The surface of the moon isn’t exactly Hawaii or even Siberia. NASA scientists scanning for places where astronauts could someday set up bases and living quarters there have decided that it’s the pits … not the idiom but the real thing.
Since the lunar surface is covered with millions of craters, NASA scientists have been looking for some that might be good locations for both shelters and exploration. In a paper published in the journal Icarus, Robert Wagner of Arizona State University focuses on holes in the craters called “pits” and describes their benefits:
Pits would be useful in a support role for human activity on the lunar surface. A habitat placed in a pit — ideally several dozen meters back under an overhang — would provide a very safe location for astronauts: no radiation, no micrometeorites, possibly very little dust, and no wild day-night temperature swings.
Wager developed a computer algorithm that scanned hundreds of high-resolution images taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) spacecraft using its Narrow Angle Camera (NAC). With just 40 percent of the lunar surface imaged so far, the algorithm has already identified over 200 pits in 29 craters. The pits could be the result of melt ponds formed by lava flow from a meteorite impact or from when a cave collapsed due to the vibrations from a nearby impact. Besides providing protection from the elements, the pits and caves could provide insights on how the lunar seas or maria were formed.
More pit exploration is planned. Beside scanning for other pits, Wagner says that additional information is needed on those already identified.
The ideal follow-up, of course, would be to drop probes into one or two of these pits, and get a really good look at what’s down there. Pits, by their nature, cannot be explored very well from orbit — the lower walls and any floor-level caves simply cannot be seen from a good angle. Even a few pictures from ground-level would answer a lot of the outstanding questions about the nature of the voids that the pits collapsed into. We’re currently in the very early design phases of a mission concept to do exactly this, exploring one of the largest mare pits.
In the meantime, I have a sudden taste for a peach.