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Lava tubes large enough to house cities could be structurally stable on the moon, according to a theoretical study presented at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference on March 17.

The volcanic features are an important target for future human space exploration because they could provide shelter from cosmic radiation, meteorite impacts and temperature extremes.

Lava tubes are tunnels formed from the lava flow of volcanic eruptions. The edges of the lava cool as it flows to form a pipe-like crust around the flowing river of lava. When the eruption ends and the lava flow stops, the pipe drains leave behind a hollow tunnel, said Jay Melosh, a Purdue University distinguished professor of earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences who is involved in the research.

"There has been some discussion of whether lava tubes might exist on the moon," he said. "Some evidence, like the sinuous rilles observed on the surface, suggest that if lunar lava tubes exist they might be really big."

Sinuous rilles are large channels visible on the lunar surface thought to be formed by lava flows. The sinuous rilles range in size up to 10 kilometers wide, and the Purdue team explored whether lava tubes of the same scale could exist.

David Blair, a graduate student in Purdue's Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, led the study that examined whether empty lava tubes more than 1 kilometer wide could remain structurally stable on the moon.

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