China has recently expressed interest in the idea of constructing bases within lunar caves, as these environments may offer unique protections for astronauts stationed on the Moon.
Lunar caves could provide valuable protection from a myriad of hazards such as cosmic and solar radiation, meteorites, extreme temperature variations, and impact ejecta.
The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) has identified hundreds of lunar “skylights” – openings into lava tubes formed through ancient volcanic activity on the Moon’s surface.
These lava tubes, or pyroducts, might exist in substantial sizes, potentially several hundred meters in diameter, offering significant space for establishing bases. Astronauts inside these tubes would benefit from the natural protection offered by the thick rock ceilings of these structures.
The formation of these lava tubes is attributed to the cooling of lava that once flowed across the lunar surface, leaving behind empty tubes after the molten material drained away.
Although lunar volcanism’s exact timeline remains uncertain, the tubes represent ancient, untouched structures, potentially providing a pristine environment for scientific exploration and habitation.
Temperature regulation is a crucial advantage of these lunar caves. The Moon experiences extreme temperature swings, with one side facing temperatures as high as 127°C (260°F) in sunlight and the dark side plummeting to -173°C (-280°F).
The steady-temperature environment within the lava tubes presents a more hospitable and manageable setting for both astronauts and their equipment.
Radiation on the lunar surface is about 150 times more powerful than on Earth, posing a severe risk to humans.
However, the several meters of rock overhead in the lunar caves can act as a substantial barrier, offering effective protection from this deadly hazard. The caves also minimize the risk of impacts from meteorites and other debris.
At a conference, Zhang Chongfeng from the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology presented a study delving into the underground world of these lava tubes, according to state-run news outlet Xinhua.
According to Zhang, his team has conducted fieldwork in several lava caves in China to build up their understanding of lunar lava tubes.
Zhang said there is a certain similarity between lava tubes on Earth and the Moon, explaining that they can be divided into the vertical entrance tube and the slope entrance tube.
China plans to deploy robotic systems designed to explore lunar caves, starting with the one in Mare Tranquillitatis. The primary probe, equipped to navigate challenging terrains, will carry scientific instruments.
Auxiliary vehicles, designed to perform various functions including reconnaissance and providing energy support, will accompany the main probe. These might include multi-legged crawlers, rollers, and bouncing probes, all equipped with scientific instruments.
Plans are also underway for flight-capable robots that can autonomously navigate through the lunar tubes using microwave and laser radars.
Following successful exploration missions, China envisions establishing a long-term underground research base within one of the lunar lava tubes. This base would incorporate residential and research facilities, supported by an energy and communication center at the entrance.
Though China has been somewhat reserved in sharing information about their space activities, it is evident that their space exploration endeavors are on the rise.
In Spring 2023, China announced plans to begin construction of a Moon base by 2028, though it is unclear whether this refers to a lunar lava tube base.
Ding Lieyun, a top scientist at Huazhong University of Science and Technology, told the China Science Daily: “Eventually, building habitation beyond the Earth is essential not only for all humanity’s quest for space exploration but also for China’s strategic needs as a space power.”
In anticipation of future lunar missions, Chinese researchers have been actively studying various lunar regions, including Mare Tranquillitatis and Mare Fecunditatis, with a focus on their volcanic features and potential suitability for hosting lunar bases.
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