The Perfect Location For A Moon Base Is A Volcano


The Perfect Location For A Moon Base Is A Volcano

Lava tube on Earth, in the Hawaii National Park. Image credits: Hermann Luyken.

As most of us know, scientists are looking forward when humans will colonize Mars. But there’s also a good chance that a moon base is not that far away either. And with this thought in mind, a team of Japanese researchers have described what perfectly embodies a potential moon base – the inside of a former lava tube on the moon.

There is a good reason why every manned mission that has ever been to the moon lasted at best only 3 days. Our satellites surface is incredibly inhospitable for life. With no atmosphere, the temperature fluctuates wildly, and its subject to constant solar radiation and unhindered meteor impacts. If we were to establish a moon base, we would either have to build it from scratch – which, given the circumstances, would be extremely hard, or we could take advantage of whatever the landscape has to offer.

Lava tubes, or sometimes known as lava tunnels, are perfect places for one such place. These form after a volcanic eruption and where lava flows beneath the surface. After its drained, or it solidifies, it leaves behind a natural tunnel that can protect the early settlers from all the dangers found on the surface.

Our moon once had a rich volcanic activity – seen on the basaltic plains the many astronauts have landed on over the years. It is thus logical to expect some of these lava tubes to exist somewhere underneath the lunar surface. And because the moon’s lower gravity, these potential lava tubes can be much larger than those found here on EArth, simply because they are less prone to collapse under their own weight.

These features could be immense. Here, a model of Philadelphia is shown inside a theoretical lunar lava tube. Image credits: Purdue University/David Blair.

“It’s important to know where and how big lunar lava tubes are if we’re ever going to construct a lunar base,” said Junichi Haruyama, a senior researcher at JAXA, Japan’s space agency. “But knowing these things is also important for basic science. We might get new types of rock samples, heat flow data and lunar quake observation data.”

One of the first obvious hurdles in one such moon base is to find these lava tunnels. Now, in order to pinpoint such tunnels, the Japanese team have worked with other scientists from the GRAIL mission – which is part of NASA which created a high-quality gravitational map of the moon. This map can show areas of the moon which has mass deficits, or sometimes called, negative anomalies, which can be indicative of such lava tunnels beneath the surface.

Gravitational map of the Moon, with positive (red) and negative (blue) anomalies. Image credits: GRAIL / NASA.

Once these areas of interest are identified, the team then looked at radar data coming in from the SELENE spacecraft. These radar waves emitted by the spacecraft bounce back once they hit something hard, like the surface of the moon. But some of those waves also go through. And if they encounter an underground tunnel, they then bounce off of that too. The SELENE spacecraft wasn’t built to identify lava tubes, but it can, nevertheless, identify a ceiling and a floor that have a void between them.

By following this method, the team came across several areas of interest, centred on a region of the moon called Marius Hill. According to the study, these lava tunnels could serve as a “pristine environment to conduct a scientific examination of the Moon’s composition and potentially serve as secure shelters for humans and instruments.”

The Marius Hills Skylight, as observed by the Japanese SELENE/Kaguya research team. Image by: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University.

“They knew about the skylight in the Marius Hills, but they didn’t have any idea how far that underground cavity might have gone,” said Jay Melosh, a GRAIL co-investigator and Distinguished Professor of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at Purdue University. “Our group at Purdue used the gravity data over that area to infer that the opening was part of a larger system. By using this complimentary technique of radar, they were able to figure out how deep and high the cavities are.”