Officially NASA is not interested in a return to the moon, thanks to a presidential directive. However, according to a Thursday announcement, the space agency has suggested that when astronauts do colonize the moon, they might live underground, using lava tubes formed billions of years ago. These lava tubes could be accessed using “lunar pits” or holes in the surface that have been discovered by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. These holes range from five meters to 900 meters in diameter.
The idea is that living below the lunar surface in lava tubes would protect future moon colonists from radiation and micrometeorites. The holes were likely formed when the roof of a lava tube collapsed, likely as a result of vibrations caused by a nearby meteor strike. The lava tubes were formed when lava flowed through the lunar crust and then drained away.
The LRO has discovered 200 or so of these lunar pits, but there are likely many more to be found. The orbiting probe has only imaged 40 percent of the lunar surface when lighting has been optimal enough to reveal the lunar pits. NASA scientists are refining the LRO’s search program to discover more pits and distinguish them from ordinary impact craters.
The next step, according to researchers, would be to land a robot into one or more of the pits to explore what may lay beneath. In effect, it would involve robotic spelunking. Such a mission would not only be of interest from a geological standpoint, but might serve to scout out locations for humanity’s first home on another world.
But as the Houston Chronicle’s Eric Berger suggests, NASA remains focused on sending astronauts to Mars. This is despite the opinion of a great many outside experts, international partners, and politicians that the moon should be the next target for space exploration. The bottom line is that funding a robot lunar cave explorer will be a tough sale under the current administration.