The Moon’s Darkest Spots Are Permanent Shadows, But Now We Can Look At It

It is a common misconception that the moon has a “dark” side. Like a rotisserie chicken, the moon’s rotation creates a nice, even sunbath around the equator.

But there are pockets that never receive radiation: deep craters and smallpox at high latitudes, in the polar regions of the moon, with high walls protecting the crater floor from harsh solar radiation.

In these mysterious moonholes, which… maintain freezing temperatures around -163 degrees Celsius (-260 degrees Fahrenheit), scientists believe there could be all kinds of interesting things.

Well, mainly one: water ice, in pieces up to several meters thick.

We probably won’t know for sure until 2024, the year NASA plans to… send astronauts to our little moon buddy to check it out… but in the meantime, scientists have found a way to illuminate those shadowy areas for a taste.

HORUS image revealing the interior of a permanently shadowed crater. (VT Bickel, B. Moseley, E. Hauber, M. Shirley, J.-P. Williams and DA Kring)

The results could help decide which of the 13 candidate landing regions is most likely to yield the best science, as well as the permanent cold, dark places that represent one of the moon’s most mysterious boundaries.

First, the bad news: According to glaciologist Valentin Bickel of ETH Zurich in Switzerland, who led the study, it looks like we’ll have to dig for ice.

“There is no evidence of pure surface ice in the shaded areas, implying that ice must be mixed with lunar soil or lie below the surface,” Bikkel says:.

It may seem impossible to see in permanently shadowed areas on the moon; while direct sunlight may not reach the crater floors, the holes are not completely lightless.

Some of the light – not much, but some – does bounce off nearby mountains and crater walls into the shady areas and is picked up by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) are currently joyriding around the moon.

That data, unfortunately, is too noisy to discern details of what’s inside the craters.

Enter one machine learning algorithm called Hyper-effective nOise Removal U-net Software (HORUS). It can clean up the noise in the LRO data and reveal what lurks in the shadows on the moon.

The team deployed HORUS to image 44 permanently shaded regions over 40 meters (130 feet) in diameter in the Artemis Exploration Area. These images were able to resolve meter-scale features — information that will help plan lunar exploration, the researchers said.

“Visible routes to the permanently shaded areas can now be designed, greatly reducing the risks to Artemis astronauts and robotic explorers,” explains geologist David Kring from the Lunar and Planetary Institute and NASA.

This is especially valuable because the Artemis spacesuit offers only a limited amount of time in the cold of the shadowed craters; current designs allow for only two hours. Efficiently mapping out which features to visit and which to avoid will maximize those hours.

Robot missions will also benefit from the data.

Later this yearNASA will send a robotic lander to the moon’s south pole, not far from one of Artemis’ candidate landing regions. The findings of the team’s analysis of LRO data will also have implications for that mission.

“We are detecting an approximately 50-meter-wide crater and other surface features in a shaded area that could change the location where the Intuitive Machines’ hopper may turn ashore later this year,” Bikkel says:.

If you’re going to land on the moon, it’s best to know in advance what you’re getting into.

The team’s research was published in Geophysical Survey Letters.

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