Lunar Orbiter captures stunning view of possible Artemis 3 landing site

The Malapert massif near Månens The moon’s south pole is one of several possible locations where NASA astronauts could land later this decade. A new image from the space agency’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter reveals that it’s a bleak, dreary and sad beautiful place for us to visit.

NASA’s LRO captured this image of the Malapert massif on March 3 when the intrepid probe was about 106 miles (170 kilometers) from Shackleton Crater, according to to Mark Robinson, principal investigator with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) project at Arizona State University. The orbiter is equipped with a three-camera system that has been capturing high-resolution grayscale images of the Moon since 2009.

Malapert Massif, as imaged by LRO on March 3. This image is 25 kilometers wide.
Image: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

This massif (a large mountain area characterized by rugged terrain, steep slopes and high elevations) was formed about four billion years ago and is connected to the South Pole-Aitken Basin – “the largest and oldest impact basin on the Moon.” according to to the Center for Lunar Science and Exploration. NASA shortlisted this place, and a dozen others, because of its location near the South Pole and its abundance of different geological features. “Together, the regions provide landing opportunities for all potential (Artemis 3) launch options,” NASA explained in an August 2022 statement.

LRO played a key role in the selection of these candidate landing sites. Artemis 3 is scheduled to launch no earlier than 2025, when two astronauts will return to the lunar surface for the first time since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.

The proposed Artemis 3 landing site is shown just above

The proposed Artemis 3 landing site is shown just above the “5000 m” annotation, “which continues down the slope toward Earth,” according to LROC scientists.
Image: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

In his article, Robinson says that not all of the proposed Artemis 3 landing site is visible. Looking at the image below, it is the relatively flat area just above the “5000” annotation, apart from the downward slope to the right. Robinson asks us to imagine the view from the summit, which “rises more than 5,000 meters (16,400 feet) above its base.” Looking into the distance, “you can see a 3,500 meter high cliff.” He says “the sheer grandeur of this region makes it a prime candidate,” but stops to wonder if “a landing here might be too exciting.”

Proposed Artemis 3 landing sites, including the Malapert Massif.

Proposed Artemis 3 landing sites, including the Malapert Massif.
Image: NASA

Good point. NASA wants to keep it smart and safe when choosing a landing site, but wow, the Malapert Massif would make for some spectacular optics.

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