How could a Mars rover explore vast unknown caves?

Ever since scientists saw Mars, they’ve noticed interesting black spots on the surface that are so dark that no one knows what’s inside.

They are believed to be the mouths of deep caves Where the sun does not shine(Opens in a new tab), formed by the vents of ancient volcanoes. Inside it could be existing Martian life, liquid water, or traces of long-dead bacteria or fungi that thrived eons ago.

Intelligence NASAIt’s new Artemis Space Campaign from the Moon to MarsThe researchers are determined to advance the technology to make exploration of the Red Planet possible. If astronauts ever travel to Mars, these underground lairs could be ideal places to set up a temporary home, protected from space Dust and radiation storms.

But the challenges are enormous: Even if engineers can make a robot that doesn’t get stuck on rocks, they’ll still have to figure out how to send back images and data from cave-diving vehicles, which are unlikely to return. . The answer, says Wolfgang Fink, an engineer at the University of Arizona, is to send a robot into a cave without expecting it to return.

“So he can finally try to go into high-risk areas where the science really lies,” he told Mashable.

But anyone on Earth who’s ever tried talking on the phone while driving through a tunnel or walking into an elevator knows exactly the problem Fink and his team have to solve: how not to ignore that important call.

“Going into high-risk areas is where the science really lies.”

new paper in Advances in space research Describe type of communication system(Opens in a new tab) It can enable small robots to venture into these dangerous environments without a heavy, tangle-prone cable. If implemented, the invention could not only help explorers on Mars, but also on other planets, including this one. Think of rescue teams trying to find survivors trapped in rubble after an earthquake.

A small robot, connected to other rovers with a wireless data connection, will enter one of these Martian manipulators, which is thought to be lava tube(Opens in a new tab) Opening. On the back would be something akin to a Pez candy dispenser, loaded with small tokens, each about the size of a $1 coin. As the robot moves, it drops beacons, or communication nodes, whenever the parent craft on the surface senses that the signal between them is fading.

Network connections “breadcrumb style”

NASA is studying lava tubes on Earth to prepare for Mars cave exploration.
Credit: NASA

Fink compares the system to the bread crumbs dropped by Hansel and Gretel to find their way out of the woods. But in this case, it’s not the bot that needs the breadcrumbs — it’s the data.

“For the most part, we’re connected wherever we go, but on Mars, for example, that’s not the case because there’s no such thing as a cell phone tower. There’s no GPS,” Fink explained. “So, this is a communications infrastructure on the go.”

The cave bot will be expendable, designed to explore until its battery dies.

Caves are not straight lines. It can have walkways, curves, and thick slab walls. One of the novelties in the proposed communication system, Fink said, is that the robot will drop beacons only when necessary. In addition, the robots will be equipped with a light detection and range system, or lidar(Opens in a new tab)to allow the mission team to draw 3D maps of the underground passages.

The same connection method can be used for exploration ocean worlds(Opens in a new tab)According to the team sheet. The lake landing craft can act as the mother ship on the surface. This robot could run a cable to a submarine – except that the signals in this scenario would act as repeaters to boost the signal.

Where are lava tubes located?

A NASA orbiter looking down at a porthole on Mars

Astrobiologists think caves like these on Mars could harbor life.
Credit: NASA/JPL/Univ. or Arizona

Scientists believe that beneath Mars, Venus, and even the Moon, there are miles of huge lava tubes formed from flowing magma and covered in crystals. On the Red Planet, the atmosphere is thin and the climate is dry – not a hospitable environment for life.

But caves – as geologists and biologists on Earth have found – tend to have a life of their own. The pressure and climate are different, and the water is protected from evaporation and, through interactions with volcanic heat and minerals, can support microbes.

David Crown, a geologist at the Planetary Science Institute in Arizona, was Area mapping(Opens in a new tab) around Alba Mons, which likely contains the largest concentration of giant lava tubes on Mars. his team A recent study(Opens in a new tab) More than 300 segments have been mapped, with systems extending up to about 250 miles. They estimate that the caves may be between 1.9 and 2.5 million years old.

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Fluorescent highlighting of cave-dwelling microbes

Ultraviolet light illuminates the various microbes in the caverns.
Credit: NASA

The fact that they are apparently related indicates that they are the same age, and were formed by a large volcanic eruption that released huge amounts of lava. That could make it an attractive area for cave diving bots.

“Some lava tubes, you feel like you could drive a school bus through: They’re big and they’re cleaned up and opened up. Others have large collapsed areas, and the interior dimension can be small,” Crown said. Mashable. “We have to do some homework to choose the right tube.”

“You feel like you could drive a school bus through them.”

Meanwhile, scientists are studying terrestrial lava tubes so NASA knows what to look for when it sends robots into Martian caves. space agencies Braille Project(Opens in a new tab)Bioanalog and resource investigations in low-light environments focus on developing tools to detect life on cave walls from afar.

Possibility of life on Mars

Earth caves host complex ecosystems(Opens in a new tab), powered by bacteria that gnaw rocks and convert matter into energy for life. For this reason, many astrobiologists have published papers on the merits of going underground to search for Martian life forms, including more than 50 scientists at paper(Opens in a new tab) Posted in natural astronomy.

“The most likely place to find the biosignatures of presumed modern life is in the Earth’s interior, where groundwater (most likely in the form of a brine containing pure water mixed with salts) can remain stable,” the authors said, calling Mars’ lava tubes “the next frontier.” To explore planets and people.

Imagine that moment after a robot is lowered into one of these Martian skylights, and it shines an ultraviolet light on one of the walls for the first time. What will you see?

“Suddenly, you see some green and yellow sparkles,” which is a fluorescent indicator of living things, Fink dreams. “That would be absolutely amazing.”

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