India’s Chandrayaan-3 robotic probe is scheduled to touch down near the Moon’s south pole later this week. The Moon’s south pole has generated scientific interest due to its unique geological features, extreme conditions, and unexplored nature.

Collaborative efforts between India and Japan will pave the way for the Lunar Polar Exploration (Lupex) mission, slated for 2026. This joint initiative delves into the shadowed regions, referred to as the “dark side” of the Moon.

For over 14 years, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), a stalwart NASA spacecraft, circled the Moon, gathering data. The orbiter unearthed hints of water ice deposited within the craters. Untouched by sunlight for billions of years, these regions harbour water reserves.

In 2008, India’s Chandrayaan-1 lunar mission provided evidence of water molecules on the Moon’s surface, hidden in ice form.

Unlike Earth, the Moon’s weak gravitational pull cannot hold an atmosphere. Consequently, water molecules on the lunar surface have two options: to sublimate directly from solid to vapour due to the lack of pressure or to remain frozen in the harsh cold of the shadowed polar craters.

Clive Neal, a planetary geology professor at the University of Notre Dame, underscores the complexities involved in extracting water ice from the Moon’s depths. He cautions about the practical utilisation that demands a delicate interplay of technology and resources.

Dr Simeon Barber, a planetary scientist affiliated with The Open University and the European Space Agency, highlights the vast potential held within the Moon’s water—potential that could unveil Earth’s history and revolutionise space exploration.

Lunar ice, if proved accessible and extractable, could alleviate the burden of transporting water from Earth to the Moon and provide a local supply for future lunar explorers. Professor Simeon Barber draws attention to this practicality noting that the astronomical expense of shipping water from Earth’s surface emphasises the value of using locally sourced lunar ice for astronaut consumption and other needs.

Water molecules on the Moon can be separated into hydrogen and oxygen—key components of rocket propellants.

On a different note, certain regions at the lunar south pole bask in sunlight for extended periods, with up to 200 Earth days of uninterrupted illumination. The solar potential offers hope for future lunar energy needs.

India and Russia, despite their geographical and political differences, have set their sights on landing within the lunar south polar region. It is a departure from the previous equatorial landing sites, the focus of prior exploration. India’s Chandrayaan-3 mission aims to achieve a milestone, following in the footsteps of Russia’s Luna-25, which crashed on the lunar surface.

Chandrayaan-3 is assigned to dissect the polar regolith, the accumulation of particles over billions of years that lies above the bedrock.