Craters riddle the moons North Pole with the largest creating large dark grey pits. The darkest colors are at the poles, since there is less sunlight that illuminates it. The further you move out from the poles to the edge of the captured image, the lighter it becomes.
An artist's concept of LADEE spacecraft orbiting near the surface of the moon.
Illustration of NASA's Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) on the surface of the Moon

Lunar Discovery and Exploration

In the Science Mission Directorate (SMD), the Exploration Science Strategy Integration Office (ESSIO) ensures science is infused into all aspects of lunar exploration.

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To achieve an innovative and sustainable program of scientific and human exploration with commercial and international partners, NASA established the Lunar Discovery and Exploration Program (LDEP) within the Science Mission Directorate.

The LDEP portfolio includes the establishment of commercial contracts for lunar landing transportation services though the CLPS (Commercial Lunar Payload Services) program; the development of lunar science instruments; the development of lunar SmallSats; continued operations of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter; and the development of long-duration lunar rovers that will utilize commercially developed landers to get to the lunar surface.

The payloads and services enabled by LDEP will address the nation’s lunar exploration, science, and technology demonstration goals. The LDEP office integrates and coordinates the Artemis sciences efforts across the SMD divisions, across NASA directorates, and with other US and international agencies. LDEP is executed through the Exploration Science Strategy and Integration Office (ESSIO).

The Planetary Science Division currently manages two flight projects funded by ESSIO.

  • The Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER), is a lunar volatiles detection and measurement mission that will be launched as a payload on the CLPS (Commercial Lunar Payload Services) provided Astrobotic’s Griffin lander to the lunar south pole. VIPER has two primary objectives: characterize the distribution and physical state of lunar polar water and other volatiles in lunar cold traps and regolith to understand their origin; and provide the data necessary for NASA to evaluate the potential return of In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) from the lunar polar regions.
  • Lunar Trailblazer, a mission selected under NASA’s Small Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration (SIMPLEx) program, carries two instruments to achieve its science objectives: the High-resolution Volatiles and Minerals Moon Mapper (HVM3) from JPL, and the Lunar Thermal Mapper (LTM) from the University of Oxford. When used in conjunction, these two instruments provide the ability to simultaneously identify the various forms of water on the Moon, as well as mineralogy and temperature. Lunar Trailblazer has four primary objectives: determine the form, abundance, and distribution of H2O and OH in sunlit terrains; assess time variability of lunar volatiles; determine the form and abundance of ice, bound H2O, and OH in permanently shadowed regions (PSRs); and understand how localized gradients in albedo and surface temperature affect ice and OH/H2O concentration.

In addition, the Planetary Science Division manages and funds LunaH-Map, another SIMPLEx mission which was launched with Artemis I in November 2022. Like VIPER and Lunar Trailblazer, LunaH-Map was designed to help us understand the story of lunar volatiles. A miniaturized, fully functional interplanetary spacecraft the size of a shoebox, LunaH-Map will map hydrogen enrichments within permanently shadowed regions of the lunar south pole. The spacecraft will enter a low altitude, elliptical polar orbit and measure the abundance of hydrogen using a compact neutron spectrometer. The science objective is to make neutron measurements at low altitude over the lunar south pole to allow LunaH-Map to constrain the hydrogen within permanently shadowed regions at unprecedented spatial resolution.

Beyond our lunar robotic exploration missions, PSD and ESSIO are working together to maximize the science return of Artemis. The return of humans to the Moon requires and enables greater scientific understanding of Earth’s natural satellite. The Planetary Science Division is helping to reduce risk and prepare the way for human return to the Moon, while also working to maximize the opportunities provided by the Artemis program for science.

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