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Lava tubes, underground caves created by volcanic activity, could provide protected habitats large enough to house streets on Mars or even towns on the Moon, according to research presented at the European Planetary Science Congress (EPSC) 2017 in Riga. A further study shows how the next generation of lunar orbiters will be able to use radar to locate these structures under the Moon's surface.

Lava tubes can form in two ways: 'overcrusted' tubes form when low-viscosity lava flows fairly close to the surface, developing a hard crust that thickens to create a roof above the moving lava stream. When the eruptions end, the conduit is drained leaving a tunnel a few metres beneath the surface. 'Inflated' tubes are complex and deep structures that form when lava is injected into existing fissures between layers of rock or cavities from previous flows. The lava expands and leaves a huge network of connected galleries as it forces its way to the surface. Lava tubes are found in many volcanic areas on Earth, including Lanzarote, Hawaii, Iceland, North Queensland in Australia, Sicily and the Galapagos islands. Underground networks of tubes can reach up to 65 kilometres. Space missions have also observed chains of collapsed pits and 'skylights' on the Moon and Mars that have been interpreted as evidence of lava tubes. Recently the NASA GRAIL mission provided detailed gravity data for the Moon that suggested the presence of enormous subsurface voids related to lava tubes below the lunar 'Maria', plains of basalt formed in volcanic eruptions early in the Moon's history.

Now, researchers from the University of Padova and the University of Bologna in Italy have carried out the first systematic comparison of lava tube candidates on the Earth, Moon and Mars, based on high-resolution Digital Terrain Models (DTM) created from data from spacecraft instrumentation.

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