With the help of artificial intelligence, an international research team led by ETH Zurich has explored the permanently shaded regions of the moon. The information they obtained about the characteristics of the surface of the region will help determine suitable sites for future lunar missions.
It was in 1972 when the last humans landed on the moon. After that, the Apollo program was discontinued. But interest in the moon was raised again. With China landing a robot — and raising its flag — on the far side of the moon in 2020, NASA plans its Artemis program to land in the lunar south pole region, likely between 2025 and 2028. The astronauts will then focus their exploration in this region.
The amazing potential of ice
What makes the Antarctic region so fascinating is that because the sun hovers near the horizon due to the axial tilt of the moon, the sunken floors of impact craters never see sunlight and remain in permanent shade. So these shaded regions are incredibly cool – even cooler than Pluto’s surface, with temperatures ranging between -170°C and 240°C and approaching absolute zero. At higher temperatures, the ice would solidify and very quickly turn into gas in the vacuum of space. But in this extreme cold, water vapor and other volatiles can become trapped or frozen inside or even on the moon’s soil.
This possibility of ice makes these shaded crater floors interesting locations to explore. Not only may there be clues on ice about how water is incorporated into the Earth-Moon system, but it could also prove to be an important resource for future astronauts to use for consumption, radiation protection, or as a propellant for rockets.
No water ice detected yet
We don’t know much about the moon’s south polar region. But an international team of researchers has now managed to shed some light by developing a way to better understand this region. Their work appeared in the latest issue of Geophysical Research Letters. The lead author is Valentin Beckel, a postdoctoral researcher in the Chair of Glaciology and previously Head of Engineering Geology at ETH Zurich.
The team used images captured by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera, which has been documenting the moon’s surface for more than a decade. This camera captures photons that bounce off shaded areas of nearby mountains and crater walls. Now, with the help of artificial intelligence, the team has succeeded in using this data so efficiently that these previously dark areas are now visible. After analyzing their images, the team determined that no water ice was visible in these shadowed regions of the Moon – although its presence has been proven by other instruments. “There is no evidence of pure surface ice within the shaded areas, which means that any ice must be mixed with lunar soil or placed below the surface,” Bickle says.
Work methods planning
The findings published in the new paper are part of a comprehensive investigation of potential Artemis landing sites and exploration options on the lunar surface conducted by the LPI-JSC Lunar Science and Exploration Center. So far, the team has examined more than six potential landing sites for Artemis missions. The study’s findings could have direct implications for future missions, including Intuitive Machines Mission 2, which will be conducted on a commercial basis by a startup. This robotic mission in the spring of 2023 aims to collect and analyze the first soil samples from shaded regions of the moon’s south pole, before astronauts reach the moon. “We discovered a number of previously unknown shaded craters and other surface features that could be critical to the location where the hopper lands,” Bickle says.
These new research results will allow for accurate planning of routes to and through permanently shaded areas, which will greatly reduce the risks to Artemis astronauts and robotic explorers. Thanks to the new images, astronauts can target specific locations to sample and assess ice distribution.
NASA Artemis1 to take the ASU CubeSat into space
VT Bickel et al, Cryogeomorphic characterization of shaded regions in the Artemis exploration area, Geophysical Research Letters (2022). doi: 10.1029/2022GL099530
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