Tag Archives: lava tubes

The many pits of Arsia Mons

The many pits of Arsia Mons

When it comes to Mars, it appears that if you want to find a pit that might be the entrance to an underground system, the place to look is on the slopes of Arsia Mons, the southernmost volcano in the chain of three giant volcanoes between Olympus Mons to the west and the vast canyon Marineris Valles to the east.

To the right is an overview map showing the pits that have been imaged since November by the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The black squares show the pits that I highlighted in previous posts on November 12, 2018, February 22, 2019, and April 2, 2019. The numbered white squares are the new pits found in March photograph release from MRO.

And this is only a tiny sampling. Scientists have identified more than a hundred such pits in this region. Dubbed atypical pit craters by scientists, they “generally have sharp and distinct rims, vertical or overhanging walls that extend down to their floors, surface diameters of ~50–350 m, and high depth to diameter (d/D) ratios” that are much greater than impact craters, facts that all suggest that these are skylights into more extensive lava tubes.

Below are the images of today’s four new pits.
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Lava tubes on Alba Mons

Lava tubes on the western slope of Alba Mons

During oral presentations today at this week’s 50th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Texas, scientists revealed [pdf] a map showing what they believe are numerous lava tubes flowing down the western slope of the giant Martian volcano Alba Mons.

The image on the right is taken from their paper. The red lines indicate collapsed tube sections, maroon collapsed sections on a ridge, and yellow volcanic ridges, which I assume are external surface flows. From their paper:

Lava tube systems … occur throughout the western flank, are concentrated in some locations, and are generally radial in orientation to Alba Mons’ summit. Lava tubes are typically discontinuous and delineated by sinuous chains of elongate depressions, which in many cases are located along the crests of prominent sinuous ridges. Lava tube systems occur as both these ridged forms with lateral flow textures and more subtle features denoted by a central distributary feature within the flat-lying flow field surface. Significant parts of the sinuous volcanic ridges show no collapse features, indicating a distinctive topographic signature for Alba Mons’ lava tubes.

Alba Mons is in some ways the forgotten giant volcano on Mars.
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The lava tubes and canyons of Cerberus Fossae

Cerberus Fossae rock falls

Cool image time! In the November image release from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) I found the image on the right (cropped to post here), dubbed “Possible Rock Falls on Steep Slopes in Cerberus Fossae.” You can see the full image by clicking on the photo on the right.

The cropped section focuses on the steep cliffs of this deep canyon, formed when lava flowed down from the giant volcano Elysium Mons almost like water, following the faults created by the bulging volcanoes to carve a long series of parallel canyons more seven hundred miles in length. Not only can individual boulders be seen piled up on the base of the canyon, you can see on the lower right a large section of cliff that has broken off and partly fallen, propped now precariously on the cliff’s steep slope. I would not want to be hiking below it at the base of this canyon.

Elysium Mons and Cereberus Fossae

This photograph itself made me more interested in looking at other MRO images of Cerberus Fossae. The context map on the right shows that MRO has taken numerous images along the length of these faults, indicated by the red boxes. The location of the above image is shown by the white cross, at the western end where the canyons tend to be steep, deep, and pronounced. In taking a look at the many images of Cerberus Fossae, I found a variety of canyons, plus pit chains, lava tube skylights, and one especially intriguing image, posted below, that shows what appears to be an extended collapse along the length of what was once an underground lava tube.
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A lava tube entrance near the Moon’s north pole?

Philolaus Crater near lunar north pole

In reviewing Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter data scientists think they have discovered several skylight entrances into a lava tube that is located near the Moon’s north pole.

The new pits were identified on the northeastern floor of Philolaus Crater, a large, 43 mile (70 km)-diameter impact crater located at 72.1oN, 32.4oW, about 340 miles (550 km) from the North Pole of the Moon, on the lunar near side. The pits appear as small rimless depressions, typically 50 to 100 feet across (15 to 30 meters), with completely shadowed interiors. The pits are located along sections of winding channels, known on the Moon as “sinuous rilles,” that crisscross the floor of Philolaus Crater. Lunar sinuous rilles are generally thought to be collapsed, or partially collapsed, lava tubes, underground tunnels that were once streams of flowing lava.

