NASA Picks Astrobotic to Carry VIPER Ice-Hunting Moon Rover

After sending four rovers to Mars — with a fifth scheduled to launch in July — NASA announced on Thursday a contract for putting its first wheeled robot on the moon.

Astrobotic Technology Inc. of Pittsburgh won a $199.5 million contract to deliver the robotic explorer to the moon in late 2023. The price includes the rocket to launch the mission and the lander that will set the rover down near the moon’s South Pole.

The rover — the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER — is the latest in a series of robotic missions that NASA is financing as part of its renewed interest in the moon.

For Astrobotic, NASA’s newfound focus has changed and accelerated its business.

The company was founded 13 years ago in hopes of winning the Google Lunar X Prize, a competition for the first private spacecraft to land on the moon. That competition expired in 2018 without a winner, but even before then Astrobotic decided to focus on winning commercial payload business.

Astrobotic already had commitments to take about a dozen payloads to the moon, including a Mexican space agency instrument and time capsules. But the NASA contract filled most of the remaining spaces and helped accelerate the development of the market for going to the moon.

“It’s dramatically enabling that to have NASA as the biggest customer,” John Thornton, Astrobotic’s chief executive, said in an interview. “It’s a key driver.”

When the rover launches in 2023, it will sit on the company’s Griffin lander, which is larger than the spacecraft that is to fly the first mission next year. Once on the surface, the rover will drive down one of two ramps and start its search for water.

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