Space Exploration Goes Underground – NAU Review

Is there life in the caves of Mars?

It’s a good question, but it’s not the right one – yet. An international collaboration of scientists led by NAU researcher Jut Wynne has dozens of questions we need to ask and answer. Once we know how to study caves on the Moon, Mars, and other planetary bodies, we can return to this question.

Wen, assistant research professor of cave ecology, is the lead author of two related studies, both of which have been published in a special collection of papers on planetary caves by Journal of Geophysical Research Planets. the first, “Basic science and engineering questions in planetary cave research,” by a multidisciplinary team of 31 scientists, engineers and astronauts who compiled a list of 198 questions which, working with 82 other space and cave scientists and engineers, narrowed it down to 53 of the most important questions. Harnessing the knowledge of a large cross-section of the space science community, This work is the first study designed to prioritize research and engineering going forward in the study of planetary caverns.The team hopes that their work will inform what is ultimately needed to support robotic and human missions to planetary caverns – specifically on the Moon and/or Mars.

Second, “Caves of the Planets: A Solar System View of Products and Processes’, from the first study. Wayne realized there had been no effort to classify planetary caverns across the solar system, which is another important piece of the big picture puzzle. He assembled another team of planetary scientists to tackle that question.

“With the necessary financial investment and institutional support, the research and technology development required to achieve these necessary developments over the next decade can be achieved,” Wen said. “We now have what I hope will become two seminal papers that will help propel planetary caving research from a meditative armchair exercise to robots exploring planetary surfaces.”

Planetary bodies for which potential cave entrances have been identified with a number of features for each body provided in parentheses (top).  Global locations of potential cave entrances to the Moon (center) and Mars (bottom).  From Wayne et al.  2022b.  Courtesy AGU and the Journal of Geophysical Research-Planets.
Planetary bodies for which potential cave entrances have been identified with a number of features for each body provided in parentheses (top). Global locations of potential cave entrances to the Moon (center) and Mars (bottom). From Wayne et al. 2022b. Image source: AGU and Journal of Geophysical Research-Planets. Top image: Real-time DNA sequencing in a laboratory installed in the Corona Lava Tube (Lanzarote, Canary Islands, Spain) under the ESA PANGEA-X 2017 astronaut training program. ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer is inside the laboratory module with co-author Anna Miller. Image credit: ESA.

What we know about extraterrestrial caves

And there are a lot of them. Scientists have identified at least 3,545 possible caverns on 11 different moons and planets throughout the solar system, including the moon, Mars, and moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Cave formation processes have been identified on comets and asteroids. If the surrounding environment allows access to the Earth’s interior, this provides an opportunity for scientific discovery that was not available before.

The discoveries in these caves may be enormous. The caves may one day allow scientists to “go deeper” into these rocky and icy bodies, which will provide insights into how they formed (but could also provide more insights into how Earth formed). They can also, of course, keep life’s secrets.

“Caves on many surfaces of the planets are one of the best environments to look for evidence of extinct or possibly existing life forms,” Wen said. “For example, because caves on Mars are protected from deadly surface radiation and violent windstorms, they are likely to show a more stable temperature regime compared to the surface, and some may contain water ice. This makes caves on Mars one of the most important targets for exploration in the search for life “.

And it’s not just about finding life — those same factors make caves good sites for sheltering astronauts on Mars and the moon when manned missions are able to explore them.

“Radiation protection will be essential for human exploration of the moon and Mars,” said Leroy Qiao, a retired astronaut, former ISS commander and co-author on the first paper. One possible solution is to use caves for this purpose. Requirements for astronaut habitats, extravehicular activity suits and equipment must take into account cave exploration and development, to protect against both solar and galactic cosmic radiation.”

What can Earth tell us about other planets

Planetary cave research has long been a parallel research question to terrestrial diversity for nearly two decades, said Wen, whose primary research takes place in terrestrial caverns. Caves support unique ecosystems that are sometimes completely separate from the surface ecosystem in the same area. Who says a cave on the Moon or Mars wouldn’t be similar? Therefore, many of the questions he investigated about caves on Earth, he wondered how they might apply to other planets.

He’s not the only one making the call. Wynne has done several research projects with NASA to help develop detection technologies, and his modeling of cave habitats doesn’t care much if the cave is terrestrial or extraterrestrial. There are enough similarities in the cave environment to make reasonable predictions that would significantly influence the choice of cave targets for exploration.

“Tellurian caves at depth are often characterized by complete darkness, a constant temperature approaching the average annual surface temperature, little or no

Gott Wein (right) with JPL roboticist Brett Kennedy test an early prototype rock-climbing robot, LEMUR in a lava tube cave, Mojave Desert, California.  It is noteworthy that Wynne is the first human to disprove a robot.  NASA JPL/Caltech.
Gott Wein (right) with JPL roboticist Brett Kennedy test an early prototype rock-climbing robot, LEMUR in a lava tube cave, Mojave Desert, California. It is noteworthy that Wynne is the first human to disprove a robot. Image source: NASA JPL/Caltech.

It is likely that caves of other planetary bodies will display similar environmental conditions, but they will also be affected by the surface conditions of the planetary body and the internal structure of the cave.”

Keith Cowing, editor SpaceRef.comAnd theNASAWatch.comhe said that using the existing infrastructure of the planet’s surface and below its surface might help humans get to other planets sooner than if we had to bring everything we need to survive with us.

Humans have been living in caves for hundreds of thousands of years. Then they built their own homes when nothing was available,” he said. As such, it is natural to assume that caves will offer a similar benefit as humanity expands to other worlds. While planet-wide terraforming may be an ultimate goal, the use of structures Large, pre-existing areas such as caves and lava tubes may be a more practical way to bring technology to the maturity needed to manipulate an entire planet’s surface.”

wHere we are

While much of this research is forward-looking, consideration also needs to be given to the resources, research, and support currently in place. Numerous platforms and robotic hardware combinations are being tested, but the roadblock comes where it often does – lack of funding. With enough support, a robotic exploration mission to a lunar cave or a Mars cave could be undertaken in the next five to 10 years.

This research builds on previous work to form a roadmap of sorts for the way forward; Wynne sees it as a to-do list for the same process. The questions answered by the scientists and engineers outline the tasks needed to prepare for this robotic exploration; It is also looking further for the needed advances in space suit technology, housing modules and devices that will enable humans to live and work safely underground on the Moon and Mars.

“This is an untapped area of ​​research in planetary science, and its importance in the search for life should not be overlooked,” he said. “In our lifetime, it is entirely possible that we study Mars underground to address the age-old question, ‘Does life exist beyond Earth?'” ”

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Heidi Toth | NAU Communications
(928) 523-8737 | heidi.toth@nau.edu

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