The SETI Institute and the Mars Institute, using images acquired by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, has discovered possible entrances to Lava Tubes on the northeastern floor of Philolaus Crater near the North Pole of the moon. Since scientists believe that permanently shadowed craters at the lunar poles contain ample deposits of Water Ice, the discovery has enormous implications for future lunar colonies and economic development.

What are lava tubes on the moon?

Lava tubes on the moon were formed when lava flowed across the surface. The lava eventually hardened on the surface with flows continuing underground.

When the underground lava flows drained, huge caverns were formed, some large enough to contain a small city. The entrances to these underground voids occurred when part of the roof of the tube collapsed. Some 200 of these “skylights” have been found on the lunar surface. The lava tubes are thought to be ideal locations for future lunar colonies as they provide some protection from radiation and meteor strikes.

Why is the discovery near the moon’s North Pole important?

The possible caverns at the Philolaus Crater could contain deposits of water ice that have accumulated over billions of years. If ice exists inside lava tubes at the North Pole, it can be more easily extracted than if future colonists were obliged to mine it from underneath the lunar regolith.

The ice could be located next to the possible site of lunar colonies, greatly simplifying the process of mining, processing, and eventually using the product.

What should happen next?

The next step should be further exploration of the Philolaus Crater region to determine if what were seen in the images are, in fact, entrances to the tubes.

Robotic explorers should be sent inside the lava tubes to specify their dimensions and confirm whether or not the suspected ice deposits exist.

Eventually, human astronauts should pay the lava tubes underneath the Philolaus Crater a visit, should they exist. If ice is discovered, it can be extracted and stored for future lunar colonists.

The colony, once it is in place, would start to process the ice, partly for its own use, but partly to create rocket fuel to be sold to both government and commercial customers.

The discovery will no doubt impact NASA’s current plans to return to the moon, recently mandated by the Trump administration. A number of other countries, such as China and India, also have lunar ambitions. Commercial companies such as Moon Express, Astrobotic, and Blue Origin have moon exploration plans, not only in partnership with government space agencies but also on behalf of commercial customers.