Future lunar astronauts may want to brush up on their spelunking skills: the first lava tube has been discovered on the moon.
In a recent paper published in Geophysical Research Letters, Junichi Haruyama and colleagues report that they have discovered a mysterious hole in the lunar surface in high resolution images from the Kaguya spacecraft. The hole is 65 meters in diameter and is located in the volcanic Marius Hills region on the near side of the moon, right in the middle of a long sinuous rille. Sinuous rilles are thought to be formed by flowing lava, either on the surface or in enclosed lava tubes.
Of course, there are a lot of ways to form a hole in the surface of the moon. The most obvious is with an impact: the moon has literally been battered to pieces over the years by rocks from space. Couldn’t this hole be a fresh impact crater? Nope. Haruyama’s team observed the hole nine separate times, at various illumination angles, and even when the sun was almost directly overhead it looked mostly black, suggesting that it is very deep. They calculate a depth of around 88 meters, so the hole is deeper than it is wide. No impact crater is like that.
Another possibility is that the hole is due to some sort of volcanic eruption, but there is no sign of volcanic deposits like lava flows or ash emanating from the hole. The hole is isolated, so it isn’t likely to be due to a fracture in the lunar crust either – you would expect such a fracture to form a chain of holes.
Haruyama’s team concluded that the most likely explanation is that the hole that they discovered is a “skylight” – a location where the roof of a lava tube collapsed, either when the lava filling the tube flowed away, or later in the moon’s history due to an impact, moonquake, or tidal forces from the Earth. If it is a lava tube, their calculations based on the multiple images of the hole show that the tube could be 370 meters across.
Lava tubes are important in understanding how lava was transported on the early moon, but they are not just a scientific curiosity: they may also provide valuable refuges for future human explorers. The surface of the moon is not protected from the harsh radiation of space by a magnetic field or a thick atmosphere, so a long term human presence would be most feasible if astronauts could spend most of their time shielded underground. Digging a hole large enough to fit an entire moon colony in it would be a huge engineering challenge, but lava tubes could provide ready-made locations for a well-shielded base, making future astronauts the most technologically advanced cave-dwellers in history.