Japanese scientists say they may have found an ideal location for a future lunar base, something that might particularly interest the US, which has recently refocused on the Moon.
The region is a crater in the Moon's Marius Hills, which is thought to be hiding a lava tube. As reported previously, lava tubes are thought to be huge caverns under the Moon's surface that provide natural protection from radiation and the Sun, left over from when lava first formed channels and cooled on the surface.
In this latest study, published in Geophysical Research Letters, the team from the Japanese space agency (JAXA) looked at data from their SELENE spacecraft. This orbited the Moon from 2007 to 2009. They found an intact lava tube that they say provides optimal shelter.
“Lunar lava tubes are important from various science perspectives and provide potential sites for future lunar base construction,” the team wrote in their paper.
“Since the insides of lava tubes are shielded from meteorite bombardment, cosmic radiation, or particle implantation, they are expected to be in pristine condition, an environment with preserved lava composition, textures and even volatiles.”
Using radar data from SELENE, the team managed to find this lava tube underground. At Marius Hills, near the Moon's equator, they saw an echo pattern consistent with that of an underground cavern. The crater at the top, Marius Crater, is thought to be a skylight to the cavern below.
To find out how deep the cavern was, they consulted scientists from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) mission. Using gravity data, this showed that the cavern is part of a larger chain that extends for 60 kilometers (37 miles), and is at least 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) high and wide. It begins a few tens to hundreds of meters below the surface.
“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, in a statement.
This is the first time we’ve got a really clear look at lava tubes, which seems especially poignant as the US recently announced it was going to shift focus away from Mars and back to lunar exploration. SpaceX, too, has plans to build some sort of lunar base.
If we do decide to build a base on the Moon, it seems lava tubes might be a pretty good bet. With the added protection they afford, they could allow us to explore the lunar surface like never before. Perhaps Marius Hills will be a prime destination.