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NASA finds lunar pits harbor comfortable temperatures
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This is a spectacular 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 wide. /NASA

This is a spectacular 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 wide. /NASA

NASA-funded scientists have discovered shaded locations with lunar pits that always hover around 17 degrees Celsius, the space agency announced on Wednesday. 

The discovery was made using NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) spacecraft and computer modeling.

With the moon's surface heating up to 127 degrees Celsius during the day and cooling to minus 173 degrees Celsius at night, the pits and caves could serve as "thermally stable sites for lunar exploration," said the agency.

Since the first lunar pits were found in 2009, scientists have wondered if they led to caves that could be explored or used as shelters, offering protection from cosmic rays, solar radiation and micrometeorites.

Scientists analyzed the thermal properties of rock and lunar dust from a roughly cylindrical 328-foot (100-meter)–deep depression, and found temperatures within the shadowed reaches of the pit remain at around 17 degrees Celsius, fluctuating only slightly throughout the lunar day.

"If a cave extends from the bottom of the pit ... it too would have this relatively comfortable temperature," NASA said.

"Knowing that they (lunar pits) create a stable thermal environment helps us paint a picture of these unique lunar features and the prospect of one day exploring them," said Noah Petro, a scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. "Lunar pits are a fascinating feature on the lunar surface."

NASA's LRO camera captured the Marius Hills pit three times, each time with very different lighting. The center panel, with the sun high above, gives scientists a great view of the pit floor. /NASA

NASA's LRO camera captured the Marius Hills pit three times, each time with very different lighting. The center panel, with the sun high above, gives scientists a great view of the pit floor. /NASA

What are lunar pits?

Tyler Horvath, a doctoral student in planetary science at the University of California who led the new research, said about 16 of the more than 200 lunar pits were probably collapsed lava tubes, which could also be found on Earth.

Horvath explained that a long, hollow tunnel forms when molten lava flows beneath a field of cooled lava or a crust forms over a river of lava. If the ceiling of a solidified lava tube collapses, it opens a pit that can lead into the rest of the cave-like tube.

Scientists found two pits clearly lead to caves or voids, and there is evidence that another's overhang may also lead to a large cave.

"Humans evolved living in caves, and to caves we might return when we live on the moon," said David Paige, who leads the Diviner Lunar Radiometer Experiment aboard LRO that made the temperature measurements used in the study.

LRO, launched on June 18, 2009, has collected a treasure trove of data, making an invaluable contribution to human knowledge about the moon, according to NASA.

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