The temperature on the Moon can range from boiling to freezing depending on whether it’s night or day, but scientists believe there may be sheltered pits and caves where the temperature is quite reasonable – regardless of time.
According to new calculations, the temperature in such areas is around 17 degrees Celsius (63 degrees Fahrenheit). They might be ideal for establishing base camps to explore the rest of the lunar surface.
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They may also provide some protection against small meteorites and potentially harmful solar radiation from the Sun. With a comfortable base, future Moon settlers could concentrate on other tasks, such as growing food or conducting research.
“Humans evolved in caves, and we may return to caves when we live on the Moon,” planetary scientist David Paige of the University of California, Los Angeles says (UCLA).
We’ve known about pits on the Moon for a long time. The researchers used images captured by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), specifically its Diviner Lunar Radiometer Experiment thermal camera, to try to estimate the temperature inside a pit in the Moon’s Mare Tranquillitatis region.
Researchers calculated that the sunny area of the hole may hold heat to bake hotter than the surface, reaching as high as 300 degrees Celsius, using computer models to examine the thermal characteristics of the granite over time.
However, in the close-by shadows, the trapped warmth may raise the normally bitterly frigid temperatures to something more tolerable and maintain it there even after the Sun has set.
The second concern is whether a group of explorers may congregate under such overhangs. Some of them appear to do so in images taken from orbit; in fact, molten lava flowing beneath the surface of the Earth has left tunnels in its wake. Some pits may be lava tubes that have collapsed.
In order to estimate the temperatures of individual pixels in the photos taken by the LRO, the researchers had to align and combine several photographs, eradicating any anomalies.
Planetary scientist Tyler Horvath, also from UCLA, explains that because Diviner had never been used to examine objects this small, “we found that it had a bit of double vision, leading all of our maps to be a touch hazy.”
With temperatures ranging from roughly 127 degrees Celsius (261 degrees Fahrenheit) during the day to about – 173 degrees Celsius (minus 279 degrees Fahrenheit) at night, each day and each night on the Moon last about 15 days on Earth.
Long-term lunar research programs would require protection from those extremes for both people and equipment, which would be a significant engineering problem. Finding one or two habitable caves would be a very helpful shortcut.
Through the proposed Moon Diver mission, NASA intends to further investigate the area. During this trip, a rover will descend into the Mare Tranquillitatis pit and look for any nearby cave networks.
According to planetary geologist Noah Petro from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, “Lunar pits are an interesting feature on the lunar surface.” We can better visualize these distinctive lunar features and the possibility of one day investigating them now that we know they produce a stable thermal environment.
Geophysical Research Letters has published the study.