ASU’s ShadowCam reaches moon, begins shakedown cruise

By Nicholas Gerbis
Published: Monday, February 6, 2023 - 9:08am
Updated: Monday, February 6, 2023 - 9:10am

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Artist's rendition of ShadowCam imaging Shackleton, an impact crater at the lunar south pole. Images from Shackleton were the first sent back by the instrument.

Five years ago, KJZZ’s Arizona Science Desk reported on Arizona State University's plans to send a new, light-sensitive camera to explore the moon’s darkest regions.

ShadowCam reached the moon aboard the Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter about a month ago.

Nick Estes, the science operations center at ASU’s ShadowCam facility, says the calibration is going well.

After years of anticipation, it’s a bit of a relief.

“You run it through calibration in the lab; you've done the math. We know everything's going to work. But, you know, it's still years’ worth of effort, and you haven't seen it actually do what it’s supposed to do yet,” he said.  “So, when it actually gets to the moon, and you get that first image, it was it was absolutely spectacular.”

ShadowCam Principal Investigator Mark Robinson speaks to ShadowCam Operations team member Mariah Heck
ASU School of Earth and Space Exploration
ShadowCam Principal Investigator Mark Robinson speaks to ShadowCam Operations team member Mariah Heck.

Experts believe the moon’s permanently shadowed regions — some of the coldest places in the solar system — may hold volatiles like water that could support future missions.

Run by the same ASU team as NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter cameras, the instrument can only view the dark crater recesses because it is hundreds of times more light-sensitive.

“They never get any direct sunlight, so we’re imaging based on reflected sunlight from the rims of craters and the tops of peaks from a camera that's 100 kilometers up, traveling at 1.6 kilometers a second over the surface,” said Estes.

Consequently, building up a clear picture from indirect light reflected off crater walls will take time and repetition.

“It’s going to take some repeat imaging under different lighting conditions — and some additional study and additional work — to kind of really nail down what we're looking at,” said Estes.