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SpaceX will launch Astrobotic lander to the moon with NASA's ice-sniffing VIPER rover

NASA has a launcher for its ice-hunting rover that will land on the moon in 2023.

SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket — the same booster type that once sent the "Starman" mannequin to space (opens in new tab) in a Tesla Roadster — will send the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (opens in new tab) (VIPER) to the moon, on private company Astrobotic's lunar landing system. 

Astrobotic's contract with NASA required the Pennsylvania-based company to independently select a launch contractor, and it chose SpaceX (opens in new tab) through a competitive procurement. 

As with previous Falcon Heavy (opens in new tab) missions, SpaceX will launch VIPER from Launch Complex 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center (opens in new tab) near Orlando, Florida — a longtime launching location of moon missions, including the Apollo missions between 1969 and 1972.

Related: NASA picks SpaceX Falcon Heavy to launch 1st Gateway station pieces to the moon (opens in new tab)

A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket lifts off from Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center on Feb. 6, 2018.  (Image credit: SpaceX)

VIPER is a key element of NASA's long-term plans to plant humans on the moon later in the decade — as soon as 2024 if the Donald Trump-era deadline remains under the new Joe Biden presidential administration. The NASA Artemis program (opens in new tab) will see crews of humans working alongside robotics to explore the moon and its resources, using NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Services (opens in new tab) (CLPS) program.

Key among the Artemis program's goals is to learn how to live off the moon sustainably, potentially using resources such as lunar water ice (opens in new tab) at the moon's south pole to help astronauts and machinery function adequately for longer missions on the lunar surface. Humans last visited the moon during the Apollo missions (opens in new tab), only staying for a few days at a time and bringing everything they needed from Earth.

"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 and NASA's CLPS program," Stephanie Bednarek, SpaceX senior director of commercial sales, said in a statement (opens in new tab).

Astrobotic received a task order from NASA (opens in new tab) in 2020 to send VIPER to the same approximate region as the first planned lunar landing mission with astronauts, called Artemis 3, in the south pole region of the moon. The mission plan calls for the Falcon Heavy to launch Astrobotic's Griffin lunar lander towards the moon; Griffin will then touch down on the surface and provide a platform from which VIPER can disembark to move around autonomously.

No American hardware has landed softly on the moon for decades, but VIPER could be Astrobotic's second effort if its Peregrine lander touches down safely in July (opens in new tab) at Lacus Mortis, a hexagonal-shaped plain on the near side of moon. Peregrine, if successful, would be the first-ever commercial American lander on the moon — and the first United States spacecraft to touch down at all since Apollo 17 in 1972.

For VIPER, Astrobotic said it was looking for a "complete mission solution" to make sure that all pieces of the launching and landing process are ready to bring the rover to the south pole. 

"SpaceX's Falcon Heavy completes our … solution by providing a proven launch vehicle to carry us on our trajectory to the moon. SpaceX has the team, vehicle, and facilities to make this happen," Daniel Gillies, mission director for Astrobotic, said in the same statement.

The Griffin lunar lander is going through qualification testing and should be finished that process around the end of 2021, Astrobotic added in the statement. Griffin will be a hefty lander capable of supporting the 1,000 lbs. (450 kilograms) VIPER (opens in new tab); Astrobotic's overall fixed-cost contract with NASA (opens in new tab) for the mission is $199.5 million, covering everything from launch to landing.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she also tackles topics like diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, three space shuttle missions in Florida, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Her latest book, Leadership Moments from NASA, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.