There's a hole in the Moon!

By Phil Plait | September 15, 2010 7:00 am

There’s a hole in the Moon!

I mean, seriously, there’s a hole in the Moon:

lro_lunarpit

Actually, it’s a pit, and there are several of these known in the lunar surface. I’ve even written about them before, but this shot from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is the best I’ve seen yet (and there are more at that link). You can clearly see the floor of the pit, with rubble strewn there, and the shadow gives it an excellent sense of relief (in fact, I have to laugh over how much the shadow looks like a little crescent Moon itself!).

These pits (or skylights as they’re sometimes called) form when lava flows over the surface of a world. The lava can carve a groove in the surface, and eventually the top of the lava flow solidifies even before the flow stops. When the lava flows away, you’re left with a tube under the surface, like a subway tunnel. At that point, the roof of the tube can collapse in spots; on Earth this is common in Hawaii and other volcanic spots. It happens on the Moon — perhaps there are seismic events, or nearby meteorite impacts — and we’ve even seen several on Mars, too.

This one on the Moon is extraordinary. You can see the slope on the inside edge of the lip of the pit. Note the scale bar: this pit is about 100 meters across, the size of a football field! And the shadow tells scientists just how deep the pit is as well; the Sun angle when the shot was taken is known, so it’s just a matter of a little trig to get a depth of about 100 meters. Even in the Moon’s lower gravity, I wouldn’t recommend jumping in it: you might enjoy the 11 second fall, but you’d hit the bottom at 18 meters/second, or about 40 mph!

Ouch.

Still, these pits would be wonderful places to explore. The insides of the tubes would be very old, several billion years, and relatively untouched by solar wind and micrometeorite impacts. They’d be like a time capsule of the Moon’s surface all those eons ago.

Every time I see a picture from LRO, I am reminded that the Moon is more than a pretty disk in the sky, it’s an entire world with its own complex history. And it’s right next door.

We really need to go back.

Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Pretty pictures
MORE ABOUT: LRO, Moon

Comments (73)

  1. When the lava flows away, you’re left with a tube under the surface, like a subway tunnel.

    Or a glass worm.

  2. thetentman

    “Take her to the pit and put more Honey on her!”

  3. Now, see, the moon is doing ALL the work for me. I’m telling you the spa would fit right in there. No digging required. Just zip up there in a lil ol’ rocket, launch the auto-inflate Dome-o-matic™ et voilá! Kuhnigget’s Lunar Resort and Spa.

    Now accepting applications for massage therapists, bartenders, pool boys. Zero gravity experience ++.

  4. Will

    I blame Todd Ingham. Silly vegan bass guitarists.

  5. There are creams that will shrink those pores.

  6. Lars Karlsson

    Wouldn’t places like this be ideal for a moon-base?

  7. Cynic View

    Is that where the nazis are hiding their secret base?

  8. No… thats where the Selenites live.

  9. Jamey

    Bigelow? I’d like to order a couple of your BA3030 modules, though we won’t need the rocket package, and leave the solar panels on the side – we’ll be installing those separately.

    Those really would fit in there nicely, and make an instant lunar habitat.

  10. Nemesis

    @kuhnigget

    Correction: how about pool girls, or better yet: pool people? Why do pool attendants have to be male? Also, wouldn’t a good supply of water be necessary, and in that case wouldn’t it be better used for cooking and drinking instead of relaxation therapy. Just sayin’…

  11. You guys are thinking so narrowly. Pools, schmools. This is clearly a natural underground system of tunnels that can be converted into our first lunar base. Put in some structural supports and a door and you can create a nice cozy breathable environment. With built in sunroof.

  12. Oscar Ferro

    I knew it!

    The lunar landings were real, but the Moon itself is fake!

  13. Zucchi

    Of course you can’t just jump down, that’s ridiculous.

    You need a parachute.

  14. Charles

    Thanks once again for showing us the stark beauty of our closest extra-terrestrial neighbor. It may be a cold and foreboding place, but it is so…pretty.

    On a side note, it is amazing that someone just asked me “do you believe we really went to the moon?”

