Scientists have found areas within Moon pits that always remain around 63 degrees Fahrenheit, or 17 degrees Celsius. As lunar surface temperatures heat up to 260 degrees during the day and plummet to 280 degrees below zero at night, pits and caves may serve as safer, more thermally stable bases for lunar exploration.
Even though pits on the Moon were first discovered in 2009, scientists have wondered whether they could provide shelter or lead to caves that could be explored.
According to Tyler Horvath, a UCLA planetary science doctoral student who led the new research, about 16 of the more than 200 pits are likely collapsed lava tubes. Overhangs over two of the largest pits clearly lead to a cave or void, and strong evidence indicates that another’s overhang may also be connected to a cave.
Lava tubes, also found on Earth, are created by the flow of molten lava beneath cooled lava fields or by a crust forming over a river of lava. Solidified lava tubes form pits if their ceilings collapse, which leads to their cavelike interiors.
In his study, Horvath analyzed images from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter’s Diviner Lunar Radiometer Experiment to determine if the temperature within pits differed from the surface temperature.
To analyze the thermal properties of lunar dust and rock and to chart the pit’s temperatures over time, Horvath and his colleagues used computer modeling for a cylinder-shaped 100-meter-deep depression in Mare Tranquillitatis. According to the findings recently published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, the temperature within the permanently shadowed reaches of the pit fluctuates only slightly throughout the lunar day, remaining at around 63 degrees throughout the entire cycle.
In the event that there is a cave at the bottom of the pit, as suggested by those images taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera, then that cave would also be able to maintain this relatively comfortable temperature.
David Paige, UCLA professor of planetary science, and Paul Hayne, University of Colorado Boulder professor of planetary science, also contributed to the study.
They believe the shadowing overhang prevents heat from radiating away at night, thus maintaining a steady temperature during the day. Sunbaked parts of the pit floor reach temperatures close to 300 degrees during the day, about 40 degrees higher than the surface of the Moon.
“Because the Tranquillitatis pit is the closest to the lunar equator, the illuminated floor at noon is probably the hottest place on the entire Moon,” said Horvath.
There are almost 15 Earth days in one Moon day, and the Moon’s surface is constantly bombarded by sunlight, and it’s often hot enough to boil water.
Nights that are unbearably cold last roughly 15 Earth days as well. It would be impossible to explore or inhabit the lunar surface without the invention of heating and cooling equipment capable of performing under these conditions and producing enough energy to power it continuously. After all, solar power — NASA’s most common power source — doesn’t work at night.
In these shadowy pits, scientists can build bases for a variety of purposes, including growing food, providing oxygen for astronauts, collecting resources for experiments, and expanding the base. As well as offering some protection from cosmic rays, solar radiation, and meteorites, pits and caves would also provide some protection from meteorites.
“Humans evolved living in caves, and to caves, we might return when we live on the Moon,” said Paige, who leads the Diviner Lunar Radiometer Experiment.
The Diviner mission has continuously mapped the Moon since 2009. In addition to producing one of NASA’s most comprehensive and detailed thermal measurements, it has also produced the second-largest planetary dataset. Data from the Diviner experiment have been improved by the team’s current work on lunar pits.
“Because nobody else had looked at things this small with Diviner, we found that it had a bit of double vision, causing all of our maps to a be a bit blurry,” said Horvath.
To achieve a thermal reading down to the level of single pixels, the team aligned the many images taken by the instrument. The Moon’s surface was mapped at a much higher resolution as a result of this process.
In NASA’s proposed Moon Diver mission, the rover’s thermal management system is being developed using data from the early stages of this lunar pit thermal modeling project. The rover’s science team includes Horvath and Hayne, and the mission aims to explore any caves or layers of lava flows visible in the pit’s walls.
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