How NASA captures vivid moon photos in utter darkness

It is perpetually night at the moon’s north and south poles, and sunken sites in these regions never receive a drop of direct sunlight.

NASA wants astronauts to be exploring near the lunar south pole as early as 2025, as the area is believed to have ice buried beneath the surface. If the frozen water there could be excavated and collected, it would be an important resource for human explorers. Scientists say something as simple as H2O could potentially be turned into oxygen, drinking water and fuel.

But studying these permanently shadowed craters from space presents an obvious challenge: how do you map the details of the terrain in the dark?

Through a partnership with South Korea, NASA is now getting bright, detailed images of potential landing sites. The Korean space probe Danuri, launched last summer, has been orbiting the moon since December 2022(Opens in a new tab). A camera on the orbiter has been specially designed to capture super-light-sensitive photos of the environment.


NASA is back in the moon business. Here’s what that means.

ShadowCam mimics shadowy craters

The ShadowCam is 200 times more sensitive to light than its predecessor aboard the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Credit: NASA / KARI / Arizona State University illustration

The so-called ShadowCam(Opens in a new tab)funded by NASA, is 200 times more sensitive to light than its predecessor technology aboard the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter(Opens in a new tab). Even without direct sunlight, the instrument can capture light that is weakly reflected from nearby mountains and crater rims. Arizona State University and Malin Space Science Systems developed the camera.

Is there ice on the moon?

ShadowCam hunts for ice and takes photos that help mission planners explore potential areas of heavy debris. Scientists will study seasonal changes and take measurements in the dark lunar craters.

“Future missions in space will be safer and more affordable if we are able to harvest lunar resources,” said Jason Crusan, NASA’s former director of advanced exploration systems, in a 2017 statement(Opens in a new tab). “ShadowCam has the potential to significantly enhance our understanding of the quality and abundance of these resources in these regions.”

Engineers prepare to assemble the ShadowCam

Engineers assemble the ShadowCam on the lunar orbiter.
Photo credit: KARI

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The photos should ultimately help NASA narrow down where to drill. In August 2022, the agency announced 13 potential landing sites at the South Pole for the Artemis III mission, the first to send astronauts to the lunar surface in half a century. While on the moon for almost a week, the astronauts, including the first woman and first person of color to walk on the moon, collected samples to take home for analysis.

Since Danuri arrived on the moon, it has started taking test photos to calibrate itself. It recently took a picture of a lunar dimple known as Shackleton Crater(Opens in a new tab). The image is so bright that the team can see fine details, such as the tracks of a 16-foot-wide boulder that has slid down the steep crater wall to the floor.

NASA compares images of Shackleton Crater

NASA compares the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera to the new ShadowCam.
Photo credit: NASA / KARI / Arizona State University

Shadowcam has proven that it can actually see better in the dark than NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter camera. A head-to-head comparison (above) shows how the new camera on the right captures the interior of the crater.

Because this crater is relatively small, summer temperatures get a little too warm to keep the ice stable, rising to over -261 degrees Fahrenheit, according to a recent Arizona state post(Opens in a new tab) on the project.

“This area is not the most likely location for frost or surface ice,” the post said. “Perhaps somewhere in this crater where temperatures are lower, there is ice or frost waiting to be seen.” How NASA captures vivid moon photos in utter darkness

Zack Zwiezen

Zack Zwiezen is a USTimesPost U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Zack Zwiezen joined USTimesPost in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing

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