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The dark crater regions and mountainous regions near the Moon’s south pole are prime targets for future lunar missions such as Artemis III. According to NASA, these dark spaces have the ability to lock in water ice, which can be broken down into its oxygen and hydrogen components to provide both life-sustaining air and possible fuel. This is because the shadow regions are incredibly cold – temperatures ranging from -274 to -400 F – which trap the ice, preventing it from turning into a gas.
In their study, ETH Zurich glaciologist Dr. Valentin Bickel and his colleagues worked with images taken by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been documenting the surface of the Moon for more than a decade.
The spacecraft’s camera captures photons — particles of light — that bounce off adjacent mountains and crater walls into shadowed areas of the moon’s surface, the team explained.
With the help of AI, the team has been able to use the data collected by the orbiter so effectively that even the darkest regions of the moon are visible.
Importantly, their analysis revealed that no water ice is visible on the surface of the moon’s shadow regions – even though it has been detected by other instruments in these regions.
Dr Bickel said: “There is no evidence of pure surface ice in the shaded areas.”
This means, he added, that “any ice must be mixed with lunar soil or lying beneath the surface.”
The new study is part of a larger investigation of possible landing sites and exploration options on the lunar surface by the Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI) and Johnson Space Center (JSC)’s Center for Lunar Science and Exploration.
To date, the researchers said, they have evaluated more than half a dozen possible landing sites on the moon.
Read more: NASA plans to visit ‘dark, unexplored’ regions of the Moon
Looking further into the future, the team explained, the findings will help NASA accurately map safe routes into and through the moon’s permanently shadowed regions for the Artemis program.
This will greatly reduce the risk of misfortune for future astronauts and robotic explorers traversing the lunar surface.
Additionally, new images of the Moon will help target specific locations for sample collection to better estimate the distribution of water ice on the Moon.
The full results of the study were published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.