“The highest resolution images available for Philolaus Crater do not allow the pits to be identified as lava tube skylights with 100 percent certainty, but we are looking at good candidates considering simultaneously their size, shape, lighting conditions and geologic setting” says Pascal Lee, planetary scientist at the SETI Institute and the Mars Institute who made the new finding at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley.

…Prior to this discovery, over 200 pits had been found on the Moon by other researchers, with many identified as likely skylights leading to underground lava tubes associated with similar sinuous rilles. However, today’s announcement represents the first published report of possible lava tube skylights in the Moon’s polar regions.

The floor of the crater as a lot of rilles, and a close look at that crater floor reveals to me a lot of possible sky light entrances, more than indicated by the images at the llink. (Go here, click on projections and pick “Orthographic (North Pole).” Then zoom in on the crater indicated by the yellow X in my image on the right above.)

The key here is that caves or lava tubes provide a good place to cheaply and quickly establish a lunar colony. While it is suspected that water might survive in permanently shadowed regions near the poles, up until now no one had found any good underground locations there. If this suspected skylight entrances prove true, this crater then becomes prime real estate on the Moon.

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Thirty mile cave on the Moon?

A new analysis of data from Japan’s Kaguya lunar orbiter suggests that one of the cave pits it found could be an entrance to a lava tube 30 miles long.

In 2009, the Kaguya probe found a large shaft with an opening about 50 meters in diameter in the Marius Hills area. The shaft descends about 50 meters beneath the surface.

The JAXA team analyzed data obtained from a lunar radar sounder on the probe that indicated an underground structure extended west from the shaft. The study confirmed that the cavern, likely created by volcanic activity, has not collapsed, and there is the possibility of ice or water existing in rocks within the cave, the team said.

Do a search on Behind the Black using the search terms “cave” and “moon” and you will see many images of this pit, taken by Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter as a follow-up to the Kaguya mission.

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Lunar lava tubes could be big

New research now suggests that the lava tubes on the Moon have the potential to be very large, much larger than found on Earth.

On Earth, such structures max out at around 30 meters across, but the gravitational data suggest that the moon’s tubes are vastly wider. Assessing the sturdiness of lava tubes under lunar gravity, planetary geophysicist Dave Blair of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., and colleagues estimate that the caves could remain structurally sound up to 5 kilometers across. That’s wide enough to fit the Golden Gate Bridge, Brooklyn Bridge and London Bridge end to end.

This isn’t really news, merely a confirmation of what other scientists have been theorizing for decades. What it tells us again is that the first permanent and successful lunar colonies will almost certainly be located in such tubes, since they provide ready-made radiation shielding as well as protection from the wild swings of temperature seen on the lunar surface. In the lava tube, the temperature will likely remain quite stable, making environmental control a much simpler problem.

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Giant lava tubes possible on the Moon

New analysis of the lunar geology combined with gravity data from GRAIL now suggests that the Moon could harbor lava tubes several miles wide.

David Blair, a graduate student in Purdue’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, led the study that examined whether empty lava tubes more than 1 kilometer wide could remain structurally stable on the moon. “We found that if lunar lava tubes existed with a strong arched shape like those on Earth, they would be stable at sizes up to 5,000 meters, or several miles wide, on the moon,” Blair said. “This wouldn’t be possible on Earth, but gravity is much lower on the moon and lunar rock doesn’t have to withstand the same weathering and erosion. In theory, huge lava tubes – big enough to easily house a city – could be structurally sound on the moon.”

You can read their paper here. If this is so, then the possibility of huge colonies on the Moon increases significantly, as it will be much easier to build these colonies inside these giant lava tubes.

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Scientists have found microbes inside a lava tube that can thrive in the freezing cold and low oxygen environment of Mars.

Scientists have found microbes inside a lava tube that can thrive in the freezing cold and low oxygen environment of Mars.

In a laboratory setting at room temperature and with normal oxygen levels, the scientists demonstrated that the microbes can consume organic material (sugar). But when the researchers removed the organic material, reduced the temperature to near-freezing, and lowered the oxygen levels, the microbes began to use the iron within olivine – a common silicate material found in volcanic rocks on Earth and on Mars – as its energy source.

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