NASA’s Artemis program will not only return crewed missions to the moon — it seeks to also establish sustainable lunar exploration by the end of the decade. One critical component of sustainable exploration is constructing centers for research and human habitation on the moon.

Interestingly, the moon itself may be able to provide some of the structure for a crewed facility. As early as the 1960s, NASA has considered the possibilities of underground natural cavities — the moon’s lava tubes.

The lunar surface is dotted by maria, or large basins, such as the Sea of Tranquility where the Apollo 11 mission landed in 1969. These maria are often marked channels, called rilles, that were caused by large lava flows. If the surface portion of these flows cools, then a lava tube can be formed once the remaining magma drains from the area. The presence of such lava tubes is evidenced by the presence of what looks like a pit on the maria.

These lunar lava tubes could be an invaluable resource for supporting longterm human presence on the moon. As natural cavities below the surface, the moon’s lava tubes offer many advantages for a human-occupied lunar facility:

  • A habitat could be placed inside with a minimal amount of building or burrowing;
  • There’s natural environmental control;
  • There’s protection from natural hazards (i.e., cosmic rays, meteorites and micrometeorite impacts, impact crater ejecta);
  • They’re ideal natural storage facilities for vehicles and machinery.

Like a mine shaft, the lava tubes could also provide access to valuable materials. They could be access points to pristine lunar material that has not been modified by micro-meteorite impacts or by space weathering from the interaction with the solar wind. They may also provide ready access to volatile chemical elements, such as sulfur, iron, and oxygen, as well as pyroclastic debris that could be used as a construction material.

However, by their very nature, lava tubes present exceptionally hazardous sites for exploration. Challenges likely include obstacles such as very rocky terrain, steep inclines, low light, and limited communications.

Your team’s mission is to develop possible solutions to these challenges.

More reading on lava tube exploration

“NASA Considers a Rover Mission to Go Cave Diving on the Moon” — Smithsonian Magazine; March 26, 2019.