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

a rectangular-bodied rover with three visible ribbed wheels, shines two lights from the top of a short mast at the top front of its body. It's visible side is a solar panel. The lights illuminate the grey surface immediately in front of the rover. A black sky hangs above.
An artist's concept of the completed design of NASA’s Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER. VIPER will get a close-up view of the location and concentration of ice and other resources at the Moon's South Pole, bringing us a significant step closer to NASA’s ultimate goal of a long-term presence on the Moon – making it possible to eventually explore Mars and beyond. (Image credit: NASA/Daniel Rutter)

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.

NASA’s VIPER robotic Moon rover stands taller than ever after engineers integrated its mast in a clean room at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.  (Image credit: NASA/Josh Valcarce)

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.

A team of engineers lifts the mast into place atop of NASA’s VIPER robotic Moon rover in a clean room at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.  (Image credit: NASA/Helen Arase Vargas)

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.

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at:

Meredith Garofalo
Contributing Writer

Meredith is a regional Murrow award-winning Certified Broadcast Meteorologist and science/space correspondent. She most recently was a Freelance Meteorologist for NY 1 in New York City & the 19 First Alert Weather Team in Cleveland. A self-described "Rocket Girl," Meredith's personal and professional work has drawn recognition over the last decade, including the inaugural Valparaiso University Alumni Association First Decade Achievement Award, two special reports in News 12's Climate Special "Saving Our Shores" that won a Regional Edward R. Murrow Award, multiple Fair Media Council Folio & Press Club of Long Island awards for meteorology & reporting, and a Long Island Business News & NYC TV Week "40 Under 40" Award.