Scientists speculate that massive underground cavities may exist under the lunar surface. And it turns out these so-called "lava tubes" should also be safe enough for a future moon base, according researchers presenting at this week's 46th Lunary and Planetary Conference in Texas.

It's going to be tough to keep a colony on the moon, owing to the complete lack of a protective atmosphere. For this reason, it would make a lot of sense to construct a base underground, which is why scientists have proposed building them inside these tunnel-like volcanic structures. These cave-like channels are remnants of a time when basaltic lava flowed on the moon.

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The Thurston Lava Tube in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. (Credit: Frank Schulenburg/CC)

Now, thanks to the work of David Blair and colleagues from Purdue University in West Lafayette, it appears these subterranean cavities are safe and stable enough for longterm human habitation. In the first assessment of its kind, Blair's team used computer models to calculate the stability of lunar lava tubes of various widths, roof shapes, and roof thicknesses. They concluded that tunnels with widths of one kilometer (~6 miles) should be capable of standing beneath the lunar surface.

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As reported by BBC News, Blair presented a diagram showing his home town of Philadelphia resting within a hypothetical lava tube with a width of 5 km (~3 miles), the apparent maximal width for stability. And according to Blair, lunar lava tubes could actually be this big owing to the moon's low gravity.

Unfortunately, astronomers have not definitely located lava tubes on the moon, but spacecraft have revealed cave entrances โ€” so-called "skylights" โ€” that may open into them.

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And interestingly, Mars should have lava tubes, too. Someone should do a calculation to determine how big these Martian tunnels might be.

[ BBC ]

Top image: LROC

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