NASA's LRO Sheds New Light on Darkened Craters at the Moon's Poles

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NASA has released a video, according to Space.com, showing how the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is examining the permanently shadowed regions of the lunar poles, using a variety of instruments.

Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter brings shadowed craters to light

The video posted on Space.com notes that because the axis of the moon is almost exactly perpendicular to the sun, some craters at the lunar poles, such as the Shackleton Crater at the moon's south-pole, are in permanent shadow. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is using a variety of instruments to examine those craters. The LOLA instrument uses a laser to make a topographical map of those darkened regions. The LAMP instrument uses star light, which does penetrate the shadowed craters, to illuminate them in greater detail. The DIVINER instrument measures temperature inside the craters, showing which parts are coldest, which may contain deposits of water ice and other volatiles. The LEND instrument measures the speed of neutrons emitting from the shadowed regions, indicating elements such as hydrogen that are embedded in the lunar soil.

Why the shadowed craters are important

Fox News notes that the permanently shadowed craters at the lunar poles are important because they serve as "cold traps" for water and other volatiles deposited on the lunar surface over bllions of years by comet impacts. NASA notes that not only LRO, but a impact probe called LCROSS and an Indian orbiter called Chandrayaan-1 has confirmed the presence of significant deposits of water in the permanently shadowed craters. Space.com reported at the time of the LCROSS impact, which sent up a plume of water, that its presence makes future lunar colonies far more possible. The moon could also serve as a refueling depot for space craft headed into deep space, such as to Mars, because lunar water could be refined into rocket fuel, consisting of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen.

What's next for exploring the lunar poles

The next step for exploring the lunar poles would consist of some kind of lander and/or rover. However when such a mission might be mounted is uncertain. The European Space Agency recently rejected mounting a lunar polar mission in favor of ExoMars. MoonRise, which would have been a joint NASA/India sample return mission to the lunar south pole, was rejected by NASA in favor of an asteroid mission. NASA is testing a lunar rover prototype called RESOLVE in a joint project with Canada, which would prospect for water and other resources. However any mission to the moon involving RESOLVE remains unfunded.

Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo, The Last Moonwalker, and Dreams of Barry's Stepfather. He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times, and The Weekly Standard.

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