It may be hard to imagine who will own the unofficial* land rights to the moon in the not-so-distant future, but a Russian space official thinks the future of manned lunar settlement will begin inside moon caves.

The moon is known to have natural tunnels formed from ancient lava flows, and recent robotic lunar missions have imaged access holes — known as “skylights” — in the roofs of empty tubes.

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So, like the stereotypical cavemen who used natural shelter to protect themselves from terrestrial weather in prehistoric times, perhaps future moon colonists will seek shelter in caves to protect themselves from space weather.

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“If it turns out that the moon has a number of caves that can provide some protection from radiation and meteor showers, it could be an even more interesting destination than previously thought,” said Sergei Krikalyov, who heads Russia’s Star City cosmonaut training center outside Moscow.

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Krikalyov, a veteran cosmonaut who has flown missions on the Mir space station, Soyuz, Shuttle and International Space Station, suggested that these natural features could contain inflatable tents, with the cave sides acting as insulation for habitats.

“It would be enough to use an inflatable module with a hard outer shell to — roughly speaking — seal the caves,” he said.

Using lava tubes as potential habitat sites isn’t a new idea, however. According to geologist Carolyn van der Bogert, who worked with the Japanese team that studied lunar skylight using images from JAXA’s Kaguya mission, these natural features have been eyed as potential habitats for some time.

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“The possibility of using lava tubes as shelters was first proposed, to my knowledge, in 1985 by Fred Hörz in a NASA report about lunar bases,” van der Bogert told Discovery News during a 2009 interview. “Besides outlining the advantages to using a natural shelter as a base, Hörz argues that there are probably a lot of lava tubes on the moon, because they are thought to be related to sinuous rilles.”

Krikalyov thinks that Russia could be motivated to set up such a lunar base by 2030.

Interestingly, skylights aren’t restricted to the moon — Mars has several examples of sub-surface lava tubes that could be used by Mars colonists, too.

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Whether or not the Russian plan comes into fruition in the next couple of decades remains to be seen, but as China might “own” large swathes of the lunar surface by then, the first Russian base may have a Chinese landlord.

* The Outer Space Treaty forbids “ownership” of any celestial body, but allows any nation to exploit the resources space has to offer. But as outlined in a recent Discovery News article, should China lay claim to lunar resources, the move is unlikely to be met with any serious international resistance.

Image: A lunar skylight as imaged by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University