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Sunny spot picked out for future lunar base

Parts of the Moon's north pole may be constantly bathed in sunlight, making it the ideal place to build a future human colony, say scientists.

US President George W Bush announced a plan in 2004 to build a permanent lunar base from which people can explore the moon, and then go on to Mars. But the Moon's environment is harsh. Without an appreciable atmosphere to distribute heat, most lunar regions swing from -180°C to 100°C as the Moon rotates in and out of sunlight every 29.5 days.

But the Moon's poles are thought to be less extreme. Unlike Earth, the Moon spins nearly vertically with respect to the plane of its orbit around the Sun and so the poles never experience a sunset - the Sun just skims around the horizon as the Moon rotates. This constant light should provide stable temperatures of about -50°C and a steady source of energy - crucial requirements for any future lunar base.

But mountains and craters on the Moon can blot out some of that light. Indeed, the ridge around a 2500-kilometre-wide crater at the Moon's south pole helps to cast long shadows over the region. These shadows were discovered in 1999 by a team using data from a US spacecraft called Clementine that orbited the Moon for 71 days in 1994.

Now, the same team has analysed the Clementine data for the north pole. Planetary scientists led by Ben Bussey at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, US, located a section along the rim of a 73-km-wide crater called Peary, near the Moon's north pole, that appears to be constantly illuminated.

Seasons and shade

Bussey cautions that there is still a chance the region experiences some periods of shade. That is because Clementine only operated during summer in the Moon's northern hemisphere, when the Moon's "top half" is tilted slightly - just 1.5° - toward the Sun.

So it is possible that a crater rim or another topographical feature could cast a shadow over the region during the northern hemisphere's winter, when the Moon's southern hemisphere is tilted toward the Sun.

Nonetheless, says Bussey, the sun-drenched sections "are the prime candidates to be the most illuminated places on the Moon".

That makes it an "ideal site" for a future lunar base, says Clive Neal, a planetary scientist at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, US, who was not part of the research team. "If it's in permanent sunlight, we've got permanent power."

Oxygen and fuel

Bussey says rovers could be deployed from a future base there to explore nearby craters, which are permanently in shadow and appear to contain water ice. Any ice would serve as a crucial resource for lunar colonists, providing water, oxygen for breathing and hydrogen for rocket fuel, he says.

Neal agrees, saying a lunar base would serve as a training ground for more ambitious spaceflights. "Having a Moon base allows us to go and hone our skills for other planetary bodies," he told New Scientist.

Future missions to orbit the Moon, such as India's Chandrayaan-I and NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, scheduled for launch in 2007 and 2008, respectively, will confirm whether the north pole is constantly illuminated and will study the apparent ice in the polar craters.

Journal reference: Nature (vol 434, p 842)

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At the Moon's north pole, areas along the rim of the Peary crater, which are coloured in red and white, may enjoy constant sunshine (Image: Ben Bussey/Nature)

At the Moon's north pole, areas along the rim of the Peary crater, which are coloured in red and white, may enjoy constant sunshine (Image: Ben Bussey/Nature)

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