New research on the lunar lava tubes found near the moon’s north pole suggests that the pits, or holes, found in the area might be entrances to underground tunnels that in turn lead to a hidden source of water.
A team of scientists from the SETI Institute and the Mars Institute wrote in a study published this week that the small pits are most likely lava tube skylights that lead into ancient underground tunnels that were filled with lava at earlier points in the moon’s history. CNET wrote that the tunnels could potentially play a key role as scientists determine if it’s possible to tap into supplies of usable water while on the moon.
Lava tubes, according to Newsweek, are empty tunnels created during the period in the moon’s early history when it still had a number of active volcanoes. These are similar to the tubes found on Earth and occasionally created during volcanic eruptions when the outer edges of lava flow cool down and solidify, thereby trapping streams of lava that are still flowing.
As seen in parts of the moon’s surface, the tubes often come in the form of sinuous riles, which are winding depressions that are believed to be connected to crushed lava tubes from millions of years back. There are, however, some instances where parts of the tunnels’ ceiling would cave in, which results in the supposed skylights the researchers had highlighted in their new study.
In a press release posted on the SETI website, SETI Institute and Mars Institute planetary scientist Pascal Lee said that it isn’t absolutely sure if the holes represent skylights that lead into tunnels. The holes were spotted on the northeastern floor of the Philolaus Crater, a lunar feature located about 340 miles (550 kilometers) from the moon’s north pole.
“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”
Possible Lava Tube Skylights Discovered Near the North Pole of the Moon - small pits in a large crater near the North Pole of the Moon, which may be entrances to an underground network of lava tubes | @pascalleetweets https://t.co/48edtN8zzX pic.twitter.com/eHZvmkjCQk— The SETI Institute (@SETIInstitute) January 12, 2018
While scientists have found more than 200 pits on the moon’s surface that are suspected to be skylights, Lee’s team appears to have found the first potential skylights ever discovered in the moon’s polar region, where water ice is known to build up. Assuming the lava tubes do indeed contain ice, CNET wrote that future moon travelers could possibly benefit from a source of usable water that wasn’t believed to be available in the past.
Given the many questions that weren’t answered by his team’s study, Lee said that more research is needed to fully confirm if the holes are lava tube skylights and if the tunnels they are linked to contain water ice. The tubes themselves may also be a key factor as NASA plans upcoming moon missions, may they be manned or unmanned, and decides where to land the spacecraft it will use.
In addition to helping NASA choose landing sites for moon missions, Lee said that the new lunar lava tube discovery could also prepare researchers for similar studies, this time looking into the possibility of lava tubes on Mars that might also be paths toward underground sources of water.