Entire cities could fit into Moon’s monstrous lava tubes

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Lava tubes can be found on planet Earth and the Moon’s and Mars’ subsoil. The presence of lava tubes has often been inferred by observing linear cavities and sinuous collapse chains where the galleries cracked.These collapse chains represent ideal gateways or windows for underground exploration. The morphological surface expression of the lava tubes on Mars and the Moon is similar to their terrestrial counterpart.

A new study carried out by the universities of Bologna and Padua and its coordinators at Francesco Sauro and Riccardo Pozzobon offers an estimate of the (larger) size of their lunar and Martian counterparts.

Scientists have discovered that the lava tubes on Mars and the Moon are so large that they can host planetary bases.

Scientists measured the size and assembled the morphology of the lunar and Martian collapse chains (collapsed lava tubes), using digital terrain models (DEM). The models were obtained using stereoscopic satellite images and laser altimetry taken by interplanetary probes.

Lava tubes on Mars
An image from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows a possible lava tube on Mars near the southern flank of the Martian volcano Arsia Mons. (Image credit: Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter / NASA)

They then compared the data to topographic studies of similar collapse chains on the Earth’s surface and laser scans of the interior of lava tubes in Lanzarote and the Galapagos. These data made it possible to establish a restriction on the relationship between the collapse chains and the still intact underground cavities.

Scientists have found that the lava tubes on Mars and the Moon are 100 times and 1,000 times wider than those on Earth, respectively.

Riccardo Pozzobon said: “Tubes as wide as these can exceed 40 kilometers, making the Moon an extraordinary target for underground exploration and potential colonization in the vast protected and stable environments of the lava tubes. These are so large that they can hold the entire city center of Padua.

Matteo Massironi, who is professor of structural and planetary geology in the Department of Geosciences at the University of Padua, said: “Most importantly, despite the impressive size of the lunar tubes, they stay well within the stability threshold of the roof due to weaker gravitational pull.

“This means that the majority of the lava tubes under the smooth plains of Maria are intact. The collapse chains we observed could have been caused by asteroids piercing the walls of the tube. This is what the chains of collapse of Marius Hills seem to suggest. From the latter, we can access these huge underground cavities.

Francesco Sauro concluded: “Lava tubes could provide stable shields against cosmic and solar radiation and the impacts of micrometeorites that often occur on the surfaces of planetary bodies. In addition, they have great potential to provide an environment in which temperatures do not vary from day to day. Space agencies are now interested in planetary caves and lava tubes, as they represent the first step towards future explorations of the lunar surface (see also NASA’s Artemis project) and towards the discovery of life (past or present) in the basement of Mars.

Scientists have noted, “This study opens up a whole new perspective in planetary exploration, which increasingly focuses on the subsoil of Mars and the Moon.”

Journal reference:
  1. Francesco Sauro et al. Lava tubes on Earth, Moon and Mars: a review of their size and morphology revealed by comparative planetology. DOI: 10.1016 / j.earscirev.2020.103288

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