Coldest place in the solar system? Look to the moon.


Craters may hold evidence of Earth‘s history, and frozen ices at their floors could be valuable resources for lunar explorers.

Lunar South Pole

By Peter N. Spotts

Looking for the ultimate place to chill out? Craters at the moon’s south pole may be the frostiest locale in the entire solar system.

There, 239,000 miles away in the permanently shadowed crater floors, “daytime” temperatures never rise above minus 396.67 degrees Fahrenheit, according to preliminary results from NASA‘s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO).

That’s potentially good news for human lunar exploration efforts.

Ices of water, methane, or ammonia from ancient comet collisions would be well-preserved at the bottom of these lunar freezers. Such ices could be valuable resources that human lunar explorers could use. And they would help answer questions about the arrival of such “volatiles” to the Earth-moon system – evidence that Earth’s geological processes have largely erased from its own surface.

“This is an exciting time for LRO,” says Richard Vondrak, who heads the solar-system exploration division at the Goddard Space Flight Institute in Greenbelt, Md.

The measurement is one of several initial intriguing results unveiled Sept. 17 during a briefing at Goddard. Launched in June, the orbiter officially began its mapping mission this week, orbiting the moon some 30 miles above the surface.

But during the LRO’s commissioning phase, which ended Tuesday, part of the craft’s highly elliptical orbit brought it much closer – within about 19 miles of the surface at the south pole region. Lunar-exploration planners have identified this area as the prime place to land US astronauts to begin exploring the moon, if the Obama administration and Congress give the nod.

The orbiter also has beamed back evidence that water or other hydrogen-bearing ices appear in more places than previous missions have suggested, largely because the orbiter’s instruments are more capable. In fact, evidence for ices is showing up not just on the floors of permanently shadowed craters. It’s also showing up beneath the moonscape between the craters.


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