Image: Volcanic wormhole

March 13, 2018, European Space Agency
Credit: Vigea – Tommaso Santagata

The organic and intricate features of a volcanic cave come alive in great detail in this three-dimensional image of La Cueva de Los Verdes in Lanzarote, Spain. Some of the most innovative scanning technologies have produced the largest 3-D scan of a lava tube on Earth.

Lava tubes are planetary caves. Similar systems have been found from orbit on the Moon and Mars. These underground formations could one day provide safe habitats for humans on other celestial bodies – they provide constant temperature and a good shelter against cosmic radiation and micrometeorites.

Understanding the origins and formation of these caves on Earth is a passage for simulating the future of planetary explorers across the Solar System.

A team of speleologists from the University of Padova, Italy mapped the main path of the cave system aided by ESA astronaut Matthias Mauer. The image covers a 1.3 km section of the lava tube with an unprecedented resolution of few centimetres.

The expedition ventured last year into La Cueva de Los Verdes as part of ESA's Pangaea-X campaign. Testing technologies and a full set of analysis tools was at the core of this course. The equipment could one day help to scout other planets.

Cut off from any satellite signal, in the dark and in rough terrain, two state-of-the-art instruments equipped with lasers and cameras mapped the cave. Using the point cloud technique, millions of measurements were merged in less than three hours to obtain a complete 3-D model of the contours of the tube.

Although the began to be mapped in the 1970s, a clear view of this subterranean passage was elusive until now.

The images are helping local institutions to protect this particular cave. Scientific data are shedding light on its origins and peculiar formations.

Explore further: Mine craft for Mars

Related Stories

Mine craft for Mars

October 20, 2017

If there are habitable conditions on Mars, they may be underground. Scientists from around the world are now testing how to live on other planets by venturing a kilometre beneath the surface in a UK mine. ESA astronaut Matthias ...

Gadgets for Mars

November 22, 2017

A mini-rover, tools once used on the moon and lasers for 3-D mapping are in the backpack of the explorers of tomorrow. The terrain will be hazardous and it will be dark in volcanic caves, but this equipment could one day ...

Exploring underground with a colliding drone

May 23, 2017

ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano last weekend helped to explore the caverns under Sicily using a drone that deliberately bumped into its surroundings in order to build a map.

Recommended for you

Overflowing crater lakes carved canyons across Mars

November 16, 2018

Today, most of the water on Mars is locked away in frozen ice caps. But billions of years ago it flowed freely across the surface, forming rushing rivers that emptied into craters, forming lakes and seas. New research led ...

SpaceX gets nod to put 12,000 satellites in orbit

November 16, 2018

SpaceX got the green light this week from US authorities to put a constellation of nearly 12,000 satellites into orbit in order to boost cheap, wireless internet access by the 2020s.

Electric blue thrusters propelling BepiColombo to Mercury

November 16, 2018

In mid-December, twin discs will begin glowing blue on the underside of a minibus-sized spacecraft in deep space. At that moment Europe and Japan's BepiColombo mission will have just come a crucial step closer to Mercury.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.