NASA is sending a lander to drill for ice on the moon’s south pole

NASA has chosen the landing site for a new lunar explorer: A robotic lander that will be sent to the moon’s south pole in an area near the Shackleton crater. Carrying three different technology demonstrations which aim to test out capabilities ahead of a crewed mission to the moon, the Nova-C lander will be built by the company Intuitive Machines.

Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lander with a depiction of NASA’s PRIME-1 attached to the spacecraft on the surface of the Moon.
Illustration of Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lander with a depiction of NASA’s Polar Resources Ice-Mining Experiment-1 (PRIME-1) attached to the spacecraft on the surface of the Moon. Intuitive Machines

NASA selected this area of the south pole because it is thought that there could be ice below the surface there, making it ideal for an ice-mining test. The Polar Resources Ice-Mining Experiment-1 (PRIME-1) experiment is a drill plus a mass spectrometer, which in combination will drill up to three feet into the surface and bring up samples of lunar soil, called regolith, and then evaluate whether the samples being extracted contain any water. The idea is to search for a source of water on the moon which could help sustain a crewed mission there under the Artemis program.

But there are practical considerations to choosing a landing site, not only considering the potential presence of ice. The site also needed to be somewhere which receives enough sunlight to sustain a solar-powered mission and to have a clear line of sight to Earth for communications.

“PRIME-1 is permanently attached to Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lander, and finding a landing location where we might discover ice within three feet of the surface was challenging,” explained Dr. Jackie Quinn, PRIME-1 project manager at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “While there is plenty of sunlight to power the payloads, the surface gets too warm to sustain ice within reach of the PRIME-1 drill. We needed to find a ‘goldilocks’ site that gets just enough sunlight to meet mission requirements while also being a safe place to land with good Earth communications.”

A data visualization showing the area near the lunar South Pole on a ridge not far from Shackleton selected as the landing site for Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lander.
A data visualization showing the area near the lunar South Pole on a ridge not far from Shackleton – the large crater on the right – selected as the landing site for Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lander, which will deliver technology demonstrations to the Moon’s surface under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative. NASA

The landing site was selected by looking at remote sensing data of the moon which was used to create “ice-mining maps.” In addition to the drill, Nova-C will also carry a 4G/LTE communications network test from Nokia and a small explorer robot from Intuitive Machines. The robot, called Micro-Nova, will explore a nearby crater and collect pictures and science data.

The mission, designated IM-1, is expected to launch in early 2022.

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