Mars Cave Exploration: What Will We Find?

By Danny Choy on November 26, 2012 10:31 AM EST

Mars Cavern via NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, 180 miles wide (Photo: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)
Mars Cavern via NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, 180 miles wide (Photo: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

Scientists believe there is more to Planet Mars than meets the eye. In order to gain a closer look, it will be necessary to explore underneath its surface, which is why NASA is looking for ways to explore the Red Planet's mysterious caverns.

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Earlier this year, the NASA Curiosity rover touched down on Mars to explore its surface rocks for evidence of life. Last week, NASA said that its mission reached a turning point when its SAM laboratory reported a remarkable discovery "for the history books."

While NASA has yet to confirm what exactly the discovery is, apparently it warrants further Mars cave explorations. According to Space.com, a subsurface material sample is widely believed to be the best way to look for the possibilities of life on Mars.

Astrobiologist and cave scientist Penny Boston of the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro explains, "Something like the lava tubes could be wonderful traps for material from past climate regimes, particles from previous epochs on Mars."

Possible lava tube structure via NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (Photo: NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)
Possible lava tube structure via NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (Photo: NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Scientists have known that liquid water has flowed across the Mars surface a long time ago but the cold, dry, and high radiation surface of Mars today make habitation unlikely. However, it may be a different story under the surface. "The subsurface is going to be radically different from the surface," Boston said. "Every indication we have from caves of all different kinds all over this planet shows that it doesn't take much separation vertically for a radically different environment."

If the new Martian cave exploration mission is given the green light, it will be the boldest and most technical Mars life-form search mission in history.

Carnegie Mellon University roboticist Red Whittaker had this to say about the proposed mission: "What we're discussing here is just the grand leap. It's not just new in terms of destination and agenda, but the technologies that are required to do these missions are both very new to space and also within reach."

In order for the mission to be feasible, a new Mars landing craft must be able to make a precise pinpoint landing that is very close to the mouth of the cavern. Forty years ago, landing zones had a measured deviation of 62 miles. By the time Curiosity landed this year, the landing deviation has shrunk to four miles. That said, cave exploration will require an even smaller deviation still.

Next, a rover capable of cave exploration will be very different from surface rovers. Not only will more advanced rock crawling articulation be necessary, but NASA must create a rover that is autonomous, as a subsurface expedition will certainly compromise communication with Earth.

What's more, navigating a rover into a Martian cave is not the same as backing a car into a garage. Scientists must figure out a way to secure cables to rappel down into the caverns like a spelunker without colliding with rocks on the side, which may damage the rover, or even cause a roof collapse that compromises the entire mission.

According to Penny Boston, a successful unmanned mission to explore Mars underground could possibly warrant a future mission with astronauts.

While what exactly lies under the surface is still up for debate, scientists believe that the Martian subsurface will be the most promising location for future human settlement on Mars. Robotic scounts must be sent down first to make sure habitation is in fact safe for possible Martian life-form. If we are not careful, its alien life can be threatened by, or pose a threat to, the astronauts.

Finally, Boston reflects on the importance of the proposed mission: "I think that once we get over this technological and psychological barrier of finally bringing something back from Mars that we can study, that the next step is going to be easier, because we'll already have looked over that cliff, and jumped over and gotten to the other side. It will embolden us, I hope, at the same time that the technology is advancing."

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