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Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Lava Tubes Below the Lunar Surface Could be Large Enough for Human Colonies



Source: The Event Chronicle | By Rayan O'Hare, Daily Mail

Researchers modelling the tunnels, left over from volcanic activity in the moon's youth, believe they could potentially be up to three miles (5 km) wide, raising the hope for subterranean bases.

  • Stable tubes up to three miles wide could exist under the moon's surface
  • These networks of caverns could be used to provide shelter for lunar bases
Sub-lunarean bases could avoid the hazards associated with living on the surface, including meteor showers and increased radiation



Networks of lava tubes which snake under the moon's surface suggests they could be larger and more stable than previously thought. The large caverns are thought to have been formed from lava flows which have dried out. Pictured is a lava tube in Reykjavik, Iceland

Researchers used computer models to analyse how large these tunnels could potentially grow.

The estimates exceed previous sizes put forward in 2015, with the group saying the tunnels could be up to three miles wide.

Such huge caverns could provide shelter for lunar bases.

Living underground would overcome potential hazards on the surface, including the risk of meteorites and the increased solar radiation due to the lack of protective atmosphere.

Lava tubes, such as those found in Iceland and Hawaii, are huge tunnels carved out of the rock by flowing lava.

Geologists believe they are formed from streams of magma which ran dry, leaving channels through the solid rock.

Scientists believe the same structures are likely to be found under the lunar surface, based on tiny gravitational changes and images of cave openings gleaned from lunar orbiters.

If the lava tubes are found and are stable, they could provide shelter for a permanent lunar base.

This would overcome the issues around potential hazards faced by a base on the surface, including the risk of meteorites and the increased solar radiation due to the lack of protective atmosphere.

A team from Purdue University in Indiana used computer modelling techniques to analyse how large these tunnels could potentially grow.



Underground bases would overcome potential hazards on the moon's surface, including the risk of meteorites and the increased solar radiation due to the lack of protective atmosphere



Scientists believe the same structures are likely to be found under the lunar surface, based on tiny gravitational changes and images of cave openings gleaned from lunar orbiters

On Earth, the conditions mean that the tubes are often limited to 30 metres across, but the gravitational evidence suggests on the moon they could be much bigger.

Using estimates of rock density from moon rock samples, they assumed that the width of the tubes would be three times wider than their height.

The results revealed that the stability depended on the tube's width, the thickness of the roof and the physical stress on the rock.

In a paper to be published in the journal Icarus next month, the researchers explain that if deep enough, the lunar conditions could potentially generate caverns kilometres wide.



On Earth, the conditions mean that the tubes are often limited to 30 metres across, but the gravitational evidence suggests on the moon they could be much bigger. Pictured is Thurston lava tube in Hawaii



To date no one has discovered an example on the moon. The only indication they exist has been from images taken by spacecraft that have revealed skylights that may be openings to these giant structures (pictured)

They explain: 'The theoretical maximum size of a lunar lava tube depends on a variety of factors, but given sufficient burial depth (500 m) and an initial lithostatic stress state, our results show that lava tubes up to 3 miles (5km) wide may be able to remain structurally stable.'

The estimates exceed previous sizes put forward by the group at a 2015 conference, which suggested that tubes 0.6 miles (1km) in diameter could be stable enough to house permanent bases beneath the surface.

Earlier this year Nasa scientists calculated it may be possible to return to the surface of the moon within the next five to seven years for a total cost of just $10 billion (£6.4 billion).

In a series of papers, spaceflight experts argued the costs of building a lunar base are much lower than expected and that there is substantial commercial value there.

They said a lunar base could double as a commercial mining base to allow the moon's resources to be exploited.

Evidence suggests the moon could be a rich source of water ice, rare metals and a rare isotope of helium.

COULD MINING THE MOON MAKE LIVING THERE AFFORDABLE?

A recent study commissioned by Nasa has estimated the cost of sending humans back to the moon could be reduced by 90 per cent by partnering with private companies and mining for lunar resources.

The study, conducted by the National Space Society and the Space Frontier Foundation, also found permanent lunar base could be established for around $38 billion (£24 billion).

The authors insist opening up lunar exploration to commercial partners could help to dramatically drive down the costs.

The report envisions building an industrial base on the moon that mines water from the lunar soil, processing it to hydrogen that can then be used to fuel spacecraft.

It says the base, which would house four astronauts, could provide around 200 megatons of propellant within 12 years of the initial landings.

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