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NASA's Lunar Orbiter spots comfortably warm 'pits' all over the Moon

Shaded bits of lava tubes stay at 17°C all lunar day and all lunar night, a contrast with the rest of Luna's frequent fluctuations

Data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) has led scientists to conclude that the Moon hosts around 200 "pits" that offer stable and human-friendly temperatures.

The pits "always hover around a comfortable 63F/17C, NASA stated on Wednesday.

A steady 17C contrasts markedly with the rest of the Moon's surface, which fluctuates between 127C/260F to -173C/-280F across a full Lunar day.

Coping with those temperatures vastly complicates lunar exploration, for machines and humans.

Warm spots on the Moon are therefore hot property.

“Since the discovery of pits on the Moon by JAXA's SELENE spacecraft in 2009, there has been interest in whether they provide access to caves that could be explored by rovers and astronauts,” wrote researchers who published information on the pits in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

The paper's three authors, UCLA professor of planetary science David Paige, Paul Hayne of the University of Colorado Boulder, and UCLA researcher Tyler Horvath, used data from The Diviner instrument onboard the LRO, which had monitored temps on the lunar surface for more than 11 years.

The researchers focused on a mostly cylindrical pit inside Mare Tranquillitatis, the same region visited by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in 1969, as its thermal environment was more hospitable than any other place on the lunar surface.

The group ran time-dependent 2-D and 3-D models using the data to understand the geometry and heat transfer that could lead to the elevated temperatures.

The researchers concluded that the temperature inside the pit was not only a comfortable temperature, it was very possibly attached to a cave that would also have a similar stable environment.

High-Sun view of the Mare Tranquillitatis pit crater revealing boulders on an otherwise smooth floor. This image from LRO's Narrow Angle Camera is 400 meters (1,312 feet) wide, north is up. Credits: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

The Mare Tranquillitatis pit crater. Image: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University. Click to enlarge.

“If a cave extends from a pit such as this, it too would maintain this comfortable temperature throughout its length, varying by less than 1°C over an entire lunar day,” wrote the researchers, who hypothesized the pit and others like it were created by the ceiling of a collapsed cave.

“For long term colonization and exploration of the Moon, pits may provide a desirable habitat: they are largely free from the constant threats of harmful radiation, impacts, and extreme temperatures,” wrote the researchers. “Thus, pits and caves may offer greater mission safety than other potential base station locales, providing a valuable stepping stone for sustaining human life beyond Earth.”

Better still, the boffins have spotted many pits on the Moon’s nearside, a location that offers the chance for direct-to-Earth communications.

NASA is returning to the Moon with commercial and international partners to both further scientific knowledge and expand human presence in space.

The space org’s Artemis program aims to take humans to the lunar south pole by 2025 in the first crewed lunar landing since 1972’s Apollo 17. ®

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