A new AI can finally illuminate the Moon's darkest places
An international research team headed by ETH Zurich has investigated the permanently shadowed regions of the Moon with the use of artificial intelligence.
Future lunar missions will be able to find acceptable spots thanks to the knowledge they have gained about the region's physical properties.
The research was published in Geophysical Research Letters on August 26.
This research was also carried out within the NASA's Artemis I program.
According to Science Alert, it's a common misconception that the Moon has a dark side. The Moon's rotation ensures it gets consistent sun around its equator. However, some pockets never receive any rays, deep craters, and pocks at high latitudes, as well as the Moon's polar regions, which have high walls that protect the crater floor from harsh solar radiation.
Scientists think that there may be many unknown and undiscovered things on the Moon, such as "water."
"What makes the south polar region so fascinating is that because the Sun hovers near the horizon due to the Moon’s axial tilt, the sunken floors of impact craters never see sunlight and lie in perpetual shadow. As a result, these shadowed regions are extremely cold - colder even than Pluto's surface, with temperatures ranging from 170° to 240° Celsius and approaching absolute zero," says ETH Zürich.
In the vacuum of space, ice would sublimate and quickly turn into a gas at higher temperatures. However, due to the extreme cold, water vapor and other volatile substances can become trapped or frozen within or on the lunar soil.
"There is no evidence of pure surface ice within the shadowed areas, implying that any ice must be mixed with lunar soil or lie underneath the surface," says Valentin Bickel of ETH Zurich, who led the research. But they are planning to set a course for digging more.
More is about to come
The results published in the new paper are part of a comprehensive investigation of potential Artemis landing sites and exploration options on the lunar surface conducted by the LPI-JSC Center for Lunar and Science and Exploration.
So far, the team has investigated more than a half-dozen potential Artemis landing sites. The findings of the study could have immediate implications for future missions, such as Intuitive Machines Mission 2, which will be conducted commercially by a start-up.
Before the astronauts arrive on the Moon in the spring of 2023, this robotic mission will collect and analyze the first soil samples from the Moon's shadowed south pole.
"These new research findings will allow for precise planning of routes into and through the permanently shadowed regions, which will greatly reduce the risks to which Artemis astronauts and robotic explorers are exposed," says ETH Zürich.
The Artemis program will send a crew to explore the south polar region of the Moon, preceded by and integrated with robotic missions. One of the main scientific goals of future exploration is the characterization of polar volatiles, which are concentrated in and near regions of permanent shadow. The meter-scale cryogeomorphology of shadowed regions remains unknown, posing a potential risk to missions that plan to traverse or land in them. Here, we deploy a physics-based, deep learning-driven post-processing tool to produce high-signal and high-resolution Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Narrow Angle Camera images of 44 shadowed regions larger than ∼40 m across in the Artemis exploration zone around potential landing sites 001 and 004. We use these images to map previously unknown, shadowed meter-scale (cryo)geomorphic features, assign relative shadowed region ages, and recommend promising sites for future exploration. We freely release our data and a detailed catalog of all shadowed regions studied.
Professor Gretchen Benedix is an astrogeologist and cosmic mineralogist who studies meteorites and figures the forming stages of the solar system.