    They asked this knowing that my grandfather was Chief Telemetry Officer for Merritt Island Launch Area (KSC/CCAFS) as well as MIS for KSC in the 1960’s. On top of that my Dad was Asst Fire Chief in charge of missile and astronaut safety during Project Apollo — a guy who was one of the few non-astronauts within one mile of all of the Saturn V liftoffs. Me, I saw each and every launch from 6.5 NM or less — and a front row seat to a Saturn V leaving the Earth is something you never, ever forget. So yeah, I believe what really happened happened.

    Anyway, thanks to Dr. P, I sent them right to the moon hoax pages he wrote so long ago so that all of the disinformation of the hoaxers could be laid to rest.

    If there is any conspiracy concerning the moon, it is those people who conspire to create uncertainty and doubt for their own gain.

  15. Bouch

    great, first we have the “hollow earth” nuts, now we’re going to have “hollow moon” people, and you’ve given them the proof! Thank lots Phil!

  16. Mapnut

    I think those white things down in there are Morlocks.

  17. Jonathan Hickman

    Is there a hi-res copy of that photo?

  18. Jeff

    good points

    I was in the Thurston lava tube in Hawaii once, and that was truly amazing. I even slipped because the basalt is smooth and wet in there

  19. Chris

    Can we push all of the moon landing hoaxers into those holes?

  20. Bee

    What did you expect from cheese? ;-)

  21. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ Bee : Greenness? Isn’t the moon meant to be green cheese? ;-)

    *A* hole in the moon? There’s *lots* of them. They’re called craters – & lunar caves as well. ;-)

    We really need to go back.

    Seconded by me. Yes we do indeed.

    @ 14. Zucchi Says:

    Of course you can’t just jump down, that’s ridiculous.
    You need a parachute.

    Or better yet a jetpack or a waterslide with a nice deep pool at the bottom and a dome full of air at the top .. 8)

    BTW. Pretty sure I read somewhere that in Lunar gravity humans can flty – directly fly that is not just in aircraft or balloon or suchlike but by just flapping their arms with wings attached. Might’ve been in an Asimov short story or novel – anyone know?

    @3. Kuhnigget : Great plan. You have my resume! :-)

  22. DrFlimmer

    Thank god, Apollo 11 didn’t land in one of those :-D

  23. BJN

    It’s an entire airless, lifeless world with almost no geologic activity. The main geologic interest the Moon offers is as a museum for ancient minerals that have long ago been transformed on the Earth.

    Lets send a robot down the hole. A cool robot with stereo HD vision, the ability to place relay transmitters and to retrieve samples. Developing advanced robotic explorers would likely cost less than developing a new space suit for human Moon exploration.

  24. Another Satisfied Customer

    @22. Messier Tidy Upper: I think you’re thinking of Robert Heinlein’s “The Menace From Earth” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Menace_from_Earth).

    You’re welcome ;-)

    PS – Thanks Phil!

  25. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ 24. BJN :

    You forgot ice, moon rocks which are more valuable than gold, the potential wonder energy source that is helium 3 and …[drumroll] … the Tycho monolith! ;-)

    Plus some of the most important reasons to go of all – scientific knowledge and technological advancement plus experience for the future and you are also forgetting the serendipity factor and the boost for national confidence, prestiege and morale.

    @ 23. DrFlimmer Says:

    Thank god, Apollo 11 didn’t land in one of those!

    If my memory – struggling with sleep deprivation as per usual – isn’t mistaken; Apollo 11 or maybe another Lunar mission came perilously close to disaster by landing very close to a large boulder that could easily have caused the Lunar Module to topple over. This would have very likely wrecked it stranding the two Moon Walkers to perish on the Moon while the unsung hero flying the CSM would have had to return to Earth alone.

    Another Apollo mission, one of the later one’s but can’t recall which right now landed at an awkward sloping angle causing the moon walkers involved some concern and stopping them from sleeping properly.

    Incidentally, if this crater/ pit / cave complex hasn’t already got a name might I suggest the Moon’s Belly-button? ;-)

    Plus if they ever make aLunar motorracing track then this should be where they have the pits! ;-)

  26. @Nemesis

    Correction: how about pool girls, or better yet: pool people? Why do pool attendants have to be male?

