(ORDO NEWS) — The most mysterious region of the Moon is not its reverse side, but the regions of permanent shadow near the poles, writes The Atlantic.
Using the ShadowCam camera, scientists will take pictures of the region’s craters and are expected to find water in them.
Forget the far side of the moon and take a closer look at its poles
The far side of the moon is shrouded in a halo of mystery.
It is always out of sight, it never turns to the Earth – which is probably why it has earned the confusing nickname “dark side” (as if sunlight never hits its surface, when in fact it does not).
We can’t see this part of the moon unless we get on a spaceship and fly there.
However, the truly mysterious parts of the moon are not at all on its far side. They are at its poles, where the sun always hangs near the horizon.
This lighting regime creates special conditions: hundreds of craters at the north and south poles never receive direct sunlight, so they never feel the heat of our star.
In the language of astronomy, they are regions of permanent shadow and have remained so – dark and cold – for many billions of years.
The astronauts were able to see the loose surface of the Moon up close, and the space probes that watched it from above were able to map almost every part of it.
However, no one has yet been able to look deep into these pitch-black craters. Astronomers today hope that, armed with the right tools,
Of course, not liquid water, since it is impossible to find it on the surface of the Moon, but ice crystals.
Scientists believe that water has been present on our satellite for a very long time, and that at the dawn of time it was brought there by comets and asteroids.
(According to scientists, water appeared on Earth in the same way.) As a result of collisions of the Moon with asteroids and comets, tiny particles of ice scattered on its surface.
Those particles that hit the sunlight quickly disappeared.
However, those pieces of ice that may have ended up in areas of permanent shadow should have survived – and from then on forever sparkle surrounded by cold landscapes.
Such conditions are close to ideal: according to Prasun Mahanti (Prasun Mahanti), a researcher at the University of Arizona, in some areas where the sun’s rays never fall, even colder than on Pluto.
Scientists and engineers have tried to explore regions of permanent shadow on several space missions, Parvathy Prem, a planetary scientist at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, told me.
They bounced radar waves off the Moon’s surface, trying to determine whether the landscape hidden from our eyes is made of stone or ice.
They did the same with lasers to get some idea of the hidden areas of the surface topography.
In 2009, a spacecraft launched a projectile into the south pole of the moon, after which it found a distinct signature of water in a column of soil rising up.
However, none of those missions involved photographing areas of permanent shadow using tools such as the ShadowCam, NASA‘s new camera that began orbiting the moon in December while aboard a Korean spacecraft.
Every day, Mariah Heck, an assistant research analyst at Arizona State University, programs the ShadowCam to take pictures of those dark areas.
In the coming years, the university team plans to take detailed photographs of all known areas of permanent shadow on the Moon, allowing for the first time in history to find out what is there.
The camera has already made it possible to look inside one crater near the south pole of the moon and find there a curious previously unknown small groove in the smooth ground – a trace of some kind of boulder that rolled down the slope.
Such a picture can be appreciated even by those people who have nothing to do with astronomy. “It’s amazing to finally see areas of permanent shadow at a wavelength that the human eye can see,” said Prem.
How can you light up a pitch-black hole in the moon’s surface? Not at all by the spotlight beam built into the spacecraft, as I assumed at first.
Like other cameras that have captured the Moon’s surface, ShadowCam uses sunlight reflected by landscape features such as crater walls.
“Imagine standing in the shade of a tree, but you can still see what’s on the ground thanks to all the light that’s bouncing off things around you,” Heck explained.
The ShadowCam’s sensitivity is more than 200 times higher than its predecessors, which means it does a better job of capturing dim light, allowing it to see details hidden in the dark.
“We are seeing the Moon in a way no one has ever seen before,” the scientists assured me.
The researchers did not expect that they would be able to fix signs of the presence of ice crystals in the first image of the ShadowCam, which captures the part of the surface where it is not cold enough for this.
But there are still many places to check out. Scientists are conducting laboratory experiments on Earth to determine how much frozen water must be present in the lunar soil to be visible from space, Prem said.
“The amount of water ice that we can probably see on the surface in the visible spectrum probably won’t be very large.
But if there’s enough ice, we can see it,” she said. In other words, there doesn’t have to be a whole ice rink for scientists to see it.
Probably, the camera will be able to detect even traces of other types of ice: nitrogen, ammonia and methane. Or it will show that there is no water ice on the Moon at all.
Scientists hope this is not the case, but “there is such a possibility,” said ShadowCam’s deputy principal investigator. “We don’t really know what to expect.”
NASA aims to get to areas of permanent shadow soon.
As part of the Apollo successor Artemis program, the agency plans to send a lunar rover to the moon’s south pole next year and a new generation of astronauts later this decade.
Apollo astronauts landed on sites near the sun-drenched equator that were considered safer for short missions. But the next generation of astronauts will go to the South Pole.
And, if they can detect water ice, humans may later be able to return to the lunar surface already armed with technology to produce oxygen and hydrogen that can be used in life support systems and even as fuel.
This will give us the ability to stay on the lunar surface for weeks or even months at a time.
Now the prospect of extracting water from the Moon is still closer to science fiction than to reality.
For now, missions like ShadowCam will continue to explore it from afar, adding texture to scientists’ fantasies of the moon’s most mysterious shadows.
The idea of finally illuminating them seems almost supernatural to Prem, as if we are preparing to know something that should not be known.
“There is something sacred in those places that for billions of years remain dark, cold and invisible to human eyes,” she added.
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