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China hopes to establish bases on the moon after 2035. Photo: Shutterstock

Chinese space designers eye moon base in volcanic caves for long-term stays after 2035

  • Hollow lava channels underground offer natural shield against space radiation and extreme temperatures on the moon
  • ‘Laurel Tree’ lunar base is currently at the design phase, Chinese space architect tells the national science assembly
Space architects in China are designing a moon base carved out of volcanic caves, as the country looks at long-term stays for astronauts after 2035.

The tunnels, also known as underground lava tubes, were carved out of molten rock during ancient volcanic eruptions. While the outside of the lava flow cooled more quickly and solidified, the rest poured out to leave a hollow elongated shell behind.

China plans to turn the moon into outpost to defend Earth: scientists

The tubes can be several kilometres long and tens of metres wide, offering a natural shelter against space radiation and extreme temperatures on the lunar surface.

Such tunnels and their outlets have been found all over the moon, and they offer alternative locations for building bases beyond its south pole – which is thought to harbour abundant water ice – according to Pan Wente, assistant professor at the Harbin Institute of Technology’s Architectural Design and Research Institute.

“The moon’s south pole could become really crowded, and the extraction of water ice remains technically challenging, so we wanted to explore other possibilities,” Pan told a national space science assembly in central China last month in unveiling plans for the lunar base.

The base, named “Laurel Tree”, was still in the early design phase, Pan said. It will have a pyramid-shaped structure above the ground serving as the entry/exit point, with its underground components including a core cabin, a working cabin and several living quarters.

A presentation outlining the structure of the Laurel Tree base. Photo: Handout

The vertical core cabin would be the control centre of the base, equipped with sophisticated instruments and connecting the “doorway” with the working and living areas.

The work and living areas would feature pressurised interiors topped by inflatable arches, which would be simple and fast to deploy as there is no air or wind on the moon, Pan said. Lunar concrete, produced from rocks and dust on the moon and additives brought in from the Earth, would then be filled into the archways to form permanent structures.

Except for the core cabin, all other parts of the base would be built on the moon via on-site construction or modular expansion, the space architect added.

As the moon has no atmosphere, its surface temperature can swing between boiling hot (126 degrees Celsius - or 259 Fahrenheit) and freezing cold (minus 173 Celsius). The underground temperature variation is much smaller, roughly between 17 Celsius and minus 43 Celsius, according to Pan.

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The Laurel Tree is the third lunar project for Pan and his colleagues at the institute.

China is a relative latecomer to moon base research, but has major projects under way to address key technologies, such as using 3D printing to create a moon base, led by a team at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan.

The United States, on the other hand, has decades of experience in the study and design of moon bases, involving coordinated efforts from its space agency Nasa, architectural companies and academia.

For instance, US university researchers used space-based observation data in July to spot a pit in the Sea of Tranquillity with a permanent temperature of a comfortable 17 degrees Celsius (62.6 degrees Fahrenheit). The Sea of Tranquillity was the chosen touchdown point for Apollo 11.

The US, China and Russia all have plans to establish long-term human bases on the moon for research and strategic purposes.


China’s Chang’e 5 lunar lander finds water on the moon, but not as much as they hoped

China’s Chang’e 5 lunar lander finds water on the moon, but not as much as they hoped
China is developing a new-generation human space flight launcher, to be used to land Chinese astronauts on the moon around 2030, while the ambitious, US-led Artemis programme aims to return American astronauts to the moon by 2025.

In March last year, the Chinese and Russian space agencies announced they would build a lunar research station together by 2035. The uncrewed station would house facilities for multidisciplinary and multipurpose scientific research, with the potential for humans to stay there later, the agencies said.