Space Exploration Goes Underground

Space exploration goes underground – SpaceRef

Space exploration goes underground

University of Northern Arizona

Is there life in Martian caves?

That’s a good question, but 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 figure out how to study caves on the Moon, Mars, and other planetary bodies, we can return to this question.

Wynne, an assistant professor of cave ecology, is the lead author of two related studies, both published in a special collection of articles on planetary caves by the Journal of Geophysical Research Planets. The first, “Fundamental Scientific and Technical Questions in Planetary Caving”, was created by an interdisciplinary team of 31 scientists, engineers and astronauts who compiled a list of 198 questions, which they worked with 82 other space and cave scientists and engineers to narrow down to the 53 most important. This work, which harnesses the knowledge of a significant portion of the space science community, is the first study aimed at identifying the research and engineering priorities to advance exploration of planetary cavities. The team hopes their work will shed light on what’s ultimately needed to support robotic and human missions to a planetary cave – namely, on the Moon and/or Mars.

The second, “Planet Caves: Products and Processes from the Solar System Perspective”, was born from the first study. Wynne realized that there had been no effort to catalog planetary cavities throughout the solar system, which is another important piece of the great puzzle. He assembled another team of planetary scientists to address this question.

“With the necessary financial investment and institutional support, the research and technological development needed to achieve these necessary advances over the next decade are possible,” Wynne said. “We now have, I hope, two seminal papers that will help move exploration of planetary cavities from a contemplative exercise in a chair to robots probing planetary subsurfaces.”

Summary by subject group, workflow, panelist statistics (Survey 1 & 3) and wider community (Survey 2), and breakdown of the 53 fundamental questions in planetary cave science and engineering by subject group. Photo credit: Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets (2022)

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 across the solar system, including the Moon, Mars, and moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Cave-forming processes have even been detected on comets and asteroids. When the environment allows access to the underground, it presents an opportunity for scientific discovery never before available.

The discoveries in these caves could be tremendous. Caves could one day allow scientists to peer “into the depths” of these rocky and icy bodies, which will provide insight into their formation (but may also provide further insight into the formation of the Earth). Of course, they could also contain mysteries of life.

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

And it’s not just about finding life—the same factors make caves good places for astronaut shelters on Mars and the Moon, if manned missions can explore them.

“Radiation shielding will be essential for human exploration of the Moon and Mars,” said Leroy Chiao, a retired astronaut, former International Space Station commander, and co-author of the first article. “One possible solution is to use caves for this purpose. Requirements for astronaut habitats, EVA suits and equipment should accommodate caving research and development to protect against both solar and galactic cosmic rays.”

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

What the earth can tell us about other planets

Wynne, whose main research is in terrestrial caves, said that exploring planetary caves has been a parallel research question to Earth diversity for nearly two decades. Caves support unique ecosystems that are sometimes quite separate from the surface ecosystem in the same area. Who says a cave on the moon or Mars wouldn’t be similar? So many of the questions he’s researched about caves on Earth have left him wondering how they might be applied to other planets.

He’s not the only one making the connection. Wynne has done several research projects with NASA to advance detection 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, which play an important role in selecting cave targets for exploration.

“Telluric caves at depth are often characterized by complete darkness, a stable temperature roughly equal to the average annual surface temperature, little to no airflow, and an almost water-saturated atmosphere,” he said. “The caves of other planetary bodies are likely to have similar environmental conditions, but these are also influenced by the surface conditions of the planetary body and the internal structure of the cave.”

Keith Cowing, editor of and, said that using the existing infrastructure of a planet’s surface and subsurface could help people get to other planets sooner than if we had to bring everything we needed to get to to survive.

“People have lived in caves for hundreds of thousands of years. Then they built their own when none were available,” he said. “It is therefore only natural to assume that caves will provide a similar benefit as humanity expands to other worlds. While planet-wide terraforming can be an end goal, using large, pre-existing structures like caves and lava tubes can be a more practical way to bring the technology to the maturity required to tackle an entire planet’s surface.”

Space suit designer and co-author Pablo de Leon tests the NDX-3 Planetary Space Suit in Antarctica. The development of drilling and excavation tools will be crucial for research, settlement and rescue operations in planetary caves. Photo credit: Human Spaceflight Laboratory, University of North Dakota.

Where are we now?

While much of this research is forward looking, it is also important to consider what resources, research and support currently exist. Numerous robotic platforms and instrumentation suites are being tested, but the hurdle comes where it so often happens – the lack of funding. With enough support, a robotic reconnaissance mission to a lunar or Mars cave could be possible in the next five to ten years.

This research builds on previous work to create a roadmap of spells to move forward; Wynne sees it as a to-do list for the same process. The questions the scientists and engineers answered identify the tasks required to prepare for this robotic exploration; It also looks even further into the future at the advances needed in the 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 area of ​​research in planetary science and its importance in the search for life should not be overlooked,” he said. “It’s entirely possible that in our lifetime we’ll look beneath Mars to answer the age-old question, ‘Does life exist beyond Earth?'”

Jut Wynne (right) with JPL robot Brett Kennedy field tests an early prototype of the climbing robot LEMUR in a lava tube cave in the Mojave Desert, California. Remarkably, Wynne is the first human to secure a robot. Courtesy of NASA JPL/Caltech.

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