    That’s just silly. How are you gonna make a porn movie about the hot bikini-clad sunbather seducing another woman?

    Um, wait…

    .

    .

    I’ll be back

  27. Yup, perfect for a Moon Base. Wouldn’t have to have a spaceship carrying elevator like in 2001, but as a hideout from radiation, it’s boffo!

    You have to remember that these lava tubes can extend for a long way to the side. This last summer my daughter Victoria & I hiked through a quarter mile long trail called Indian Tunnel in the Craters of the Moon National Monument:

    Lots of room for pools or whatever you want in there!

  28. I think of all we’ve learned about Earth’s history from studying the rocks lying around here and of how much we don’t know about the Moon. Imagine if we had scientists on the Moon (or at least teams of remotely controlled robots) examining the rocks deep in those holes. I’m sure there are dozens of scientific discoveries and lots of surprises waiting for us down them.

  29. Wayne on the plains

    @ 14. Zucchi,

    Thanks a lot. I laughed so much at that I had to explain to the students outside my door what was so funny.

  30. kkozoriz

    Just drop a nice big Dimondium dome over the hole and seal the tube and let’s move in.

  31. Zathras

    Old Minbari insult:

    “There is a hole in your moon”

  32. Messier Tidy Upper

    @26. Another Satisfied Customer :

    Thanks. :-)

    Unfortunately though, when I clicked that link I just got :

    Wikipedia does not have an article with this exact name. Please search for The Menace from Earth) in Wikipedia to check for alternative titles or spellings. Start the The Menace from Earth) article, using the Article Wizard if you wish, or add a request for it. Search for “The Menace from Earth)” in existing articles.

    I could’ve sworn it was in an Asimov story but you may well be right. I read a lot of old SF incl. Heinlein too although the name’s not ringing any bells with me.

    Actually, one of my fave childhood novels was John Christopher’s* ‘The Lotus Caves’ where two kids living in a lunar colony wander off and find something awesome in a cave below our Moon’s surface.

    * Which I just found was a pen-name for Samuel Youd, same guy that also wrote the ‘Tripods’ series & was set in 2068 but written in 1969. It’s got a wikipage too. :-)

  33. Messier Tidy Upper

    Almost forgot the obligatory :

    “That’s no moon .. !” ;-)

    (Can’t believe I’m the first to say that here. Murphy’s law of course that I’ll find someone has already posted a flashing technicolour version and its just hidden in moderation about to appear above this. Yes, IVAN3MAN, I do mean *you*. ;-) )

  34. Dwight Bartholomew

    Lava?
    Isn’t it more likely the pit was formed by a stray shot from the Vandushian-Ronscree interstellar conflict?

  35. Lorri

    @27 Messier Tidy Upper… you hit the spot. Not only that, but though costly in the beginning, think of the money saved in launches from the Moon in a Lo-G atmosphere. We need to prepare now for intense exploration of our Galaxy (and Solar System). Since our civilization continues to grow in numbers while our food sources are miss used and controlled by greed, we will need to seek out new worlds.. however hostile they are. We also need to concentrate on growing food sources in a hostile environment, (which I am sure they are trying) and not wait for the perfect utopia to float by in front of our telescopes.

  36. Chris A.

    I think I know where Al Shepard’s golf ball ended up…

  37. Ron1

    @9 James, @29 Richard, @30 Tech Dad and especially @37 Lorri …

    You need to take a break from your SciFi dreams. How are you planning to pay for these little manned flights?

    Assuming you’re Americans, you’re living in a country that is tearing itself apart partly because a trillion dollars was (necessarily) spent to help prevent a global economic meltdown and your national debt is now massive. Your transportation infrastructure is falling apart and the list of necessary financial expenditures is very long. Plus, you have a nasty tendency to spend massive amounts of money playing at war.

    Assuming the USA doesn’t implode into civil war, how do you plan to pay for manned missions?

    Now please don’t get me wrong. The idea of a bunch of Harrison Schmidts heading back to the moon, Mars or the asteroids holds great appeal to me – I just don’t think the USA can afford the manned missions and there is currently no political will to collaborate with the Russians or the Chinese (ie. Can you see Sarah Palin asking the Chinese or Russians to help?).

