Thursday, June 21, 2012

Shackleton harbors ice after all

Spoke too soon! When JAXA released this Kaguya Terrain Camera image, showing the deep interior of Shackleton crater for the first time in 2008, scientists claimed it disappointingly showed no indication of ice, though no one yet can say how a slurry of lunar volatiles might appear. Now, however, researchers analyzing laser altimetry returned by the LOLA instrument on-board the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) cite strong evidence of ice content in the permanently shadowed interior.  The Moon's south pole is serendipitously situated on Shackleton's rim, directly under all of LRO's nearly twenty thousand polar orbits since 2009, affording extraordinary study [JAXA/SELENE]..
Jennifer Chu

If humans are ever to inhabit the moon, the lunar poles may well be the location of choice: Because of the small tilt of the lunar spin axis, the poles contain regions of near-permanent sunlight, needed for power, and regions of near-permanent darkness containing ice — both of which would be essential resources for any lunar colony.

The area around the moon’s Shackleton crater could be a prime site. Scientists have long thought that the crater — whose interior is a permanently sunless abyss — may contain reservoirs of frozen water. But inconsistent observations over the decades have cast doubt on whether ice might indeed exist in the shadowy depths of the crater, which sits at the moon’s south pole.

Now scientists from MIT, Brown University, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and other institutions have mapped Shackleton crater with unprecedented detail, finding possible evidence for small amounts of ice on the crater’s floor. Using (the LOLA) laser altimeter on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) spacecraft, the team essentially illuminated the crater’s interior with laser light, measuring its albedo, or natural reflectance. The scientists found that the crater’s floor is in fact brighter than that of other nearby craters — an observation consistent with the presence of ice, which the team calculates may make up 22 percent of the material within a micron-thick layer on the crater’s floor.

The group published its findings today in the journal Nature.

In addition to the possible evidence of ice, the group’s map of Shackleton reveals a “remarkably preserved” crater that has remained relatively unscathed since its formation more than three billion years ago. The crater’s floor is itself pocked with several smaller craters, which may have formed as part of the collision that created Shackleton.

The crater, named after the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, is more than 12 miles wide and two miles deep — about as deep as Earth’s oceans. Maria Zuber, the team’s lead investigator and the E.A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, describes the crater’s interior as “extremely rugged … It would not be easy to crawl around in there.”

Mapping the dark. Slipping past the Moon's south pole on the brightly lit rim of Shackleton crater, the dark of the permanently shadowed interior of the crater quickly overtakes a very steep crater wall, like the terrestrial oceans. LRO has skipped through thousands of polar orbits eventually carrying the vehicle over every area on the Moon's surface and over Shackleton, high at the top of everyone's list of priority targets, during every orbit,   LROC Narrow Angle Camera (NAC) M142464150L, LRO orbit 6128, October 23, 2010, 89.21° angle of incidence, 0.87 meters resolution from 41.91 kilometers [NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University].
The group was able to map the crater’s elevations and brightness in extreme detail, thanks in part to the LRO’s path: The spacecraft orbits the moon from pole to pole as the moon rotates underneath. With each orbit, the LRO’s laser altimeter maps a different slice of the moon, with each slice containing measurements of both poles. The upshot is that any terrain at the poles — Shackleton crater in particular — is densely recorded. Zuber and her colleagues took advantage of the spacecraft’s orbit to obtain more than 5 million measurements of the polar crater from more than 5,000 orbital tracks.

“We decided we would study the living daylights out of this crater,” Zuber says. “From the incredible density of observations we were able to make an extremely detailed topographic map.”

The team used the (LOLA) to map the crater’s elevations based on the time it took for laser light to bounce back from the moon’s surface: The longer it took, the lower the terrain’s elevation. Through these measurements, the group mapped the crater’s floor and the slope of its walls.

A quaking theory.The researchers also used the laser altimeter to measure the crater’s brightness, sending out pulses of infrared light at a specific wavelength. The crater’s surface absorbed some light based on its own natural albedo, reflecting the rest back to the spacecraft. The researchers calculated the difference, and mapped the relative brightness throughout the crater’s floor and walls.

While the crater’s floor was relatively bright, Zuber and her colleagues observed that its walls were even brighter. The finding was at first puzzling: Scientists had thought that if ice were anywhere in a crater, it would be on the floor, where very little sunlight penetrates. The upper walls of Shackleton crater, in comparison, are occasionally illuminated, which could evaporate any ice that accumulates.

How to explain the bright walls? The team studied the measurements, and came up with a theory: Every once in a while, the moon experiences seismic shaking brought on by collisions, or gravitational tides from Earth. Such “moonquakes” may have caused Shackleton’s walls to slough off older, darker soil, revealing newer, brighter soil underneath.
Until very recently luna incongnita, the permanently shadowed 10.3 km-wide interior of Shackleton, shouldering the Moon's south pole (blue arrow), today seems much like hundreds of other lunar craters of similar age and dimension. Its ink-black interior has steadily been brightly unveiled in a steady build-up of laser data points collected over the course of three years in polar orbit by the LOLA instrument on LRO. As it is on Earth, however, in Real Estate, "location is everything" [NASA/GSFC/LOLA].

Zuber says there may be multiple explanations for the observed brightness throughout the crater: For example, newer material may be exposed along its walls, while ice may be mixed in with its floor. Her team’s ultra-high-resolution map, she says, provides strong evidence for both.

Ben Bussey, staff scientist at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, says the group’s evidence for ice in Shackleton crater may help determine the course for future lunar missions.

“Ice in the polar regions has been sort of an enigmatic thing for some time … I think this is another piece of evidence for the possibility of ice,” Bussey says. “To truly answer the question, we’ll have to send a lunar lander, and these results will help us select where to send a lander.”

Zuber adds that the group’s topographic map will help researchers understand crater formation and study other uncharted areas of the moon.

“I will never get over the thrill when I see a new terrain for the first time,” Zuber says. “It’s that sort of motivation that causes people to explore to begin with. Of course, we’re not risking our lives like the early explorers did, but there is a great personal investment in all of this for a lot of people.”

The research was supported by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Mission under the auspices of NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate and Science Mission Directorate.

Japan's scientists may have leaped to conclusions when they over-confidently announced there was no ice inside Shackleton (upper left), after releasing the first image of the crater's interior a few years ago, but their iconic high-definition image of an orbital Earthrise from November 2007 still takes the breath away [JAXA/NHK/SELENE].


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Joel Raupe said...

You have to remember, it took 400,000 people and a quarter trillion dollars in today's dollars to accomplish those missions, and in the end it all clicked in a way than made it all look way too easy.

I'm ready, but then again I've been "ready" since 1972, and instead of stretching out their ambitions by flying an Apollo surface excursion every eighteen months or even every three years the Congress of the time (which literally lost it's guts around 1974) decided to "save money" with a reusable space shuttle, which turned out to be much more than a experimental spacecraft designed and sold by committees to committees. Three false starts to get us past low earth orbit in the forty years since Apollo 17 were all quashed, for lack of political will, without which, as Abraham Lincoln once wrote, governments can "do nothing."

I won't go on and on, but there are a lot of reasons why water went undetected in the Apollo era, and the debate about its scope and emplacement still continues.

The Moon is our deep water port beyond the Earth-Moon system, our proving ground and material reserve for that inevitable time, and the Rosetta Stone for understanding the history of both the Earth and our star system.

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