Capturing the Moon: the search for lava tubes beneath the Lunar surface


Lanzarote Centers of Art, Culture and Tourism

Lanzarote Centers of Art, Culture and Tourism

Using 3D imaging combined with ambient noise tomography we will test advanced Earth technologies to map lava tubes on the Moon.

Humanity is on the precipice of returning to the Moon, and this time we plan to stay. This means we need to develop new ways to rapidly learn about its surface and where we can best survive. Capturing high-resolution 3D data of the Lunar surface, we can create detailed virtual environments giving access to the Lunar surface to more scientists, train our astronauts, and bring the world with us to the Moon. This project will be continuing research on a commercial-off-the-shelf 3D camera that uses time of flight (ToF) technology to integrate cm-scale resolution depth-mapping into a virtual reality (VR) platform for Lunar rover exploration missions which we will be landing at the Lunar south pole in 2024, the first ToF camera on the Lunar surface. To further the development of the virtual platform design and test the camera in a Lunar-analog terrain we will be collecting colour and topographical imagery along with sensor data on Lanzarote, Canary Islands, Spain.  The experiment will benefit from the unique landscape with its recently formed lava fields, minimal vegetation, and accessible lava tubes. We will be collecting surface data with the 3D camera, environmental sensor data, and ambient noise tomography, providing information about the subsurface lava tubes.  Paired with 3D imagery from the underlying lava tubes we will be able to create a multi-layered virtual environment, representative of what we will find on the Lunar surface.  


  • Data collection: The goal is to capture high resolution 3D colour imagery of a 80mx160m surface area over the Cueva de los Verdes lava tube. This will be matched with a corresponding subsurface map using the Fleet Aerospace Exospheres.  Each wireless, battery-operated Exosphere contains a sophisticated processing unit, satellite transmitter and a seismic sensor. The Exospheres use the principles of seismology to map the properties of the Earth’s subsurface from reflected seismic waves by recording ambient noise - a process known as Ambient Noise Tomography (ANT). We will then capture the same section of lava tube from inside the tube using the 3D camera only.  Additionally, we will collect data using the MIT designed HexSense which are rugged, self-deploying sensors that collect environmental data in a network of sensor nodes.  With this data we will build a high-resolution virtual recreation of this section of the lava tube with environmental data and demonstrate the effectiveness of combining these data types for future Lunar missions where we will be searching for lava tubes on the Moon. The 3D data collected within the lava tube will serve as a ground-truth for the ANT data, demonstrating the resolution capabilities.
  • Virtual environment: Demonstrating these technologies for future Lunar missions provides a technological roadmap for assessing lava tube locations for future human exploration without endangering humans or rovers as these formations are incredibly difficult to access with current technology but are critical for future human habitation on the Moon and a better understanding of our Moon’s geologic history. Additionally, similar virtual environments have been proven to be useful tools for both remote geologic exploration and training for human exploration of the Lunar surface (Paige, 2023).  The data layering proposed for this project will be the next step in the virtual development and will augment the current capabilities.  

Fieldwork Plan:

Pre-expedition: During the month prior to the expedition, we will first select the specific field location which will be a 160m length of the Cueva de los Verdes lava tube.  Permits have been provided by the Centro de Arte, Culutra y Turismo in Lanzarote. Once selected, we will use satellite imagery to identify the 80m x 160m surface area above the length of lava tube we will be researching.  We will plot the installation locations of the 32 Exospheres based on terrain data. We will use a roughly 20 m x 20 m grid pattern, accommodating changes to minimize impact to the terrain.  Given each Exosphere requires a ~10cm deep x ~15cm diameter hole to install, we will select regions that appear sedimentary in nature, requiring minimal disturbance to the rock.  The placement of the HexSense sensor networked will be mapped on top of the Exosphere location map. The team will also undergo field training, safety training, and familiarization will all projects on the expedition. Additionally, I will provide a geological seminar of the region to familiarize all of the team members with the area.


Days 1, 2: Upon arrival we will do a check of all of the hardware to ensure nothing was damaged or lost during shipping.  We will scout the field locations with Carmelo and meet with the representatives who will accompany us in the lava tubes and during the field work in the parks. 

Day 3: The team will set up the grid for the Exospheres using location flags in the assigned area.  This will be based on the pre-expedition mapping but will allow for changes based on actual terrain.  The team will then capture the 3D colour and depth imagery using the 3D camera. The ExoSpheres will then be placed in the marked locations.  Finally, the HexSense sensor network will be deployed throughout the mapped area. All sensors will be activated, and surface data collection will begin.

Days 4-6: After hours (no tourists) we will collect 3D imagery of the inside of the lava tube (160m) as well as taking environmental data for inclusion in the virtual environment.  The data will be collected in 1 m increments to allow for overlap of 3D scans to create high-resolution data.  This will be done by mounting the 3D camera on a miniature rover and stopping the rover at 1 m increments to collect the data.  This will ensure that the data is taken at consistent heights and viewing angles.  A secondary data set will be recorded using an iPhone 12 Pro LiDAR scanner.  While this is lower resolution, it is a more reliable data set and will be used as a backup if the 3D camera data does not satisfy the requirements.

Day 7: The ExoSpheres and Hexsense networks will be collected along with the position flags. 

Days 8-10: These are backup days in case of delays in permits, Exosphere implantation, lava tube data collection, etc. These days will also be dedicated to collecting additional data for the Papalotes Atmosféricos project, and the Earth Mission Control project.  While these three projects will collect data during Day 3 simultaneously with the Exosphere and HexSense deployment, these days will be used to visit alternate field sites unique to each project.

Day 11: Pack up all field gear and prepare for departure.


Data processing will take place once we have returned to Boston. This will include rendering the 3D data into virtual environments and layering the ANT data onto the environment, creating a depth map within the 3D visualization.  Working with Fleet, we will assess the ANT data required to match the 3D data collected within the lava tube, giving us an understanding of data requirements for future Lunar missions. The data will be disseminated via conference publication, MIT panel discussion, and social media. All 3D renderings will be made publicly available for use in our outreach programs, as well as for use by the Centros de Arte, Cultura y Turismo in Lanzarote, the governing body of the locations where the data was collected.