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ASU’s ShadowCam reaches moon, begins shakedown cruise

Five years ago, KJZZ’s Arizona Science Desk reported on Arizona State University's plans to send a new, light-sensitive camera to explore the moon’s darkest regions.

ShadowCam reached the moon aboard the Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter about a month ago.

Nick Estes, the science operations center at ASU’s ShadowCam facility, says the calibration is going well.

After years of anticipation, it’s a bit of a relief.

“You run it through calibration in the lab; you've done the math. We know everything's going to work. But, you know, it's still years’ worth of effort, and you haven't seen it actually do what it’s supposed to do yet,” he said.  “So, when it actually gets to the moon, and you get that first image, it was it was absolutely spectacular.”

Experts believe the moon’s permanently shadowed regions — some of the coldest places in the solar system — may hold volatiles like water that could support future missions.

Run by the same ASU team as NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter cameras, the instrument can only view the dark crater recesses because it is hundreds of times more light-sensitive.

“They never get any direct sunlight, so we’re imaging based on reflected sunlight from the rims of craters and the tops of peaks from a camera that's 100 kilometers up, traveling at 1.6 kilometers a second over the surface,” said Estes.

Consequently, building up a clear picture from indirect light reflected off crater walls will take time and repetition.

“It’s going to take some repeat imaging under different lighting conditions — and some additional study and additional work — to kind of really nail down what we're looking at,” said Estes.

Nicholas Gerbis joined KJZZ’s Arizona Science Desk in 2016. A longtime science, health and technology journalist and editor, his extensive background in related nonprofit and science communications inform his reporting on Earth and space sciences, neuroscience and behavioral health, and bioscience/biotechnology.Apart from travel and three years in Delaware spent earning his master’s degree in physical geography (climatology), Gerbis has spent most of his life in Arizona. He also holds a master’s degree in journalism and mass communication from Arizona State University’s Cronkite School and a bachelor’s degree in geography (climatology/meteorology), also from ASU.Gerbis briefly “retired in reverse” and moved from Arizona to Wisconsin, where he taught science history and science-fiction film courses at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He is glad to be back in the Valley and enjoys contributing to KJZZ’s Untold Arizona series.During the COVID-19 pandemic, Gerbis focused almost solely on coronavirus-related stories and analysis. In addition to reporting on the course of the disease and related research, he delved into deeper questions, such as the impact of shutdowns on science and medicine, the roots of vaccine reluctance and the policies that exacerbated the virus’s impact, particularly on vulnerable populations.