India’s lunar lander Vikram now sits near the Moon’s beguiling and splendorous South Pole

By Mayank Chhaya-

The lunar South Pole, near which India’s Vikram made a historic soft-landing on August 23, is a beguiling area in terms of physical contours, stunning temperature differential and sheer visual splendor.

The first striking feature is that the Sun perpetually dances between a tad below and a little above the horizon near the South Pole. As a NASA backgrounder explains, “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.”

It is very cinematic with the terrain living up to many science fiction fantasies.

The temperatures swing wildly between 130°F (54°C) on the horizon and -334°F (-203°C) in the abysses protected by deep craters. Some of these abysses have not experienced sunlight since the formation of the Moon 4.5 billion years ago.

​One major reason why Chandrayaan 3’s flawless landing is being particularly praised is because of the highly deceptive terrain contours of the region. A spacecraft landing in the region would find it very difficult to tell the features of the ground, where it is flat and good for landing or cratered and lethal, because of this sharply contrasting lighting conditions.

Add to that the severe temperature differential and there is the making of a serious threat to descending vehicles.

At this stage, it is well established that the Moon is not bone dry and likely contains water ice in the South Pole. In fact, it was India’s Chandrayaan 1, which using a NASA instrument, detected signs of hydrated minerals in the form of oxygen and hydrogen molecules in sunlit areas of the Moon.

The presence of water on the Moon, once confirmed, has the potential to revolutionize space exploration for humanity using the lunar base for interplanetary missions.

Apart from these missions the fact that deep core samples in the South Pole regions are nearly as old as the solar system and undisturbed for that long they are a great source of studying the original constituents. As NASA explains, “The stratigraphic and textural record will get older as the cores get deeper, laying out a detailed report of the history of our Earth-Moon system. A leading theory suggests that a very young Earth collided with another planet about the size of Mars, spewing globs of the two bodies into space, with bits and pieces captured and molded by Earth’s gravity field to become our Moon.”

It is from these many vantage points that India’s remarkable success in soft-landing near the South Pole is exciting the space exploration community. Once viewed against the fact that only a little over 50 percent of all lunar soft-landings have failed, it becomes even more evident why the Indian Space Research organization’s (ISRO) Chandrayaan 3 will go down in history as a trailblazer.

Both with the near success of Chandrayaan 2 in 2019 and huge success of Chandrayaan 3, ISRO is now sitting on some valuable data about the lunar South Pole that other space faring countries would find to be a great resource. There are expectations within the U.S. that India would be willing to share this data as a common human resource as humanity begins to set itself up as an interplanetary species.

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