Lava Tubes on Mars Could Be 'Natural Shelters' for First Humans on the Red Planet

If humans ever land on Mars, "lava tubes" on the red planet may be the best hope of providing natural shelter or basic habitats, researchers say.

A recent study led by Antonio Paris, chief scientist at the Center for Planetary Science, suggests volcanic formations at an impact basin in the planet's southern hemisphere, known as Hellas Planitia, could be relied on to house future Mars explorers.

The region is also suitable as evidence indicates it's a low radiation environment when compared to other regions on the surface, the research team said.

The findings—titled Prospective Lava Tubes at Hellas Planitia—are now accepted by the Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences, LiveScience reported.

Lava tubes are created when the exterior surface fluid lava—molten rock that spews from a volcano during eruption—cools rapidly and forms a crust. The lava flow stops and drains from the tube, eventually leaving a gap under the Mars surface.

The researchers surveyed 1,500 images taken by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and identified three lava tubes as possible sites for manned exploration.

It is believed these caverns could protect crew from solar or cosmic radiation exposure and provide an extra layer of protection against harsh weather elements.

The research paper, which is available online, read: "The results of this investigation indicate that the proposed lava tubes southwest of Hadriacus Mons can and should be utilized to serve as natural shelters for a crewed mission to the planet.

"These natural caverns would provide the crew protection from excessive radiation exposure, shelter them from the bombardment of micro-meteorites, reduce their exposure to hazardous perchlorates in the Martian regolith, and provide them a degree of protection from extreme temperature fluctuations," it added.

"The candidate lava tubes... can serve as important locations for direct observation and study of geology and geomorphology, as well as potentially uncovering any evidence for the development of microbial life early in the natural history of Mars."

Hellas Planitia—a basin thought to have been caused by a large meteorite impact—is believed to have been formed approximately 4.1 to 3.8 billion years ago.

While Earth's magnetic field protects humans from harmful solar and galactic cosmic radiation, the researchers noted Mars is currently exposed to "much higher levels of solar and cosmic radiation" when compared to our own planetary conditions.

Future Mars explorers will have to take this into account, whether they make use of the natural lava tubes or not, the research team suggested.

"A crewed mission...will introduce the crew and its critical life-support equipment to an environment outside a much-needed magnetosphere," the paper stated.

"They will be at risk of absorbing sudden fatal radiation doses, as well as assuredly suffering cellular and DNA damage from chronic high background radiation, which will lead to cancer. Additionally, there is a risk of an unpredictable cosmic ray burst or a meteor shower capable of critically damaging the crew's life-support equipment."

Lava tubes, which also exist on Earth, could potentially be sealed off, warmed up and then pressurized with a breathable atmosphere, the team has hypothesized.

Life on Mars 3d Illustration
File photo: Human life on Mars. A recent study suggests volcanic formations at an impact basin in the planet's southern hemisphere, known as Hellas Planitia, could be relied on to house future Mars explorers. iStock
Lava Tubes on Mars Could Be 'Natural Shelters' for First Humans on the Red Planet | Tech & Science
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