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SMART-1 finds possible moon-base
Eternal sunshine of the Lunar kind
Scientists have identified a candidate "peak of eternal light" - a permanently illuminated area on the moon that could be used as a future lunar base. The site, which is near the northern lunar pole, was identified by the SMART-1 satellite, which has been monitoring the light levels at the poles since it arrived in orbit at the beginning of 2005.
One of SMART-1's mission objectives is to monitor polar shadows cast during the moon's rotation (relative to the Sun). This way it can identify areas that are always in the light, but also areas that are permanently in shadow. Researchers suspect that ice will be found at the bottom of permanently shaded craters.
Across most of the moon, the length of the day does not vary much. The poles are the exception, and illumination at the extreme latitudes varies considerably over the course of the year. The north pole is darkest over the Lunar winter solstice, around 24 January, which is about the same time SMART-1 was taking pictures of the pole.
The image, captured on 19 January, shows an area near the pole about 250km across from an altitude of about 5,000km. In the top left corner of the picture there is an illuminated crater rim. This is the site that could be a peak of eternal light. The existence of such places was first predicted in the second half of the nineteenth century by the astronomer Camille Flammarion.
"If we can confirm peaks of eternal light," commented Bernard Foing, SMART-1 project scientist, "these could be a key locations for possible future lunar outposts."
SMART-1 will continue mapping the lunar surface in the hope of locating resources that would be useful to future manned missions to the lunar surface. Scientists also hope that it will send back clues to how the moon was formed. ®