TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — An engineering researcher at The University of Alabama is part of a project garnering international attention to potential sites for future habitats on the moon.
Dr. Rohan Sood, UA assistant professor of aerospace engineering and mechanics, is co-author on a paper published in Geophysical Research Letters this week that highlights the existence of a vast cavern carved out by ancient lava flows on the moon that could protect humans from the harmful environment of the lunar surface.
The work confirms and expands previous findings Sood took part in that used radar data to show potential lava tubes across the moon.
“There is already an interest in lava tubes, but this confirmation is going to put a path toward a definite need for us to go back to the moon,” Sood said.
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, whose researchers are also co-authors on the paper, announced a lunar orbiter had found one promising cavern on the near side of the moon. JAXA used radar on the SELENE spacecraft to examine the Marius Hills Hole, a skylight, or hole, revealing the skylight led to a lava tube nearly 110 yards wide and about 30 miles wide.
Sood, who joined UA in February, was part of a team while a graduate student at Purdue University that used data from a NASA mission to find the plausibility of these caverns, known as lava tubes, under the lunar surface. Sood presented the findings at the 2016 Lunar and Planetary Science Conference.
Sood is part of a group proposing a new lunar mission that employs remote sensing techniques to scan the sub-surface, thus, verifying the existence, depth and extent of additional lava tubes under the moon’s surface. The ultimate goal is to learn from the moon as there is evidence of lava tubes on Mars, as well.
“The surface environment is too harsh on both the moon and Mars. If you could set up a habitat inside an accessible lava tube, you could potentially be safe from the extreme conditions that exist on the surface of the two bodies,” he said.
The research team Sood is a part of used data collected by the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory, or GRAIL, mission in 2012. Two spacecraft flying low over the moon communicated with each other and mission control on Earth to map the moon’s gravity.
Minute variations in the gravity revealed potential voids under the moon’s surface that, when compared with a visual map of the surface, showed the likely location of lava tubes, Sood said.
The protection lava tubes could provide for future human habitats might also cradle life on Mars, Sood said. After all, lava tubes on Earth harbor small microscopic animal and plant life.
The moon should provide the training ground for Mars, which is too far away and too harsh to risk figuring out how to make lava tubes work as sites for setting up future Martian habitats, Sood said.
“Lunar lava tubes are worth exploring, and we should examine them before going to Mars,” he said. “It will be a good idea to investigate the potential for setting up human habitats, and you can explore them on the moon and take the lessons learned to Mars.”
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