Skylight opening on a huge lava tube in the Marius Hills region on the lunar near side.
Credit: NASA/Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC)/Science Operations Center, Arizona State University

Lunar lava tubes are receiving attention by the European Space Agency – considered an interesting option as long-term shelter for future human visitors to the Moon.

Credit: ESA

Through ESA’s Open Space Innovation Platform, a campaign was initiated calling for novel ideas to address detecting, mapping and exploring caves on the Moon. Also involved is the SysNova initiative, a technology assessment scheme using “technology challenges” and competition to survey a comparatively large number of alternative solutions.

Recently, teams behind two of the studies – one from the University of Würzburg and one from the University of Oviedo – were selected to take part in an ESA Concurrent Design Facility study.

Collapse of cavities

Why lava tubes on the Moon?

The presence of these features on the Moon has been well-documented with cameras on board several lunar orbiting missions. But relatively little is known about the presence and nature of subsurface cavities.

Planetary geologists have identified pits within volcanic areas of the lunar maria, perhaps related to the collapse of cavities such as lava tubes – where lava once flowed under the lunar surface.

Could they be utilized to shield astronauts from cosmic radiation and micrometeorites helping to sustain lunar expeditions? Also, do these features possibly provide access to icy water and other resources trapped underground?


Credit: University of Würzburg

Here are some exploration ideas under study:

— University of Würzburg: exploring the concept of lowering a probe using a tether to explore and characterize the entrance, walls and initial part of lunar lava tubes.

— University of Oviedo: investigated the deployment of a swarm of small robots inside a cave, as well as how to transmit data from the robots to a rover on the Moon’s surface.

Credit: University of Oviedo

Going underground

The bottom line for going underground on the Moon: Given that the Moon’s surface is covered by millions of craters, it also hosts hundreds of very steep-walled holes known as pits.

Like doorways to the underworld, photos of some pits clearly show a cavern beneath the Moon’s surface, suggesting that they are ‘skylights’ into extensive lava tubes that can be as wide as New York’s Central Park, and could extend for great distances under the lunar landscape.

2 Responses to “Moon Underground: Long-term Shelter?”

  • Why not fly a ‘Mars helicopter’ designed for the moon and complete with a Lidar system to map the lava tube/pit. It could be done much more quickly than with a robot rover, thus mapping many more such features.

    • Leonard David says:

      Moon has no atmosphere – so a bit tough to use a Mars-like helicopter. But perhaps a rocket-powered drone might be useful to explore caves. Leonard

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