Moon’s South Pole in NASA’s Landing Sites

In this multi-temporal illumination map of the lunar south pole, Shackleton crater (19 km diameter) is in the center, the south pole is located approximately at 9 o’clock on its rim. The map was created from images from the camera aboard the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. (Credits: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University)

WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — NASA is working right now to send American astronauts to the surface of the Moon in five years, and the agency has its sights set on a place no humans have ever gone before: the lunar South Pole.

Water is a critical resource for long-term exploration, and that’s one of the main reasons NASA will send astronauts to the Moon’s South Pole by 2024. Water is a necessity for furthering human exploration because it could potentially be used for drinking, cooling equipment, breathing and making rocket fuel for missions farther into the solar system. The experience NASA gains on the Moon, including using lunar natural resources, will be used to help prepare the agency to send astronauts to Mars.

“We know the South Pole region contains ice and may be rich in other resources based on our observations from orbit, but, otherwise, it’s a completely unexplored world,” said Steven Clarke, deputy associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “The South Pole is far from the Apollo landing sites clustered around the equator, so it will offer us a new challenge and a new environment to explore as we build our capabilities to travel farther into space.”

The South Pole is also a good target for a future human landing because robotically, it’s the most thoroughly investigated region on the Moon.

The elliptical, polar orbit of NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) is closest to the Moon during its pass over the South Pole region. Through its thousands of orbits in the last decade, LRO has collected the most precise information about the South Pole region than any other, offering scientists precise details about its topography, temperature and locations of likely frozen water.

“We’ve mapped every square meter, even areas of permanent shadow,” said Noah Petro, an LRO project scientist based at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

There’s still so much to learn about Earth’s nearest neighbor. Ahead of a human return, NASA is planning many to send new science instruments and technology demonstration payloads to the Moon using commercial landers through Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS). These robotic precursors will further investigate regions of interest to human explorers, including the South Pole, and will provide information to the engineers designing modern lunar surface systems.

Water on the Moon

The floors of polar craters reach frigid temperatures because they’re permanently in shadow as a result of the low angle at which sunlight strikes the Moon’s surface in the polar regions (and also because the Moon has no atmosphere to help warm up its surface). This angle is based on the 1.54-degree tilt of the Moon’s axis (Earth’s is 23.5 degrees). If an astronaut was standing near the South Pole, the Sun would always appear on the horizon, illuminating the surface sideways, and, thus, skimming primarily the rims of deep craters, and leaving their deep interiors in shadow.

These permanently shadowed craters feature some of the lowest temperatures in the solar system — down to -414 degrees Fahrenheit (-248 Celsius). Water ice is stable at these temperatures and it is believed that some of these craters harbor significant ice deposits.

Video: Permanent Shadows on the Moon

The South Pole’s frozen water may date back billions of years and has been untainted by the Sun’s radiation or the geological processes that otherwise constantly churn and renew planetary surfaces (think of wind and erosion on Earth), offering us a window into the early solar system.

“That record of water collection is a record that can help us understand how water and other volatiles have been moving around the solar system, so we’re very interested in getting to these locations and sampling the material there,” said John W. Keller, a lunar scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Studying samples of ice from polar regions of Earth, for example, has revealed how our planet’s climate and atmosphere have evolved over thousands of years.

Constant Light and Power

Other extremes at the Moon’s South Pole are not so dark and cold ­— there are also areas, near Shackleton crater for instance, that are bathed in sunlight for extended periods of time, over 200 Earth days of constant illumination. This happens also because of the Moon’s tilt and is a phenomenon that we experience at our own polar regions on Earth. Unrelenting sunlight is a boon to Moon missions, allowing explorers to harvest sunlight in order to light up a lunar base and power its equipment.

The president’s direction from Space Policy Directive-1 galvanizes NASA’s return to the Moon and builds on progress on the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft, collaborations with U.S industry and international partners, and knowledge gained from current robotic assets at the Moon and Mars.

  • The real prize isn’t learning new scientific things about the Moon. Rather, it is a combination of:
    – Seizing the historic prize of establishing humanity’s first off-Earth foothold.
    – The tremendous good will of providing the ability for (most) all other nations to send at least one of their national astronauts to the lunar surface in behalf of their citizens.
    – Reducing the cost of traveling to and staying on the Moon to a level that wealthy, private individuals could afford (i.e. actual settlement).
    – If done correctly, the tremendous inspiration to the younger generation.
    – Helping companies get over the threshold to where they can turn a profit in space.
    – ISRU to the extent of becoming Earth independent.
    – Receiving a much greater bang for our space budget bucks.

  • Robert G. Oler

    Its dead…

  • Robert G. Oler

    Really old explanations and reasons recycled…sorry just not very useful

  • ThomasLMatula

    In spite of the opinions of certain narrow-minded people, who would shut up the human race upon this globe, as within some magic circle it must never outstep, we shall one day travel to the moon, the planets, and the stars, with the same facility, rapidity, and certainty as we now make the voyage from Liverpool to New York! – Jules Verne

  • gunsandrockets

    Combine this image with the other image of where the ice concentrations seem highest is very interesting.

    The edge of Shackleton Crater combines nearby location of ice concentrations with 200 days continuous possible solar power. Seems like a very promising location for the first manned lunar outpost, for exploration and determination of the nature of the lunar ice, and long duration stays on the moon lasting up to six months.

    However, real ISRU is going to take a lot of power, which means probably nuclear surface power. Plus locating your landing field very close to the location where the ice is harvested is also going to be a factor reducing the importance of solar power. So if I had to guess the most promising area for longer term lunar base, on the map above, it would be the dark zone located to the 7:30 position of, and three diameters of, the Shackleton Crater.

  • Robert G. Oler

    Those are very “time worn” illustrations and analogies…

    All of them at least belong in the world before our machines grew in some cases as capable of “us” at doing exploration and analysis, in some cases far more capable and in all cases quite less expensive.

    Verne for instance would be quite surprised to find out “we dont have cities under the sea”

    And probably never will. Why?

    First off we have never found something there that humans can do which justifies he cost of going and staying and second other then for short trips no one wants to live there in very small tubes.

    I dont know a single submariner (of which there have been a lot) much less the very few astronauts who have gone under the sea or into space and come back an said “I am good for that for the rest of my life”

    The “love of Musk” by the fan boys is that he has promised but so far is no where close to delivering a future where space travel is not much more epensive then Flying. If he gets there IF he gets there things may change…on Star Trek they have well very cheap starships …..but only a fool would count on it.

    When you can answer the question why there is no rush to the Sudan where there is survival one thousand times easier then in space, or on the 10 fathom line …then we can go back to your blue sky statements.

    All those claims were before our machines…

  • Robert G. Oler

    Greetings Tom from Sweden where no …its not like Trump claimed 🙂

  • ThomasLMatula

    Last I saw airlines were still using pilots and not machines to fly airliners. Folks go places because they want to go places, like the Moon. For example under the sea. No, there are no cities there, mostly thanks to the LOS, but there are a number of underwater hotels, including one in Sweden.

    As for your safety there, no doubt you are staying away from the bad areas that the BBC reported on. Or are you saying the BBC is not being truthful in its reporting?
    Sweden’s deadly problem with hand grenades
    18 April 2018

    “The violence has turned some parts of Stockholm into “no-go zones” for
    paramedics, says Henrik Johansson, former head of Sweden’s paramedics

  • Robert G. Oler

    there will be no cities under the sea or people living in space or on Mars or anywhere else until there is some activity there that needs humans to be successfull and that activity makes money

    there are bad places in any country or characterize Sweden as Trump did was typical Trump…