NASA’s ShadowCam Images Permanently Shadowed Regions from Lunar Orbit

With the success of NASA’s Artemis I launch, the previously unexplored shadowy regions near the lunar South Pole where Artemis astronauts will land in 2025, are more within our reach than ever before.

One instrument that will support these future lunar exploration efforts is a hypersensitive optical camera called ShadowCam. ShadowCam is one of six instruments on board the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI)’s Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter, known as Danuri, which launched in August 2022 and entered lunar orbit last December.

Previous cameras in lunar orbit were designed to acquire images of sunlit surfaces. Developed by Malin Space Science Systems and Arizona State University, ShadowCam’s primary function is to collect images within permanently shadowed regions near the lunar poles. These areas never receive direct sunlight and are thought to contain water ice – a significant resource for exploration that can be used as fuel or oxygen and for other habitation applications.

Building on cameras developed for NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, ShadowCam is 200 times more light-sensitive and is therefore able to capture detailed images within permanently shadowed regions – even in the absence of direct light – by using the light that is reflected off nearby geologic features such as mountains or the walls of craters.

Images of the permanently shadowed wall and floor of Shackleton Crater captured by Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) (left) and ShadowCam (right). Each panel shows an area that is 5,906 feet (1,800 meters) wide and 7,218 feet (2,200 meters) tall. Image Credit: NASA/KARI/ASU

In addition to mapping the light reflected by permanently shadowed regions to search for evidence of ice deposits, ShadowCam will also observe seasonal changes and measure the terrain inside the craters, all in service of science and future lunar exploration efforts. The high-resolution images could help scientists learn more about how the Moon has evolved, how water is trapped and preserved in permanently shadowed regions, and could help inform site selection and exploration planning for Artemis missions.

Since Danuri entered lunar orbit, ShadowCam has been in an operational checkout period, during which it has been collecting dozens of images of the lunar polar regions, including an image of Shackleton Crater, to calibrate and test its functionality. Following this checkout period, which will conclude later this month, ShadowCam will start its campaign to capture images of shadowed terrain as Danuri routinely passes over them during the planned mission of 11 months.

Read more about ShadowCam and Danuri.


CAPSTONE to Test Technologies After Recovery from Communications Issue

NASA’s CAPSTONE – short for Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment – is in good health following a communications issue that began in late January, and the mission team is preparing for upcoming technology demonstration tests.

Beginning Jan. 26, CAPSTONE was unable to receive commands from ground operators. The spacecraft remained overall healthy and on-course throughout the issue, sending telemetry data back to Earth. On Feb. 6, an automatic command-loss timer rebooted CAPSTONE, clearing the issue and restoring two-way communication between CAPSTONE and the ground.

The CAPSTONE team, led by Advanced Space, is now preparing for continued testing of the spacecraft’s Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System, or CAPS, and other technology demonstrations.

CAPS is a navigation technology developed by Advanced Space that uses data between two or more spacecraft to pinpoint a satellite’s location in space. The test will involve two spacecraft: CAPSTONE and NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). Following interface testing with LRO’s ground systems, the CAPSTONE team attempted to gather crosslink measurements in mid-January. During this test, LRO received a signal from CAPSTONE, but CAPSTONE did not collect crosslink ranging measurements from the returned signal. These results will help improve additional CAPS tests over the coming weeks.

The team is also preparing for the mission’s other technology demonstrations, including a new CAPS data type that will use one-way uplink measurements enabled by the spacecraft’s Chip Scale Atomic Clock.

Since arriving to orbit on Nov. 13, CAPSTONE has completed more than 12 orbits in its near-rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO) – the same orbit for Gateway – surpassing one of the mission’s objectives to achieve at least six orbits. The mission team has performed two orbit maintenance maneuvers in this time. These maneuvers were originally scheduled to happen once per orbit, but the mission team was able to reduce the frequency while maintaining the correct orbit. This reduces risk and complexity for the mission and informs plans for future spacecraft flying in this orbit, like Gateway.

CAPSTONE is owned by Advanced Space and the spacecraft was designed and built by Terran Orbital. Operations are performed jointly by teams at Advanced Space and Terran Orbital. The mission is funded by the Small Spacecraft Technology Program in NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate.

Read the full update from Advanced Space.