Astronauts Could Live in Lava Tubes on Mars

No new construction necessary.

The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured this image of Hellas Planitia. NASA/JPL-CALTECH/UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA/INTERNATIONAL RESEARCH SCHOOL OF PLANETARY SCIENCES

Scientists have long wondered how we might live in other atmospheres. On Mars, at least, the answer could be a network of large underground tunnels from millennia of high-intensity volcanism. These lava tubes, as they’re known, remain after fast-flowing lava burns through the ground on Mars. On Earth, they would be much smaller or crushed by gravity.

How can you tell if the lava tubes of Mars can protect astronauts? That’s complicated. Astrophysicist and combat veteran Antonio Paris has led this research from inception until publication and followup. He’s previously made the news as a U.S. Army intelligence officer and ufologist, and his paper on lava tubes recently appeared in the Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences.

Paris and his team have gone through several interdisciplinary phases in identifying lava tubes and assessing them for habitability. First, he chose a specific place on Mars, Hellas Planitia, a name that means “Greek plain.” This part of Mars experiences less cosmic and solar radiation than much of the rest of the planet’s surface, and Paris says that sheltering astronauts in the deep lava tubes could reduce their exposure even more—into a key zone of survivability. By choosing the least radiated physical feature and the least radiated location, Paris has magnified the radiation-dampening effect of both.

But how do you measure the levels of radiation in and out of the Mars tubes? Well, that’s where Earth’s lava tubes come in.

“To complement this investigation, moreover, 30 in-situ radiation monitoring experiments have been conducted at analog lava tubes located at Mojave, CA, El Malpais, NM, and Flagstaff, AZ,” Paris explains in his paper. By measuring the outside and “inside” (the lava tubes) radiation levels in these locations, Paris has developed an overall sense of how much the lava tube structure reduces exposure to that radiation. From there, translating to Mars involves some fairly straightforward cross-multiplying.

Radiation from space is one of a handful of key obstacles in humankind’s goals to go further into space. The exposure on a trip to Mars is enough that some researchers are considering nuclear thrusters, arguing that a shorter exposure to nuclear radiation is still better than much longer exposure to cosmic radiation. It’s really not even safe to send astronauts without a clear and certain idea of a place where they can shelter from the radiation

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