NASA finds possible lava tubes that could support lunar colonies

A NASA satellite has found clues to possible underground tunnels on the Moon that could provide ready-built accommodation and supplies for future astronauts.

An image of Philolaus Crater taken by an early NASA mission, Lunar Orbiter, in 1967.Image credit: NASA

Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter took photos of small pits in a large impact crater near the Moon’s north pole, where large stocks of ice are thought to be buried.

The pits are believed to be “skylights”, or entrances to a network of lava tubes, which are tunnels left behind by streams of molten rock.

Space scientists say that such underground tubes could be fitted out to house astronauts, shielding them from deadly radiation from space.

It would also give them access to subsurface ice to provide essential water supplies. Apart from using it to drink, prepare meals and shower, lunar visitors could also extract hydrogen from the water to make rocket fuel.

European astronauts train in a lava tube on the Canary Island of Lanzarote. Image credit: ESA/L. Ricci

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Related: Lunar crater has huge supplies of water ice

The Moon appears dry and has no atmosphere, unlike Earth. However, orbiting missions have discovered that large amounts of water have collected in shadowed regions of craters near the poles which never get any sunlight.

Now lunar geologists are suggesting that water ice might be found in large quantities in the lava tubes, just as it is in similar underground features on Earth.

It would be easier to get at than trying to mine it from within the icy lunar soil, or regolith.

The pits thought to be “skylights” were spotted as rimless depressions on the northeastern floor of a 70 km-wide ( (43-mile) crater called Philolaus, about 550 km (340 miles) from the Moon’s north pole.

They appear along winding channels known as “sinuous rilles” crossing the crater floor which are thought to be collapsed, or partially collapsed, lava tubes.

The discovery of the pits was announced this week at NASA’s Lunar Science for Landed Missions Workshop at Ames Research Center, California.

Planetary experts believe similar lava tubes exist on Mars and could offer astronauts similar protection from radiation there.

 

Philolaus Crater is relatively young because it formed within the last 1.1 billion years.

Dr Pascal Lee, a planetary scientist with the SETI Institute and Mars Institute, said: “The highest resolution images available for Philolaus Crater do not allow the pits to be identified as lava tube skylights with 100 per cent certainty.

“But we are looking at good candidates considering simultaneously their size, shape, lighting conditions and geologic setting.”

He added: “Our next step should be further exploration, to verify whether these pits are truly lava tube skylights, and if they are, whether the lava tubes actually contain ice.

“Exploring lava tubes on the Moon will also prepare us for the exploration of lava tubes on Mars.

“There, we will face the prospect of expanding our search for life into the deeper underground of Mars where we might find environments that are warmer, wetter, and more sheltered than at the surface.”

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