When human settlers one day reach distant worlds, they might take refuge inside extensive underground networks known as planetary caves.
Scientists in recent years have proposed volcanic caves as a potential place for safe habitats on the moon and Mars.
But, to understand how this might work, we must first look at similar systems here at home.
A team of ESA-backed researchers recently ventured into the La Cueva de los Verdes lava tube in Spain to map the nearly 5 mile (8 kilometer) ‘lava tube’ in unprecedented detail, revealing the intricate features of the ‘volcanic wormhole.’
According to ESA, the 3D scan of La Cueva de Los Verdes is the largest ever made of a lava tube on Earth.
Inside the massive cave system, the researchers say there are portions large enough to fit entire residential streets and houses.
While part of the cave is filled with water, a 6-kilometer stretch is dry, and contains natural skylights along the path.
Researchers from the University of Padova, Italy, aided by ESA astronaut Matthias Mauer, explored the cave system for five days last year, using 3D scanning technologies to plot its intricacies as part of ESA’s Pangaea-X campaign.
The team used what’s known as the point cloud technique, capturing millions of measurements with lasers and cameras.
These measurements were then merged to create a 3D model. The researchers aimed to test out the technologies and tools in the dark environment that lacked satellite signal.
One day, similar techniques could be used to explore other planets.
Cave systems carved by volcanic activity, like La Cueva de los Verdes, have been detected from orbit on the moon and Mars, ESA explains.
‘Lava tubes are environments with a constant temperature, shielded from cosmic radiation and protected from micrometeorites, and so could providing safe habitats for humans,’ ESA explained in a blog post.
‘Precisely measuring the geometry of lava caves will allow scientists to improve their models and better understand their evolution on other celestial bodies.
‘For these reasons, learning how to map lava tubes on Earth is helping exploration off Earth.’
To map the caves, the researchers used a wearable mapping device known as the Pegasus Backpack, which can collect geometric data without satellite signal.
The data could be checked on the spot using a tablet.
‘Hiking and performing geological mapping with the high-tech backpack was easy and efficient,’ Mauer said.
‘I can perfectly see it integrated in our spacesuits for future exploration missions to the moon or Mars.’