Moon caves could provide shelter for astronauts

A typical forecast on the moon is far from cozy, with temperatures ranging from boiling during the day to 280 degrees below zero at night. However, according to a new study, unique selling propositions are known as moon pits could offer an oasis from the rollercoaster temperatures.

To learn what these lunar pits might look like, a team of planetary scientists from UCLA used NASA thermal imaging cameras Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiters and found that the temperature, at least in one of these pits, is always a constant 63 degrees. The findings were recently published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, and UCLA’s newsroom is calling it the discovery of year-round “sweater weather.”

One of the study authors, Tyler Horvath, a Ph.D. student at UCLA said the pit could be the opening of a lava tube or cave and would be an ideal place for astronauts to live, offering perfect temperatures and protection from meteorites and radiation.

“Imagine a full day on the moon… you have 15 days of extreme heat, well above the boiling point of water. And then you have 15 days of extreme cold, which is among the coldest temperatures in the entire solar system,” Horvath said. “So being able to be in a place where you don’t have to expend energy during that 15 day night to keep warm is almost invaluable, because if you’re trying to use solar energy as your main energy source during the night, you’re going to have energy too get it, you can’t do that in 15 days.”

The UCLA research team focused on the canyon in the Sea of ​​Tranquility, or Mare Trenquillitatis region, which is about 220 miles from the Apollo 11 landing site and also equidistant Apollo 17 landing site.

A cozy pixel on the moon

A 250 meter-per-pixel map using the mean of all channel 6 and 8 brightness temperature measurements taken between 9:00 p.m. and 4:00 a.m. for (a) the Mare Tranquillitatis pit and (b) the Mare Ingenii pit became.
UCLA researchers spotted a single pixel in infrared images, suggesting there are warmer spots on the moon.
NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

NASA’s LRO spacecraft is continuously orbiting the Moon, taking measurements with its suite of instruments, including the Diviner Lunar Radiometer, which has been continuously mapping the Moon’s thermal emissions since 2009.

UCLA planetary scientist David Paige is the principal investigator of the Diviner instrument and the lead author of the new lunar pit study.

Horvath was commissioned to create a 3D model of one of these interesting pits in the Mare Trenquillitatis region. During this process, the team noticed a single pixel in the infrared images that was warmer than most spots on the moon at night when temperatures are falling.

“We found that it was able to warm up very quickly and maintain a slightly warmer temperature than the surface normally does at night,” Horvath explained. “We’re like, ‘Oh, this might be more interesting than we thought.'”

Japan's SELENE/Kaguya Terrain Camera and Multiband Imager imaged the Moon's ancient volcanic region called the Marius Hills.
Japan’s SELENE/Kaguya Terrain Camera and Multiband Imager imaged the Moon’s ancient volcanic region called the Marius Hills.
NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

After re-examining the Diviner data and accounting for the sunlight the pit receives, the team determined the temperature of the pit floor during the day. Unfortunately, this doesn’t confirm a cave opening, but that’s still the working theory about these pits formed by ancient volcanic activity.

“It was still a cool finding that if there was a cave there, it would endure temperatures of 63 Fahrenheit all the time, 24 seven every day forever,” Horvath said.

How the Trenquillitatis Pit and other caves on the moon maintain their temperature is related to a physical concept known as the blackbody cavity, which can self-regulate to maintain its temperature.

“It’s essentially a surface that’s a perfect emitter and absorber of radiation,” explains Horvath.

The temperature at the bottom of the pit also depends on its position relative to the Earth and the Moon from the Sun.

“If you’re closer to the sun, the temperature would be hotter,” Horvath said. “As you get further from the sun, it gets colder.”

How did lava tubes form on the moon?

Even from Earth, it’s evident that the moon has interesting features, including craters of all shapes and sizes. In 2009, the Japanese orbiting Kaguya spacecraft discovered a new type of lunar feature in the form of deep chasms that researchers believe may contain formed caves through collapsed lava tubes, similar to those on Earth.

Thurston Lava Tube - Volcanoes National Park, Big Island, Hawaii, USA.
UCLA researchers believe the moon has lava tubes similar to Devil’s Throat in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
Sergi Reboredo/VW PICS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Horvath explains that billions of years ago there was very intense volcanic activity and lava flows created the dark spots we see today when we look up at the moon. The lava at the surface cooled first because it was exposed to the frigid temperatures of space where the caves beneath the lava were still flowing.

“In some places, that lava will come out completely, leaving a hollow tube, a lava tube beneath the surface,” Horvath said. “These pits are kind of our way of seeing that they exist, that there’s a way into them and that they could be anywhere.”

NASA describes the Moon pits as “skylights” where the roof of the lava tube collapsed.

On Earth, the UCLA research team behind the study even visited a lava tube in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park known as Devil’s Throat, which is similar in size to the Mare Trenquillitatis pit. The park is home to other lava tubes like the one pictured above that visitors can walk through.

Without physically going to the moon and climbing down into one of these pits, researchers will have a hard time figuring out if these vast caverns exist. Ultimately, this could be possible as NASA plans to bring humans back to the moon and establish a permanent base over the next four years.

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