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Scientists are developing technology to look into unexplored lunar caves

Posted August 17, 2015

Many believe that our Moon has networks of caves underneath its surface, created when violent lava flows tore under the surface from ancient volcanoes. In fact, some of the famous moon craters may actually be places where ceilings of these caves have crumbled down. However, since there are expeditions to the moon planned in the near future, scientists have to find remote ways to study these possible locations of caves. Now there is a unique imaging technology being developed at the Morgridge Institute for Research.

Everyone knows surface of our moon is scattered with various craters. However, scientists believe some of them to be skylights of underground caves that were formed by lava flows. Now they are developing technology to research them closer. Image credit: NASA,

Everyone knows surface of our moon is scattered with various craters. However, scientists believe some of them to be skylights of underground caves that were formed by lava flows. Now they are developing technology to research them closer. Image credit: NASA,

And capabilities of this technology are rather impressive, as scientists now can literally see around corners and study these possible openings of caves. This system works by basically firing and recapturing scattered laser light. It sends a pulse of laser light off of a wall or surface and into a nonvisible space. The photons sent from the laser reflect back from obstacles and make their way back to sensors in the camera. Then scientists can calculate the dimensions of the space hiding around the corner using the time stamp of the photons that scatter back to the camera to calculate.

NASA currently is suspecting more than 200 craters to be skylights for such caves. That is why this organization included this new technology into its PERISCOPE project, which will try to illuminate at least some of these skylights. NASA is hoping eventually to use this technology on a satellite, orbiting the moon to shoot these laser pulses directly into suspected cave openings from close range. It is quite important to explore these lunar caves – scientists say that the existence of caves in the moon carries some enticing implications for planetary exploration.

Andreas Velten, one of the engineers behind this technology, said that “geologists are interested because they would provide access to subsurface geology without actually having to dig, which would be very difficult”. He even believes that “there is potential for the discovery of water or other trapped volatiles under the surface.”

These caves would be very important for future missions to the moon too, because people cannot stay on the surface for too long, because of the temperature extremes and radiations. That would not be a problem in a cave, since there is no radiation and temperature is fairly consistent. It is ensured by depth of some of these caves – scientists suspect that some of the may be under 50-60 meters of rock.

Scientists will be using similar cave structures on Earth to develop and test this technology. Such lava tubes created by volcanoes are common in places like New Mexico and Hawaii. However, scientists think that caves in moon are probably much larger than anything comparable on Earth. After technology is developed, scientists and NASA will be able to think of further steps of lunar exploration.

One of such steps is likely to be new lunar rovers landing on the moon and exploring such caves. However, at first scientists have to identify caves that are the most suitable of future exploration, since it would be a great shame if robots would be sent to a simple hole in the surface of the moon or cave would be impossible to reach for these rovers.

In fact, these robotic rovers are already being developed in the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. They feature a number of arms with small, sharp hooks, which look a bit like cockroach arms. They are designed to allow robotic rovers to grasp rock and climb into cave walls and ceilings. However, imaging technology has to be developed at first, because otherwise there is a great risk that such rover would only be a huge waste of money not being able to enter a cave.

Is imaging technology is also known as a “trillion-frame-per-second camera”. It was first developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but now scientists are trying to give it more precision for various applications, including less invasive imaging of difficult to observe parts of the human body and space exploration. Now we can only wait till this technology will be put to use and robots will enter where nothing and no one has ever been – to unexplored lunar caves.


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