    Therefore, the next best thing is to send robots and lots of them.

  38. Michael Swanson

    @4 Will

    “I blame Todd Ingham. Silly vegan bass guitarists.”

    It’s not fair! I’m a vegan bassist, and I don’t have any psychic powers! Or Ramona. Rowr.

    Stupid real world!

  39. @ Nemesis:

    Why do pool attendants have to be male? Also, wouldn’t a good supply of water be necessary, and in that case wouldn’t it be better used for cooking and drinking instead of relaxation therapy.

    BUILD YOUR OWN LUNAR SPA!

  40. jcm
  41. Grand Lunar

    When I saw this, I was like “Phil, didn’t you write about this before?”

    This one had more visible details than previous ones I recall, though.
    Nice find by the LRO team!

  42. Tribeca Mike

    Super cool photo, but it’s obviously a baby dinosaur shyly peering out from its lunar nest. Soon it will be mature enough to leave the roost and fly down to Earth to join its many cousins who live amongst us, particularly in the region of Wasilla, Alaska.

  43. jhmorgan

    ” The Menace From Earth ” (Robert Heinlein) was published in a collection of shorts and novellas, probably early 60’s.

  44. alfaniner

    If Cavor hadn’t broken that skylight…

  45. JohnW

    Weeeeeeelllllll plug it, dear Henry, dear Henry, dear Henry, dear Henry,
    Well plug it, dear Henry.
    Dear Henry, plug it.

  46. Floyd

    Richard Drumm put up the first picture of a lava tube, but there are similar holes at Craters of the Moon, El Malpais, Wupatki/Sunset Crater, Crater Lake, and several other national parks and monuments.

  47. cantech

    to #39

    Couple of things…deficits are a problem that’s for sure. And what do you need to get out of them? The best way to do it is to grow your way out. Putting people to work has an effect. Those people spend their wages on things that other people make and sell. The research has been done, money spent on things like research and scientific endevours………….make money. For the government in taxes and for the econony at large. The space program has a very clear record of paying for itself in spades.

    The other argument is of course a little silly, no one has ever loaded a spaceship up with cash and fired it off.

  48. John Paradox

    the unsung hero flying the CSM

    What? You’ve never heard of Jethro Tull’s “For Michael Collins, Jeffrey, and Me”?

    J/P=?

  49. vince charles

    @37 Lorri:

    No, launches involving the Moon cost _MORE_ propellant, not less. As the Moon has no atmosphere, landing equipment there requires landing on engine thrust. This thrust is necessary to brake you, as you’ll fall into the Moon’s gravity well with enough force to break anything useful for propellant processing. Then, once you’ve created spacecraft and supplies, you mush launch _OUT_OF_ the Moon’s gravity well. Here, again, the Moon has enough gravity to make things difficult, but not enough to be useful (i.e., attracting an atmosphere and keeping a fluid, iron core, giving you radiation shielding).

    A little knowledge is a dangerous thing… a lot of knowledge is depressing.

  50. Jennifer

    Cool, you can see inside Dahak.

    There’s a song about Mike Collins? I’ll have to look it up. I think his book “Carrying the Fire” is the best of the astronaut memoirs.

  51. George Martin

    @34 Messier Tidy Upper Says:

    I could’ve sworn it was in an Asimov story but you may well be right. I read a lot of old SF incl. Heinlein too although the name’s not ringing any bells with me.

    Actually Asimov also used the concept of people living on the moon flying for recreation. It was in his novel The Gods Themselves (in the third part), published in 1972. I did know that Asimov was not the first to use this. I was raking my brain trying to remember while scrolling through the comments when someone the Heinlein short. “AH YES!”

    George

    P.S.

    The title of the Asimov novel comes from the phrase “Against stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain.” The novel won the 1973 Hugo award for best novel.

  52. Luna

    Big hole in the moon…. it figures.

    I bet the warranty on that thing expired a couple billion years ago!

  53. Chip

    Several folks have already mentioned the use of such a hole for a moon base, and craters and holes have been proposed as sites for lunar construction over the years – but actually it seems a deep large hole such as this one offers several advantages.

    A shape that can accommodate a sunken framework for an underground structure.

