Friday, November 7, 2014

Exploring the lunar subsurface

Two collapsed segments of a lava tube run from the southwest to the northeast, in the Rimae Prinz-Harbinger mountain region of Oceanus Procellarum (27.46°N, 318.33°E). These collapsed segments may provide access to the subsurface, which has never been directly sampled. The average width of the collapsed segments is ~650 meters. The lava tube is ~50 meters deep, seen in this 7 km-wide field of view from a mosaic of unreleased 2014 LROC NAC observation M1165080128 (L&R) [NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University].
H. Meyer
LROC News System

A lava tube is a volcanic conduit through which lava travels beneath the hardened crust of a lava flow. The presence of lava tubes on the Moon and beyond are inferred based on observations of terrestrial lava tubes, such as those found in Hawaii. Oftentimes, a rille suddenly disappears only to reappear a short distance away.

These are called discontinuous rilles and are thought to be areas where a lava tube collapsed. Collapsed lava tube segments may provide access to the subsurface, which is exciting as a possible site to collect rock samples that remain unaltered due to surface weathering (radiation, thermal cycling, micrometeorite bombardment).

Slightly differing, slightly lower resolution, 11.5 x 15.9 km field of view of the area of interest from a mosaic of LROC Narrow Angle Camera (NAC) observation M1152143995RL, LRO orbit 21776, April 14, 2014; resolution averages 1.33 meters per pixel, incidence angle 48.9° from 132.14 km over 26.86°N, 318.11°E. View the original 8706 x 12008 and an assortment of other sizes HERE [NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University].
Sunrise over Mons Harbinger. 65 km-wide field of view from mosaic of three LROC Wide Angle Camera (WAC) monochrome (604 nm) observations, swept up during three sequential orbital passes, December 7, 2011,  from 43 km; resolution 58 meters per pixel, incidence 77° [NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University].
Context for LROC Featured Image released November 6, 2014, field of view in red, full field swept up in LROC NAC observations M1152143995R & L in yellow. LROC WAC mosaic [NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University].
The lava tube from the LROC Featured Image released November 5, 2014 is located to the west of Montes Harbinger, a large kipuka in Oceanus Procellarum, and to the east of the Rimae Prinz region.

The Rimae Prinz region displays exquisite sinuous rilles as well as other elongate depressions, indicating that there could be other lava tubes in the area.

The Prinz, Rimae Prinz and Vera vent region, east of Aristarchus Plateau. The area of interest is marked with a yellow arrow, upper right in this roughly 120 km square field of view from the LROC WAC 100m global mosaic. the Vera vent 'cobra head' of Rima Prinz I rille (on the north-northeast rim of basalt-inundated Prinz crater, at lower left), is the subject of intense study (see HERE). [NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University].
The entire region, pictured above, is of interest for exploration for several reasons. The diversity of volcanic landforms in the area can tell scientists much about the volcanic history of the Moon. By collecting samples from the surface and subsurface in this region and by careful mapping on-site, scientists can better characterize the diverse basaltic lava flows in terms of both age and composition, which also helps us understand the timing and evolution of lunar volcanism and possible heterogeneities in the lunar mantle. Any time a sample is taken from a site on the Moon and age-dated, it can also be used to calibrate crater densities that are currently used to remotely age-date surfaces in the absence of direct sampling (both on the Moon and other planets).

Lava tubes are of particular interest in terms of human exploration because they are not only scientifically valuable, but they might also provide shielding from the radiation that poses a hazard to future explorers. Furthermore, the region surrounding the lava tube from this Featured Image also hosts large pyroclastic deposits, which are a potential in situ resource that will be critical to sustaining a human presence on the Moon.

Scientists and engineers are looking into the possibility of using the natural structure of the lava tube and associated resources (ISRU) to our advantage to construct habitats for explorers.

Explore the full NAC mosaic here! How many features of interest do you see?

Rimae Prinze Region - Constellation ROI
Discontiguous Rilles

Addendum: Under mid to late afternoon sunlight, another LROC WAC mosaic, swept up under conditions remarkably similar in scale with the third image from above, from the same period of low altitude opportunities the LRO mission afforded during orbital maneuvers in the second half of 2011. Differing sun-moon-spacecraft phase angles allows for an excellent comparison. This particular mosaic was also assembled from LROC WAC observations, but five months earlier, and from three sequential orbital passes, at 43 km altitude. The resolution is 59 meters, incidence angle 64° [NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University].

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