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Ultraviolet "Eye" Beholds the Dark Side of the Moon... and in the Future, Mercury?

Jul 07, 2016 08:43 AM EDT
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New scanning technology using ultraviolet sources of light offers scientists a better tool for seeing into the dimly-lit regions of the far side of the Moon. A Southwest Research Institute-led team of researchers applied the device in finding two geologically young craters near the lunar south pole, SwRI News reports.

SwRI senior research scientist Kathleen Mandt led the team in finding the lunar craters in what she calls "a really exciting discovery." As Mandt explained, detecting "young" impact craters and determining their age gives scientists a greater understanding of the collision timeline of our solar system - and thus the history of its formation.

The dark side of the Moon has long been a mystery to sky watchers, and to this day it retains a tantalizing air of mystery. Spacecraft have sent us back images of the dark side, but it is still difficult to observe and study what scientists refer to as the permanently shaded regions (PSRs) of the Moon.

The first photographs of the PSRs came from the Soviet Union's Luna 3 mission back in 1959. The grainy pictures provided startling evidence that the Moon's other side has very different features from the side which faces Earth. Since then, there have been many attempts to better observe and analyze the characteristics of the PSRs, but they have been very challenging to study since light from the sun never directly illuminates the dimmer areas, such as deep craters.

Mandt's team made use of the SwRI-developed Lyman-Alpha Mapping Project (LAMP) instrument that is installed in the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). The LRO-LAMP detector captures imagery using ultraviolet light coming from distant stars and from the Lyman-Alpha skyglow (the fine scattering of hydrogen atoms throughout our solar system).

According to NASA, the main mission of LAMP is to search the depths of cavernous craters at the lunar poles, looking for water in the form of ice. But what Mandt's team has discovered is valuable on its own right - it provides scientists with a new method for making out crucial details of the permanently shaded areas of celestial objects, which can not only be used on the Moon, but on bodies such as Mercury, the asteroid Vesta, and the dwarf planet Ceres.

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