With the success of NASA’s Artemis I mission and the agency recently naming the Artemis II crew, progress toward humanity’s first-ever trip to the lunar south pole region during Artemis III is well underway. To prepare, NASA scientists and engineers are learning as much as they can about this dark region, which promises to yield scientific discoveries that can help us learn about our place in the universe and go further than ever before.
One way scientists gather information is with a hypersensitive optical camera called the ShadowCam. NASA’s instrument is flying with five other Korean instruments aboard KARI’s (Korea Aerospace Research Institute) KPLO (Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter), also known as Danuri, which launched in August 2022.
Developed by Malin Space Science Systems and Arizona State University (ASU), ShadowCam is significantly more sensitive to light than comparable lunar cameras. It acquires high-resolution images of permanently shadowed areas that never receive direct sunlight in service of science and exploration planning for Artemis and robotic missions.
Since Danuri entered lunar orbit last December, ShadowCam has routinely taken images of the moon’s north and south pole regions. Below are some of the standout images so far and what they reveal.
ShadowCam images from lunar orbit
One of the first ShadowCam images from lunar orbit, shown here in more detail than ever before, is the permanently shadowed wall and floor of Shackleton Crater, located near the South Pole. The level of detail in this image is made possible by ShadowCam’s ability to work in extremely low light conditions – it’s 200 times more sensitive than the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter’s Narrow Angle Camera.
The arrow indicates the path of the boulder that rolled down the crater wall. Observing these tracks helps scientists characterize the shape and velocity of boulders and the features of the regolith, furthering our understanding of the Moon’s geotechnical properties.
ShadowCam was designed to offer views into shadowed areas near the poles. However, this image was taken under terrestrial light in the equatorial region of the Moon as part of a sensitivity test of the instrument. It reveals the interior of Bruce Crater and the bright streamers that have formed from soil sliding down the crater walls.
ShadowCam took this image just after the new moon. During a new moon, at the same time that we would see a thin lunar crescent from Earth, a person on the Moon would see an almost full Earth. Just as a full moon can provide illumination on Earth, a full moon can provide illumination on the moon – this is called aurora.
While the aurora is about ten times dimmer than the illumination available in the average permanently shadowed area by sunlight reflected off the moon’s geological formations, ShadowCam was still able to image the surface using the aurora, indicating the instrument’s ability to see into fainter regions of the South Pole.
ShadowCam will not be able to image the Artemis astronauts walking
Although ShadowCam was primarily designed to use secondary illumination from lunar geological features for imaging, this image of the central peak of Aristarchus Crater (left) was taken using terrestrial light.
ShadowCam will not be able to image the Artemis astronauts walking on the surface of the Moon if they are in direct sunlight, as strong light would cause the images to become saturated. However, this image shows that it could be possible using Earth’s light if astronauts move through space during the lunar night.
In this image, the shadow cast by the central peak of Aristarchus is from the Earth’s glow, which was the result of the Earth being 35 degrees above the horizon at the time. The different tones in the central peak are thought to represent different rock types.
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