By Richard Tribou

Orlando Sentinel

ORLANDO, Fla. — Before NASA sends the next man and first woman to the moon, it’s sending a rover with a drill, and it’s looking for water.

That is, frozen water at the moon’s south pole.

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine announced the new mission while speaking at 70th International Astronautical Conference in Washington on Friday, saying the rover named VIPER, as in Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, will be sent to the moon by December 2022, two years ahead of the agency’s goal for human’s return to the lunar surface.

It will be launched by a commercial partner through NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services contract, but which company has that honor has yet to be determined.

“We’ve got a number of companies that we believe can take us to the moon where NASA is not purchasing and owning and operating the hardware, but instead, we’re buying a service to get activities to the surface of the moon,” Bridenstine said.

The payload, though, is in the works at NASA’s Ames Research Center, and the reason behind it is to get a head start on mapping what Bridenstine said is hundreds of millions of tons of ice water at the moon’s south pole.

“We’re going to be able to characterize the water ice and ultimately drill and find out just how is the water ice embedded in the regolith on the moon,” Bridenstine said. “Why is this important? Because water ice represents something significant: life support. Water ice is oxygen to breathe, it’s water to drink, hydrogen and oxygen, when you crack it into its parts, hydrogen and oxygen is the same rocket fuel that powered the space shuttles. It’s the same rocket fuel that powers the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.”

The rover will be armed with a 1-meter drill called TRIDENT, which stands for The Regolith and Ice Drill for Exploring New Terrain. TRIDENT samples will be analyzed by a couple of instruments to determine the composition and concentration of the ice water, so that when human exploration eventually makes it to the south pole, it knows best where to look.

“Since the confirmation of lunar water-ice 10 years ago, the question now is if the moon could really contain the amount of resources we need to live off-world,” VIPER mission project manager Daniel Andrews said. “This rover will help us answer the many questions we have about where the water is, and how much there is for us to use.”

The golf cart-size rover will use a sensor that can detect water presence below the surface and test samples in different parts of the south pole with different levels of sunlight over 100 days after its arrival.

“It’s incredibly exciting to have a rover going to the new and unique environment of the south pole to discover where exactly we can harvest that water,” VIPER project scientist Anthony Colaprete said. “VIPER will tell us which locations have the highest concentrations and how deep below the surface to go to get access to water.”

Bridenstine pointed out that for 40 years, the space community assumed the moon was a dry rock and it wasn’t until 2009 when NASA crashed a rocket into a large crater near the south pole that it was able to detect the presence of water ice, which has since be augmented with more data from orbiting probes.

It’s been one of the agency’s driving forces for its plan to return to the lunar surface and its goal of getting to Mars.

“We are going to utilize the resources of the moon to learn how to live and work for long periods of time and then ultimately we’re going to take what we build, what we understand — the technologies, the capabilities, the architecture — and as much as possible, we are building the architecture to be replicable at Mars,” Bridenstine said.