European Space Agency (ESA) astronauts training in terrestrial lava tubes located on Spain’s Canary Island of Lanzarote.
Credit: L. Ricci/ESA

The use of lava tubes on Mars as emergency shelters and storage has been advanced by researchers at the Antarctic Institute of Canada.

Lava tubes are formed from fast moving lava which later cools and forms roomy caves that might serve various functions for future human expeditions to the Red Planet.

Svetozar Zirnov, Daniel Polo, and Austin Mardon of the institute floated the idea at this week’s Seventh International Conference on Mars Polar Science and Exploration being held in Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina.

Levels of radiation

“There are many issues that astronauts may face while on a space exploration mission to Mars, which include but are not limited to fatal levels of radiation, exposure to rapidly changing extreme temperatures, as well as falling micrometeorites,” the research team explains.

While on Mars’ surface, radiation levels are much higher than those on Earth, they add, and exposure to such fatal levels of radiation is both harmful to the human body, and even deadly.

High Resolution Stereo Camera on the European Space Agency’s Mars Express captured this image of Pavonis Mons, the central volcano of the three ‘shield’ volcanoes that comprise Tharsis Montes. Researchers believe these are lava tubes, channels originally formed by hot, flowing lava that forms a crust as the surface cools.
Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum), CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

“Radiation comes in many ways on Mars’ surface such as solar flares which are constituted similarly to the solar wind, but the individual particles hold higher energies, and galactic cosmic rays which are composed of very high energy particles, mostly protons and electrons. Lava tubes may help to protect astronauts from such levels of radiation, while on a space mission,” they report.

Credit: NASA


Temperature swings

In their paper, Zirnov and colleagues note that exposure to extreme temperatures on Mars must also be taken into account.

They point out that the average daytime temperature on Mars in the winter season is about -80 degrees Fahrenheit, or -60 degrees Celsius in the daytime, while about -195degrees Fahrenheit, or -125 degrees Celsius at night.

In the summer time, the average daytime temperature heats up to about 70 degrees Fahrenheit and 20 degrees Celsius.

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