NASA has captured the moon’s south pole in stunning detail as scientists learn as much as possible about the shadowy region before the Artemis 3 spacecraft takes astronauts there in the future.
The images were collected by a NASA-operated hypersensitive optical camera called ShadowCam. The instrument is carried around the Moon by the Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter (KPLO), also known as Danuri, built by the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KRI). The craft, carrying five Korean science instruments, launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in August 2022 and entered lunar orbit the following December, when ShadowCam began imaging the moon.
Being more light sensitive than other lunar cameras, ShadowCam is ideal for high-resolution imaging of areas of the Moon that do not receive direct sunlight. By capturing images of the shadowiest regions of the lunar south pole, ShadowCam lays the groundwork for Artemis 3 and future robotic missions.
Related: NASA’s Artemis 3 mission: Landing humans on the Moon
One of the features the camera was able to capture in greater detail than ever before was the permanently shadowed wall and floor of Shackleton Crater, located near the moon’s south pole.
Shadowgame looks at the path created when a boulder rolled down its slope in a steep-walled 13-mile (21-kilometer) wide, 2.6-mile (4.2-kilometer) deep crater. Observations such as these can help characterize the shapes and velocities of rocks and track-forming rocks in the region.
Even with ShadowCam’s impressive imaging capabilities, the instrument still needs help studying some of the moon’s deep shadow craters. One source it can use is the „Earthshine” light reflected from our planet onto the Moon.
Although direct sunlight on the moon is ten times brighter than the light provided by Earthshine, light from Earth enabled ShadowCam to test the sensitivity of the camera on the moon’s equatorial region.
Earthshine allowed scientists to image the interior of Bruce Crater, located on the moon’s equator. ShadowCam was able to see bright streamers formed by landslides on crater walls.
The central peak of Aristarchus Crater was also captured with the Shadow Cam using Earthshine as a secondary light source.
There is another type of secondary lighting that ShadowCam can use to capture areas of the moon that are not exposed to direct sunlight. It relies on light reflected by the Sun from the Moon’s own geological features, such as mountains and crater walls at the poles that rise above the Moon’s surface.
The camera used this technique to capture an image of the rim of Marvin Crater, about 16 miles (26 kilometers) from the moon’s south pole. It showed a wide area surrounding the 2.85-mile-wide crater (4.6 kilometers), part of which is lit by direct sunlight. The contrast between the two areas illustrates the sensitivity of ShadowCam.
The ShadowCam images come on the heels of the successful Artemis 1 mission, during which NASA tested equipment that would carry astronauts to the Moon, including the Space Launch System rocket (SLS) and the Orion crew spacecraft.
The next major test of the Artemis architecture will be the Artemis 2 mission, which will carry the Orion spacecraft its first crew into space. The astronauts named as the Artemis 2 crew are: Commander Reed Wiseman, Pilot Victor Glover, Mission Specialist 1 Christina Hammock Koch and Mission Specialist 2 Jeremy Hansen. The crew will conduct a 10-day test flight near the Moon, but will not land on the lunar surface.
When the Artemis 3 astronauts finally explore the moon’s south pole, including the first woman and the first person of color to set foot on the lunar surface, ShadowCam won’t be able to capture images if they were in direct sunlight. Wiped out. The camera can capture astronauts walking on the surface on a lunar night illuminated only by Earthshine.
If all goes according to plan, Artemis 2 is expected to launch in late 2024. Artemis 3 will continue in 2025 based on the current timeline.
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