    The hole is already excavated, saving lots of time that would otherwise be taken up with underground construction in low gravity.

    Protection from radiation and micro-meteorites for eventual visitors.

    It would be a lot of work and a major effort requiring innovations in technology for lunar structures and construction, but after a livable base is built, the walls of the hole and side channels can be studied, as Phil pointed out, as preserved time capsules of the moon, billions of years ago. Lots of other science and observations could be done from this base but that’s another story.

  54. Rae

    Now THERES a hole you just know it’s a hole. None of that optical-illusion-is-it-ahole-or-a-mound faff! :)

  55. Jon Hanford

    I see a lot of discussion about the *real* origins of these so-called collapsed “lava tubes”. Have Horta been ruled out? ( http://memory-alpha.org/wiki/Horta ) :)

    @23 Dr Flimmer @27 MTU,

    It was indeed Apollo 11 that encountered a troublesome boulder field at Tranquility Base, causing Armstrong to take manual control of the LM to avoid possible disaster.

  56. mike burkhart

    I use to think all the craters on the moon were holes in the moon . In some of the pre apollo books about the moon talk about a rageing debate about the formation of the craters called the hot moon cold moon theory hot moon said the craters are volocanos cold moon said the craters are meteor impacts both made sense .The Apollo missions seatled the issue both were corect some craters were volcanos others were meteor impacts.

  57. Rincewind

    51. vince charles

    Well, a different Heinlein story, “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”, had a solution for that. They built a huge linear-induction catapult, powered by solar panels and built with local materials. They could fling loads to Earth (or near Earth) or other locations as needed. If your aim is good, you could probably use it in reverse, to catch incoming ships or cargo and slow them down, and pump the energy back into the system (like regenerative braking). Of course, in the story the Lunar colonists, mostly criminals of various kinds dumped on the Moon to get them out of the governments hair, did an America/Australia and started a war of independence. They started dropping BIG rock on Earth, to get their point across.

  58. Gary Ansorge

    “,,,Harsh Mistress” was published in 1966. It’s interesting that Gerard K. O’Neille used the linear mass driver as an essential part of his space colonization proposals. His book “The High Frontier” came out in the ’70s. The Space Studies Institute has funded and built mass drivers capable of accelerating payloads at up to 1800 Gs. Last time I looked, there were practical reasons for limiting the max. velocity of a mass driver to 2.5 miles/sec, which would be fine for the moon, not so effective on earth.

    ,,,plus the moon doesn’t have a pesky atmosphere to get in the way.

    Gary 7

  59. Jena

    Isn’t the Moon’s gravity just 1.63 m/s2? Why would one fall into the sinkhole at 18m/s?

  60. Blondin

    There’s an artist who calls himself “That One Guy” (Mike Silverman) who has a song called “How ‘Bout Them Holes in the Moon”.

  61. Messier Tidy Upper

    @57. Jon Hanford : Thanks for that. :-)

    @53. George Martin :

    Aha! That’s the one. Great novel too. Best aliens Asimov ever came up with. I don’t recall the Moon being in that but .. hmmm .. I’ve got an excuse to re-read it again now! :-)

    @59. Rincewind Says:

    Well, a different Heinlein story, “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”, had a solution for that. They built a huge linear-induction catapult, powered by solar panels and built with local materials. They could fling loads to Earth (or near Earth) or other locations as needed. If your aim is good, you could probably use it in reverse, to catch incoming ships or cargo and slow them down, and pump the energy back into the system (like regenerative braking).

    Formula One racing cars have been used the KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery) system last year & this. I guess that’s be the same sorta thing, yeah?

    @51. vince charles Says:

    No, launches involving the Moon cost _MORE_ propellant, not less. As the Moon has no atmosphere, landing equipment there requires landing on engine thrust. This thrust is necessary to brake you, as you’ll fall into the Moon’s gravity well with enough force to break anything useful for propellant processing. Then, once you’ve created spacecraft and supplies, you mush launch _OUT_OF_ the Moon’s gravity well. Here, again, the Moon has enough gravity to make things difficult, but not enough to be useful (i.e., attracting an atmosphere and keeping a fluid, iron core, giving you radiation shielding).

