Mars Cave Exploration Looks Underground For Life

By iScienceTimes Staff on November 26, 2012 11:16 AM EST

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

NASA is looking past the success of the Curiosity Rover to plan its next mission to Mars, one designed to send samples back to Earth. They believe analyzing samples on Earth provides a better opportunity to find signs of life. And the best shot at finding those signs of life, say some scientists, will come from Mars cave exploration missions.

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Mars cave exploration has more potential for finding signs of life than surface samples because of the harsh conditions of the planet's surface.  The surface temperature can drop to -131F, which combined with the lack of water and high radiation caused by direct sunlight make the surface a less-than-ideal place to look for signs of life. Beneath the surface, however, Mars cave exploration could prove to be more fruitful. The dynamic of the planet changes dramatically once underground, say researchers.

"The subsurface is going to be radically different from the surface," astrobiologist and cave scientist Penny Boston, of the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro, told Yahoo! News. "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."

Boston said she would "love" the opportunity to analyze results from a Mars cave exploration mission that examined some of the red planet's lava-tube caves. Lava tubes are formed when volcanic activity forces magma to snake along beneath the surface, forming long, winding caves. On Earth, lava tubes often trap water inside. Water, as many people know, is considered to be the key to life. Frozen water inside Martian lava tubes could potentially contain what scientists have been searching for; microscopic life forms.

"Something like the lava tubes could be wonderful traps for material from past climate regimes, particles from previous epochs on Mars," Boston said. "The ability to tap into frozen volatiles would be fabulous. And maybe bug bodies - maybe frozen little bodies. You never know."

So what does it take to pull off a Mars cave exploration? Quite a bit, actually.

Landing a rover close to a cave would be no easy feat. The Curiosity Rover had a 4-by-12 mile target landing zone. A huge improvement over the 1976 Viking mission, which had a 62-by-174 mile zone, but not enough to guarantee a rover could make its way into a narrow cave opening, said Boston.

And that's the easy part.

The real challenge, according to Carnegie Mellon University roboticist William "Red" Whittaker, is going to be figuring out how to control a robot underground when wireless communication is inhibited. He recently told Space Safety Magazine that three options exist for exploring caves on mars. The first is to have a robot repel into a cave like a mountain climber would. The problem is that the cave walls are unpredictable and loose debris could damage the robot and the mission. The second takes advantage of the planet's reduced gravity (about .38 of Earth's gravity) and could use a robot who jumps into and out of a cave. The third involves using ziplines and lowering the robot in like a spider.

Boston said she believes that mars cave exploration could be an important stepping stone to sending astronauts and establishing colonies on Mars, simply because subterranean settlements look the most promising.

"I think we're really working up to it," Boston said. "I think we're coming into an era where a lot of things that we've found very, very difficult in the past are going to become increasingly easy. And so I'm certainly hoping [a mission could occur] within the next 20 years, where I can hope to still be alive to see it."

© 2012 iScience Times All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.

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