolith Ice Drill for Exploring New Terrain (TRIDENT), which will try to probe as far as 3 feet (nearly 1 meter) into the surface. The experiment also features a mass spectrometer that will detect gases TRIDENT may reveal from volatiles, which are elements and compounds that readily transition from gas to liquid to solid.

This data visualization image from NASA shows the area of a ridge near the lunar south pole’s Shackleton Crater (seen at far right). NASA has picked this spot to land its ice-drilling Prime-1 experiment on Intuitive Machine’s Nova-C lander in 2022. (Image credit: NASA)

NASA wants to utilize the “lessons learned” from PRIME-1 to prepare for a more ambitious lunar rover mission, the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER), which will also arrive near the south pole in 2023. In September, the agency revealed VIPER’s landing location would be slightly west of Nobile, a crater near the moon’s south pole.

The Intuitive Machines lander, known as Nova-C, will house various technology demonstration tests. For example, Nokia will test a “space-hardened” 4G and LTE network to attempt high-speed networking on the surface. At the same time, an Intuitive Machines rover-hopper named Micro-Nova will try to gather up photographs and science data within a nearby crater.

Together with Astrobotic and Orbit Beyond, Intuitive Machines were chosen in May 2019 for NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) project. CLPS wants to perform science experiments and technology demos on the moon via commercial firms. Selection for CLPS placed organizations in a pool of eligible candidates, from which NASA may draw for future missions.

NASA then announced in October 2020 that it would pay Intuitive Machines up to $47 million to bring PRIME-1 to the surface. Then in August this year, Intuitive Machines said it would task a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to launch the lander to space and point it towards the moon.

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