Why Everyone is Interested in Shackleton Crater

Updated May 1, 2019 at 9:18 p.m. PDT

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin tweeted out this picture of Endurance, the ship that polar explorer Ernest Shackleton sailed aboard during an ill-fated expedition to Antarctica in 1914.

The tweet has prompted a lot of speculation about what Bezos’ rocket company will announce next week, and how it connects to a British explorer who has been dead for nearly a century. (For more about Shackleton, see Who Was Ernest Shackleton? A Brief Biography)

My best guess is it will relate to Blue Orgin’s previously announced plans to make cargo deliveries to a crewed lunar base at a crater named for Shackleton at the moon’s south pole.

Blue Moon lander (Credit: Blue Origin)

In 2017, Bezos announced his company was developing Blue Moon to deliver payloads of up to 10,000 lbs (4,536 kg) to a permanent crewed outpost on the rim of the crater. The first projected mission was planned for 2024.

Bezos has said he is willing to fund development with his own money, but that the program would go faster with NASA funding. Blue Origin proposed such a partnership back in 2017.

Last year, Blue Origin received a $13 million contract under NASA’s tipping point technologies program to support development of the lander. The company also has a Space Act Agreement under which it is paying the space agency for its assistance in developing the vehicle.

The Trump Administration recently instructed NASA to land astronauts on the moon by 2024 instead of the previous target date of 2028. China has also said that it is planning a based at the south pole in about 10 years.

Given NASA’s new timetable, Blue Origin might announce that it is accelerating its Blue Moon schedule. It’s possible the company might fly a mission to characterize conditions at the likely crewed landing site. Or Blue Moon might deliver supplies before astronauts are launched.

Shackleton Crater

The lunar south pole. (Credit; NASA)

But, why establish a base at Shackleton crater? A lunar base would benefit from a location that possesses three things: ice, ample sunlight and relatively moderate temperatures. Shackleton has at least two of these three attributes.

Measuring 21 km (13 miles) across and 4 km (2.5 miles) deep, the crater’s peaks are exposed to almost continuous sunlight while its floors and walls are in near perpetual shadow.

Solar panels could be set up to power a base, which would be shielded from the moon’s long, cold nights. And ice in the shadowed portions of the crater could be mined and processed into water and rocket fuel.

Observations made by lunar orbiters and ground-based instruments indicate that ice likely exists in Shackleton crater. However, the evidence is not definitive; the next step would be to land spacecraft there to obtain further data.

NASA was working on a rover named Resource Prospector that would have searched for ice and other volatiles at one of the lunar poles in the 2020’s. However, the space agency canceled the mission last year in favor of sending scientific instruments on privately-built spacecraft.

Ice on the moon is viewed as a valuable resources that could be exploited commercially. In 2007, the Shackleton Energy Company was founded to pursue a bold plan to mine the crater. However, the company was not able to raise the funding required to pursue the venture.

Bezos has no shortage of money to support his space ambitions. It will be interesting to see what Blue Origin announces next week.

Ernest Shackleton died in 1922 while preparing to set off on his fourth expedition to Antarctica. A mission to the south pole of the moon timed for the centennial of his death would be an appropriate way to honor his legacy.