NASA’s LRO Finds Lunar Pits Harbor Comfortable Temperatures

NASA-funded scientists have uncovered shaded regions within pits on the Moon that always hover around 63 F (approximately 17 C) Using data from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) mission and computer modeling.

The trenches and caves to which they may lead would make thermally stable sites for lunar research compared to areas on the Moon’s surface, which heat up to 260 F (about 127 C) during the day and cool to minus 280 F (approximately minus 173 C) at night. Lunar exploration is part of NASA’s objective to explore and comprehend the unknown in space to inspire and benefit humanity.

Pits were originally identified on the Moon in 2009, and scientists have pondered if they lead to caves that may be explored or utilized as shelters. The pits or caves would also give some protection from cosmic rays, solar radiation, and micrometeorites.

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About 16 of the more than 200 holes are presumably collapsed lava tubes, said Tyler Horvath, a doctorate student in planetary science at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“Lunar pits are a fascinating feature on the lunar surface,” said LRO Project Scientist Noah Petro of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Knowing that they produce a stable temperature environment helps us imagine these unique lunar features and the idea of studying them.

Lava tubes, also found on Earth, form when molten lava flows beneath a field of cooled lava or a crust forms over a river of lava, producing a lengthy, hollow tunnel. If the ceiling of a solidified lava tube collapses, it opens a pit that can go into the cave-like tube.

Two of the most conspicuous pits have overhangs that plainly lead to caves or voids, and there is a strong indication that another’s overhang may also connect to a major cave.

“Humans evolved living in caves, and to caves, we may return when we live on the Moon,” said David Paige, co-author of the report and leader of the Diviner Lunar Radiometer Experiment aboard LRO, which made the temperature measurements used in the study.

Horvath analyzed data from Diviner, a thermal camera, to see if pit temperatures differed from the surface.

Horvath and his colleagues focused on a 328-foot (100-meter) depression in the Mare Tranquillitatis to examine the thermal characteristics of the rock and lunar dust and monitor the pit’s temperatures over time.

The permanently darkened regions of the pit fluctuate just slightly over the lunar day, remaining approximately 63 F or 17 C. If a cave extends from the bottom of the pit, as LRO’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera suggests, it too would be warm.

The team, which includes UCLA professors of planetary science David Paige and Paul Hayne of the University of Colorado Boulder, believes the shadowing overhang is responsible for the consistent temperature, limiting how hot things become during the day and preventing heat from escaping away at night.

A day on the Moon lasts around 15 Earth days, during which the surface is constantly assaulted by sunlight and often hot enough to boil water. Extremely frigid nights endure roughly 15 Earth days.

The research was financed by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Extended Mission 4. LRO is operated by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. Launched on June 18, 2009, LRO has captured a treasure mine of data with its seven sophisticated sensors, contributing to our knowledge of the Moon. Diviner was developed by the University of California, Los Angeles, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

NASA is returning to the Moon with commercial and international partners to expand human presence in space and bring back new knowledge and opportunities.

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