NASA awarded Pittsburgh-based space robotics startup Astrobotic with nearly $200 million on Thursday for a key lunar mission, which will hunt for deposits of frozen water the moon.
Astrobotic will be responsible for launching the rover, called VIPER, and landing it near the moon's south pole in late 2023. The company will use its Griffin lander to deliver the VIPER rover to the lunar surface under the $199.5 million contract. Astrobotic has 74 employees on staff, the company told CNBC, working on its Peregrine and Griffin lunar landers.
VIPER, which stands for "Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover," is a robot that will roam the surface of the moon and represents the first such "resource-mapping mission," NASA says. The mission is expected to spend 100 days exploring the lunar surface, searching for collections of water ice and other possible resources.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has often pointed to the existence of "hundreds of billions of tons of water ice on the surface of the moon" as a main driver behind the agency's goal to establish a moon base. The agency plans to land astronauts on the moon by 2024.
"The VIPER rover and the commercial partnership that will deliver it to the Moon are a prime example of how the scientific community and U.S. industry are making NASA's lunar exploration vision a reality," Bridenstine said in a statement on Thursday.
The VIPER mission falls under NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, which Astrobotic has previously won funding under. Astrobotic won a nearly $80 million CLPS award last year, which will use the company's Peregrine lunar lander to put 14 research payloads on the moon's surface in July 2021. Astrobotic will use a United Launch Alliance Vulcan rocket to launch the 2021 mission. Astrobotic CEO John Thornton said during a press conference that the choice on which rocket will launch the VIPER mission will likely be announced later this year.
Subscribe to CNBC PRO for exclusive insights and analysis, and live business day programming from around the world.