With countries, space agencies and even private space companies lining up a series of lunar missions to the south pole in the coming years, the first thing that comes to mind is why has this location become so important?
Unlike the equator region of the Moon, where many lunar exploration missions had been sent by several space-faring nations like the US, erstwhile Soviet Union and China, the south pole region has mostly remained a virgin territory. The region has only been pictured from an altitude by orbiters of several countries over the years like the Lunar Orbiters, Clementine, Lunar Prospector, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, Kaguya, and Chandrayaan-1 probe and Chandrayaan-2 orbiter. These orbiters had been able to establish the fact that the region is suitable for a lunar outpost from where distant interplanetary programmes could be launched.
It's India's Time: Watch Indians Erupt In Pride As Chandrayaan-3 Successfully Lands On Moon
The lunar south pole, which is the southernmost point on the Moon at 90°S, is of special interest to scientists because of the occurrence of water ice in permanently shadowed craters. The region is also rich in minerals. Water and minerals are resources for future explorers. Secondly, the south pole region features craters that are unique in that the near-constant sunlight does not reach their interiors. Such craters are cold traps that contain a fossil record of hydrogen, water ice and other volatiles dating from the early solar system, which could help scientists learn more about the history of our solar system.
Thirdly, the mountain peaks near the pole are illuminated for large periods of time and could be used to provide solar energy to an outpost. With an outpost on the Moon, scientists will be able to analyse water and other volatile samples dating back to the formation of the solar system.
Nasa scientists used LOLA (Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter) to provide an accurate topographic model of the Moon. With this data, locations near the south pole at Connecting Ridge, which connects Shackleton Crater to the de Gerlache crater, were found that yielded sunlight for 92–95% of the time based on altitude ranging from 2 m to 10 m above ground. At the same spots, it was discovered that the longest continuous periods of darkness were only for 3 to 5 days.
Fourthly, the lunar south pole is a place where scientists may be able to perform unique astronomical observations of radio waves under 30 MHz. The Chinese Longjiang microsatellites were launched in May 2018 to orbit the Moon, and Longjiang-2 operated in this frequency until July 31 2019. Before Longjiang-2, no space observatory had been able to observe astronomical radio waves in this frequency because of interference waves from equipment on Earth. Though facing Earth, the lunar south pole has mountains and basins, like the south side of Malapert Mountain that are not facing Earth and would be an ideal place to receive such astronomical radio signals from a ground radio observatory.
ISRO chief S Somanath on Chandrayaan-3 success: ‘This is the work of a generation of scientists’
Solar power, oxygen, and metals are abundant resources in the south polar region. By locating a lunar resource processing facility near the south pole, solar-generated electrical power will allow for nearly constant operation. Elements known to be present on the lunar surface include hydrogen, oxygen, silicon, iron, magnesium, calcium, aluminium, manganese and titanium . Among the more abundant are oxygen, iron and silicon. The oxygen content is estimated at 45% (by weight).
programme has proposed to land several robotic landers and rovers in preparation for the 2025 Artemis 3 crewed landing at the south polar region. It will study the data from the Chandrayaan-3 landing mission to finetune its mission parameters. Blue Origin is planning a mission to the south polar region. Likewise Russia and China are also likely to send more missions to the south pole in near future.