    Er .. so lesse then, can you explain again how the colossal Saturn V is required to escape Earth’s gravity well but the Lunar Module’s ascent stage will suffice for escaping the Lunar gravity well & the Lunar Module as tiny and fragile as it is is able to safely land on the Moon?

    I think that indicates the situation there isn’t as pessimistic as you seem to believe it is.

    It does rather astound and appall me that we could land on the Moon just fine back in the 1970’s but then its somehow become all too hard to do now in the twenty-teens.

    We went so far .. only to have fallen backwards so far. What the..?!?

    Still if the engine of a Lunar module ascent stage is enough to get us off the Moon I don’t think we have any cause to worry on that particular score. ;-)

    @ 50. John Paradox Says:

    What? You’ve never heard of Jethro Tull’s “For Michael Collins, Jeffrey, and Me”?

    Can’t say that I have .. real song or joke there?

  62. Messier Tidy Upper

    @58. mike burkhart Says:

    …In some of the pre apollo books about the moon talk about a raging debate about the formation of the craters called the hot moon cold moon theory. Hot moon said the craters are volocanos, cold moon said the craters are meteor impacts both made sense .The Apollo missions settled the issue both were correct some craters were volcanos others were meteor impacts.

    Correct me if I’m wrong please, but my understanding is that the Apollo missions confirmed the meteorite impact theory rather conclusively over the volcanic one & that by far the vast majority of lunar craters are caused by bolide impacts rather than vulcanism.

    Sure you have lava flows in the lunar maria and the odd volcanic cinder cone and lava floding crater floors .. but not too many craters are volcanic calderas are they?

  63. Curt

    I’m probably way too late posting a question, and hoping for an answer. But I’ll try anyway.

    I’m baffled by the “roundness” of the pit. If it is a result of a collapsed “roof” over a lava-flow-formed tunnel, then why wouldn’t the pit be more elongated–along the length of the tunnel? Or am I missing something? Did the pit form maybe as a result of a meteor hit? That would, I suppose, form a circular hole.

    Can anyone help me out with this?

    Thank you.

  64. Christian Haerle

    Hello Mr. Plait,

    I have a question. You wrote “The lava can carve a groove in the surface, and eventually the top of the lava flow solidifies even before the flow stops. When the lava flows away, you’re left with a tube under the surface, like a subway tunnel. At that point, the roof of the tube can collapse in spots; on Earth this is common in Hawaii and other volcanic spots. ”

    I understand how this works on Earth, because heat is conducted away from the lava by the atmosphere. But of course on the moon there is no atmosphere. Wouldn’t the underlying lava conduct heat to the surface lava faster than the surface could lose heat in a vacuum?

    Christian

  65. Richard Woods

    @61.Jena

    “Isn’t the Moon’s gravity just 1.63 m/s2? Why would one fall into the sinkhole at 18m/s?”

    1.63 m/s2 = 1.63 m/s/s = acceleration of 1.63 m per second per second. After 11 seconds of fall from the lip of the pit, the speed at which one would hit the bottom is (1.63 m/s /s) * 11 s = 18 m/s.

    How to derive 11 seconds:

    Distance fallen = 0.815 m * t^2, where t is time of fall in seconds.

    Solving for t: t = sqrt(distance/0.815).

    So a 100 m fall would take sqrt ( 100 / .815 ) seconds = sqrt(123) seconds = 11 seconds.

  66. Gary M Adams

    Ya know, we havent really explorered the moon, least at eye level. I would like to see a rover with streaming video camera’s just driving around exploring and getting a close up look of the areas. Can you imagine the pictures with the camera’s of today. Who knows whats laying around up there, maybe a piece of comet or planet worth retrieving later or the old moon landing sites for the that was faked bozo’s. I know i would pay to watch live streaming exploring the moon or purchase some nice shots, i think alotta people would. If done right could even pay for itself maybe even turn a profit. Wouldnt it be nice to watch lunar exploration from your pc or tv. Just bouncing around an ideal.

  67. AlexanderTheGreat

    Just saw Apollo 18. and now this! I’ve changed my mind about wanting to go to the moon…

  68. Congratulations and best wishes to you and your new husband !!

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