AI permanently illuminates shadowed regions of the moon

Where to land on the moon

Oblique view of the lunar south pole and potential landing sites of Artemis 001 and 004. This is the region where researchers used the new technique to see into the shadowed interiors of impact craters. Credit: ETH Zurich\LPI

With the help of artificial intelligence, an international research team led by ETH Zurich explored the permanently shadowed regions of the moon. The information they obtained about the surface properties of the region will help identify suitable locations for future lunar missions.

It was 1972 when the last humans landed on the moon. The Apollo program was subsequently discontinued. But interest in the moon has been revived. While China landed a robot — and raised its flag — on the far side of the moon in 2020, NASA expects its Artemis program to land in the lunar south pole region, likely sometime between 2025 and 2028. Astronauts will focus then their exploration in this area.

The fascinating potential of ice

What makes the South Polar region so fascinating is that because the sun hovers close to the horizon due to the moon’s axial tilt, the sunken floors of impact craters never see sunlight. and are in perpetual shadow. These shadowed regions are therefore incredibly cold, even cooler than the surface of Pluto, with temperatures ranging from about −170° to −240° Celsius and approaching absolute zero. At higher temperatures, ice would sublimate and turn into gas very quickly in the vacuum of space. But in this extreme cold, water vapor and other volatile substances can become trapped or frozen inside or even on the lunar floor.

This potential for the presence of ice makes these shaded crater floors intriguing sites to explore. Not only could ice hold clues to how water is integrated 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 rocket propellant.

Where to land on the moon

Instead of a simple dark shadow image (left), researchers can detect small impact craters, rocks, and different ground patterns inside the crater. Credit: ETH Zurich\LPI

No water ice detected yet

We are very much in the dark about the south polar region of the moon. But now an international team of researchers has succeeded in shedding light by developing a method to better understand this region. Their work appeared in the latest issue of Geophysical Research Letters. The main author is Valentin Bickel, postdoctoral researcher at the chair of glaciology and former chair of technical geology at ETH Zurich.

The team used images taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera, which has been documenting the moon’s surface for more than a decade. This camera captures photons that are reflected back into regions shadowed by adjacent mountains and crater walls. Now, with the help of artificial intelligence, the team has managed to make such effective use of this data that these previously dark areas become visible. After analyzing their images, the team determined that no water ice is visible in these shadowed areas of the moon, although its existence has been proven by other instruments. Bickel says, “There is no evidence of pure surface ice in the shadowed areas, implying that any ice must be mixed with lunar soil or be below the surface.”

Work route planning

The findings published in the new paper are part of an extensive investigation of potential Artemis landing sites and lunar surface exploration options conducted by the LPI-JSC Center for Lunar and Science and Exploration. So far, the team has reviewed more than half a dozen potential landing sites for Artemis missions. The results of the study could have direct implications for future missions, including Intuitive Machines Mission 2, which will be conducted on a commercial basis by a start-up. This robotic mission in the spring of 2023 aims to collect and analyze the first soil samples from the shadow areas of the moon’s south pole, before astronauts reach the moon. “We discovered a number of previously unknown shadow craters and other surface features that could be critical to where the hopper lander lands,” Bickel said.

These new research results will enable precise route planning in and through permanently shaded regions, which will greatly reduce the risks to which astronauts and robotic explorers of Artemis are exposed. Using the new images, astronauts can target specific locations to take samples and assess ice distribution.

NASA Artemis1 will carry ASU CubeSat into space

More information:
VT Bickel et al, Cryogeomorphic Characterization of Shaded Regions in the Artemis Exploration Zone, Geophysical Research Letters (2022). DOI: 10.1029/2022GL099530

Quote: AI permanently illuminates shadowed regions on the moon (2022, August 29) Retrieved August 30, 2022 from

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