Dec 22, 2016 I Brett Tingley

Scientists Detect Lunar Lava Tubes Perfect For Colonization

As our planet seemingly becomes increasingly angrier with us over our mistreatment of it, many scientists and tycoons alike are eyeing outer space as humanity’s best chance at avoiding a mass extinction event. Leaving our planet for a new cosmic home has long been a trope of science fiction, but more and more developments are making this dream seem closer to soon becoming a reality. While Mars is the usual choice for colonization fantasies, our next door neighbor - our very own moon - might actually be a lot more habitable than we think.

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Images taken by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter show holes believed to be openings of lava tubes.

According to new research published in the astronomy journal Icarus, the moon is likely filled with massive lava tubes large enough to house human settlements. These tubes were formed far in the moon’s past as channels of underground molten rock cooled and left vast, vacant tunnels in their wake.

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City of Philadelphia for scale.

While the researchers have definitively concluded that these tubes could potentially house massive colonies, their structural stability still remains unknown:

Such large sublunarean structures would be of great benefit to future human exploration of the Moon, providing shelter from the harsh environment at the surface—but could empty lava tubes of this size be stable under lunar conditions?

The data behind this study was gathered by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and GRAIL spacecraft, which measures fluctuations in the moon’s gravity. The GRAIL data revealed that there are enormous amounts of mass missing in many parts of the moon, suggesting the existence of the vast underground tunnels.

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These tunnels could be our best bet at off-world colonies.

The researchers ultimately calculated that the lava tubes measuring up to five kilometers in diameter could remain stable enough for the construction of sublunarean colonies. These tubes have stable temperatures of around −20 °C (−4 °F) thanks to around 40m (130 ft) of basalt rock lying between them and the cold vacuum of space. The cavernous tunnels could shield potential lunar colonists from radiation, meteorite impacts, and orbital debris, removing many of the obstacles that surface bases would present. As more and more commercial space firms develop plans to send rovers to the moon, not to mention China’s ambitions to put men back on the moon within the next two decades, it’s likely that our moon will be humanity’s next home long before Mars will. Sorry, Elon.

Brett Tingley

Brett Tingley is a writer and musician living in the ancient Appalachian mountains.

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