Space exploration goes underground

La exploración espacial pasa a la clandestinidad

Summary by subject area groups, workflow, statistics from panelists (Surveys 1 and 3) and the community at large (Survey 2), and breakdown of the 53 fundamental questions in planetary cave science and engineering by subject area group. Credit: Geophysical Research Journal: Planets (2022). DOI: 10.1029/2022JE007194

Is there life in the Martian caves?

It’s a good question, but it’s not the right question, 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 others planetary bodiesSo we can come back to that question.

Wynne, a research assistant professor of cave ecology, is lead author of two related studies, both published in a special collection of articles on planetary caves by the Geophysical Research Journal: Planets.

The first, “Fundamental Science and Engineering Questions in Planetary Cave Research,” was conducted by an interdisciplinary team of 31 scientists, engineers, and astronauts who produced a list of 198 questions that they, working with 82 other space scientists and engineers, and of caves, reduced to the 53 most important.

Drawing on the knowledge of a considerable swath of the space science community, this work is the first study designed to identify research and engineering priorities to advance the study of planetary caves. The team hopes that their work will inform what will ultimately be needed to support robotic and human missions to a planetary cave, that is, on the Moon and/or Mars.

The second, “Planetary Caves: A Solar System View of Products and Processes,” grew out of the first study. Wynne realized that no effort had been made to catalog planetary caves throughout the solar system, which is another important piece of the overall puzzle. He assembled another team of planetary scientists to address that question.

“With the necessary financial investment and institutional support, research and technological development required to achieve these necessary advances over the next decade are achievable,” Wynne said. “We now have what I hope will become two seminal papers that will help move planetary cave research from a contemplative armchair exercise to robots probing planetary subsurfaces. “.

What we know about alien caves

There are many of them. Scientists have identified at least 3,545 potential caves on 11 different moons and planets throughout the solar system, including the Moon, Mars, and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Caving processes have even been identified in comets and asteroids. If the surrounding environment allows access to the subsurface, that presents an opportunity for scientific discovery that has never been available before.

The discoveries in these caves could be massive. The caves may one day allow scientists to “peer into the depths” of these rocky, icy bodies, which will provide information about how they formed (but may also provide more information about how Earth formed). They could also, of course, keep secrets from life.

“Caves on many planetary surfaces represent one of the best environments to search for evidence of extinct or perhaps extant life forms,” ​​Wynne said. “For example, since Martian caves are shielded from deadly surface radiation and violent wind storms, they are more likely to exhibit a more constant temperature regime compared to the surface, and some may even contain ice from This makes caves on Mars one of the most important exploration targets in the search for life.”

La exploración espacial pasa a la clandestinidad

Planetary bodies for which possible cave entrances have been identified with the number of features per body in parentheses (at the top). Global locations for possible cave entrances for the Moon (center) and Mars (bottom). DeWynne et al. 2022b. Credit: AGU and Geophysical Research Journal: Planets. Top photo: Real-time DNA sequencing in a laboratory installed in the Corona Lava Tube (Lanzarote, Canary Islands, Spain) as part of the ESA PANGAEA-X 2017 astronaut training program. ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer is inside of the laboratory module with co-author Ana Miller. Credit: ESA.

And it’s not just about finding life: These same factors make caves good places for astronaut shelters on Mars and the Moon when crewed missions can explore.

“Radiation shielding will be essential for human exploration of the Moon and Mars,” said Leroy Chiao, a retired astronaut, former commander of the International Space Station and co-author of the first paper. “One possible solution is to use caves for this purpose. Requirements for astronaut habitats, suits and EVA equipment should take into account cave exploration and development, for protection against galactic and solar cosmic radiation.” .

What Earth can tell us about other planets

Wynne, whose primary research is in terrestrial caves, said planetary cave research has long been a parallel research question to the terrestrial variety for nearly two decades. Caves support unique ecosystems that are sometimes quite separate from the surface ecosystem in the same area. Who’s to say that a cave on the Moon or Mars wouldn’t be similar? So many questions that he has investigated about caves on Earth, he wonders how it might apply to other planets.

He’s not the only one making the connection. Wynne has done multiple research projects with NASA to help advance sensing technologies, and his modeling of cave habitats doesn’t care much whether a cave is terrestrial or extraterrestrial. There are enough similarities in the cave environment to make reasonable predictions that they will be a major factor in the selection of cave targets for exploration.

“Deep telluric caves are often characterized by total darkness, a stable temperature approaching the average annual surface temperature, low or no airflow, and an atmosphere nearly saturated with water,” he said. “Caves on other planetary bodies are likely to exhibit similar environmental conditions, but they will also be influenced by the surface conditions of the planetary body and the internal structure of the cave.”

Keith Cowing, editor of and, said that using a planet’s existing surface and subsurface infrastructure can help humans reach other planets sooner than if we had to carry everything we needed to survive with. U.S.

“Humans have been living in caves for hundreds of thousands of years. Then they built their own when none were available,” he said. “As such, it’s natural to assume that caves will offer similar utility as humanity expands to other worlds. While planet-wide terraforming may be an ultimate goal, the use of large pre-existing structures such as caves and tubes of lava, it may be a more practical way to push the technology to the maturity needed to address the surface of an entire planet.”

Where are we now?

While much of this research is prospective, it is also necessary to consider what resources, research, and support currently exist. Numerous robotic platforms and instrumentation packages are being tested, but the stumbling block comes where it so often occurs: lack of funding. With enough support, a robotic exploration mission to a lunar or martian cave could be possible in the next five to 10 years.

This research builds on previous work to form a kind of roadmap moving forward; Wynne sees it as a to-do list for that very process. The questions answered by the scientists and engineers identify the tasks needed to prepare for that robotic exploration; it also looks further ahead to the necessary advances in spacesuit technology, habitation modules, and hardware that will allow humans to live and work safely underground on the Moon and Mars.

“This is an untapped research area in planetary science, and its importance in the search for life should not be overlooked,” he said. “In our lifetime, we may well look into the interior of Mars to address the age-old question: ‘Is there life beyond Earth?'”

More information:
J. Judson Wynne et al, Fundamental Science and Engineering Issues in Planetary Cave Exploration, Geophysical Research Journal: Planets (2022). DOI: 10.1029/2022JE007194

J. Judson Wynne et al, Planetary Caves: A Solar System View of Processes and Products, Geophysical Research Journal: Planets (2022). DOI: 10.1029/2022JE007303

Citation: Space Exploration Goes Underground (2022, November 16) Retrieved November 16, 2022 from

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