Home / Science / This Martian lava tube skylight is 50 meters wide. The largest lava tube on Earth is only 15 meters in diameter

This Martian lava tube skylight is 50 meters wide. The largest lava tube on Earth is only 15 meters in diameter



NASA’s Mariner 9 was the first spacecraft to orbit another planet when it reached Mars in late 1971. It arrived just weeks before the Soviet Union’s Mars 2 and Mars 3 spacecraft, despite being launched 11 days after those missions. Unfortunately, there was a major sandstorm when Mariner 9 arrived and NASA had to wait until January for the spacecraft to get good images.

When he obtained those images, they revealed a surprise: volcanoes and lava flows cover large portions of the Martian surface.

In the decades since Mariner 9’s visit, we have learned a lot about Mars and its geological history. For example, we know that Mars is home to the largest volcano in the Solar System: Olympus Mons.

An image of Olympus Mons, the largest volcano in the solar system, taken by NASA's Mariner 9 probe. Image credit: NASA
An image of Olympus Mons, the largest volcano in the Solar System, taken by NASA’s Mariner 9 spacecraft. Image credit: NASA

But volcanoes and lava flows are only the most visible artifacts of the ancient volcanic activity of Mars. As our technology improved more and more, we were able to see the surface in greater detail. And this revealed the presence of lava tubes on the planet.

Lava tubes form when lava flows below the surface. As the outside of the flowing lava cools and solidifies into a ceiling and walls, the inside stays molten and continues to flow. Eventually, the lava flows out of the tube in a downward direction, leaving the tube.

Lava tubes, also called pyrroducts, can be found on Earth, the Moon and Mars. They can also be found on other bodies that have volcanic activity. But while Earth is larger than Mars, Earth’s lava tubes are smaller than the largest ones on Mars. The HiRISE (High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) recently took a photo of a collapsed lava tube ceiling that is much larger than anything on Earth.

A collapsed section of the ceiling of a lava tube on Mars. This crater is 50 m (150 ft) wide and is located on the flank of the extinct volcano Arsia Mons.Image credit: NASA / JPL / University of Arizona
A collapsed section of a lava tube on Mars. This crater is 50 m (150 ft) wide and is located on the flank of the extinct volcano Arsia Mons.Image credit: NASA / JPL / University of Arizona

When HiRISE took this image, the shadows prevented him from seeing inside the collapsed section, sometimes called the skylight. But if the hole is 50 meters wide, the lava tube is likely to be that big too. On Earth, lava tubes are only 14-15 meters (46-49 feet) wide, although they are typically much narrower.

Some scientists say exploring lava tubes should have some priority. The lava tubes could harbor any simple life that may have survived to this day on Mars. As the planet lost its atmosphere and cooled, the pipes could have provided shelter from increasingly hostile surface conditions. If life had migrated there somehow, it might still be there.

Science journalist Sid Perkins thinks so. In his article “Basic Concept: Lava Tubes May Be Havens for Ancient Alien Life and Future Human Explorers,” he said “If Mars ever harbored life, it may have moved into such shelters as the planet has moved on. evolved and surface conditions have become increasingly harsh. Indeed, some researchers suggest that microbial life may still endure in the underground paradises of the Red Planet. “

If those underground paradises are good enough for Martian microbial life, they could be good enough for humans. Some researchers say habitats or bases could be placed or built inside these tubes. In the same way that they could potentially provide shelter for existing Martian life, they could provide shelter for humans visiting the Moon, or perhaps even Mars itself.

“Lava tubes could provide stable shields from cosmic and solar radiation and the impacts of micrometeorites that often occur on the surfaces of planetary bodies,” said Francesco Sauro, co-author of a comparative study of lava tubes on Earth, Mars and the Moon. . “Plus, they have great potential to provide an environment where temperatures don’t vary from day to night.”

An illustrated cross section of a Martian lava pit with a collapsed roof section, or skylight. Image credit: by Melissausburn - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31385296
An illustrated cross section of a Martian lava pit with a collapsed roof section, or skylight. Image credit: by Melissausburn – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31385296

But before using them for that purpose, we must first explore them. And while there is a strong likelihood that they are similar to pipes on Earth, none have yet been really seen inside. There are pictures showing a portion of the floor of these pipes, but that’s about it.

Images of open lava tubes on the moon. Image credit: NASA / LRO
Images of open lava tubes on the moon. Image credit: NASA / LRO

If we explore them, it will be risky. Astronauts on the Moon or Mars will not be prepared to go caving or to secure each other in the hole. There are probably some people who would dedicate their entire adult life to being the first to enter it, but space agencies are reluctant to put people in that kind of danger.

It will probably be up to the machines to do the initial exploration. And scientists have already thought about it. One concept is the Moon Diver.

The Moon Diver was born from an idea of ​​Laura Kerber of NASA at JPL. She and her colleagues have proposed a mission to explore the Fossa Tranquillitatis on the Moon. The proposal included a stationary lander that would land near the well. He would then release a small two-wheeled rover that would approach the pit and drop inside while still tied to the lander by cable. Unfortunately, the Moon Diver was not chosen for funding. But the idea is still alive.

A prototype of the Axel rover that would be lowered into a lava tube on the Moon as part of the proposed Moon Diver mission. Image Credit: by https://www-robotics.jpl.nasa.gov/systems/system.cfm?System=16 - NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index . php? curid = 81681899
A prototype of the Axel rover that would be lowered into a lava tube on the Moon as part of the proposed Moon Diver mission. Image Credit: by https://www-robotics.jpl.nasa.gov/systems/system.cfm?System=16 – NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index . php? curid = 81681899

There are currently no plans to explore lava tubes on Mars or the Moon. But it might just be a matter of time before you do it. Compared to some of the proposed missions to explore Titan and Europe, for example, a Moon Diver-like mission may not be that complex or expensive.

But until then, they’re tempting targets for cameras.

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