Credit: NASA

NASA’s plan to plant boots on the Moon is underway – and the call is to send astronauts to the Moon’s South Pole by 2024. The floors of polar craters there reach frigid temperatures because they’re permanently in shadow.

“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,” says Steven Clarke, deputy associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. The South Pole region contains ice and may be rich in other resources, he adds.

The Sun beats endlessly on the peaks of the south pole’s Shackleton crater, but its cold depths may not have seen light for 2 billion years.
Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

Habitat shacks for Shackleton?

Of particular interest in that area is Shackleton crater, a 12 miles (19 kilometers) in diameter feature. The low-temperature interior of this crater functions as a cold trap that may imprison and freeze volatiles shed during comet impacts on the Moon.

Water availability on the Moon can further deep space human exploration, potentially useful for drinking, cooling equipment, breathing and making rocket fuel for missions farther into the solar system – ideally to Mars.

Credit: NASA/GSFC/SVS

Questions remain

Still, what needs to be determined is the quality and quantity of lunar water ice. Furthermore, if there, how hard will it be to extract and utilize this valuable resource, and at what economic cost?

“The way to unravel the water-ice mystery is to go to the surface of the lunar south pole (or both poles) and measure the composition of the surfaces in question.  Getting a definitive answer about the nature of lunar water would be game changing,” explained the late Paul Spudis – a leader in looking for water ice reserves on the Moon.

Newly developed extraction technique for the Moon, thermal mining, makes use of mirrors to exploit sun-shy, water ice-laden polar craters.
Credit: School of Mines/Dreyer, Williams, Sowers

Additionally, areas near Shackleton crater are bathed in sunlight for extended periods of time, over 200 Earth days of constant illumination. Unrelenting sunlight is a boon to future explorers, allowing them to harvest sunlight in order to light up a lunar base and power on-site equipment.

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