Skok, J.R. - Mojave Volatiles Prospector – Water in the Mojave Desert as an Analog to the Lunar Poles

The Mojave Volatiles Prospector (MVP) project is a science-driven field program with the goal to produce critical knowledge for conducting robotic exploration of the Moon. MVP will feed science, payload, and operational lessons learned to the development of a real-time, short-duration lunar polar volatiles prospecting mission.  MVP will achieve this through a simulated lunar rover mission to investigate the composition and distribution of surface bound and sub-surface volatiles in a natural and a priori unknown environment, improving our understanding of how to find, characterize, and access volatiles on the Moon.

The science of MVP is driven by the possibility that water ice deposits exist in permanently shaded regions (PSRs) near both lunar poles (Watson et al. 1961; Arnold 1979).  The floors of such craters should be extremely cold (<100K) (Vasavada et al. 1999). LRO Diviner has measured some PSRs colder than 40K. The Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) mission measured ~5 wt% water in Cabeus crater (Colaprete et al. 2010). However, the distribution of water and other volatiles is unknown at scales less than a few tens of km. If cold-trapped volatiles are concentrated in limited areas, orbital techniques will not be sufficient to localize them. Only by exploring the surface can we determine the presence, abundance, composition and spatial distribution of cold-trapped volatiles.

MVP will integrate three instruments: the Near Infrared and Visible Spectrometer Subsystem (NIRVSS), Neutron Spectrometer Subsystem (NSS), and a downward facing GroundCam camera on the KREX-2 rover to investigate the relationship between the distribution of volatiles (detected by NIRVSS and NSS) and soil crust variation (observed by GroundCam).  Through this investigation, we will mature robotic in situ instruments and concepts of instrument operations, improve ground software tools for real time science, and carry out publishable research on the water cycle and its connection to geomorphology and mineralogy in desert environments.

Our field site is the Mojave Desert, selected for its low, naturally occurring water abundance. The Mojave typically has on the order of 2-6% water (Webb 2002), making it a suitable analog for this field test. NIRVSS and NSS are specifically designed for detecting low water abundances. 

A lunar polar rover mission is unlike prior human or robotic missions and requires a new concept of operations. The rover must navigate 3-5 km of terrain and examine multiple sites in a very short time (Heldmann et al. 2012).  Operational decisions must be made in real time, requiring constant situational awareness, fast data analysis and quick-turnaround decision support tools. This is unlike the daily command cycles and intermittent communications with Mars rovers, or rehearsed procedure execution of manned spaceflight. MVP will involve a small field team in the Mojave and a scientific and operational backroom team at NASA Ames.  The operational and communications architectures between these teams will serve as a foundation for the development of decisional frameworks and operational concepts of future lunar rover missions.