NASA’s Mariner 9 was the first spacecraft to orbit another planet when it reached Mars in late 1971. It got there only a few weeks before the Soviet Union’s Mars 2 and Mars 3 spacecraft, despite being launched 11 days later than those missions. Unfortunately, there was a major dust storm when Mariner 9 arrived, and NASA had to wait until January before the spacecraft could get good images.
When it did get those images, they revealed a surprise: volcanoes and lava flows cover large portions of the Martian surface.
We’re accustomed to astronauts pulling off their missions without a hitch. They head up to the International Space Station for months at a time and do what they do, then come home. But upcoming missions to the surface of the Moon, and maybe Mars, present a whole new set of challenges.
One way astronauts are preparing for those challenges is by exploring the extreme environment inside caves.
You can see how jazzed the astronauts are about the mission. “It was like being on Mars,” one says. Another says this is inspiration to explore the solar system, because then you get to possibly see beautiful things such as what is right in front of them.
New results published in the journal Icarus suggest that caves on Mars may provide future astronauts with more than just shelter. In many locations, even far from the poles, the caves may actually trap water ice.
Ice caves are made of rock, but they contain ice year-round. (Not to be confused with glacier caves, which are caves made of ice!) Ice caves can be found on the Earth even where surface temperatures are above freezing for months at a time. This happens because cold winter air sinks into the cave and is trapped, but during the summer, the circulation in the cave shuts off: it is full of dense cold air so the warm air outside can’t get in.
Now, in a study led by Kaj Williams of NASA Ames, scientists have used simulations of the global climate and assumptions about the thermal properties of the surface to figure out where on Mars similar cold-trapping might occur. Their results show that a significant portion of the martian surface has the right conditions for ice to accumulate in caves.
Even more tantalizing, the huge volcanic provinces of Tharsis and Elysium look to be particularly good at accumulating ice. This is important because caves formed by collapsing lava tubes have been seen on the flanks of these volcanoes. Lava tube caves on Earth tend to have limited air circulation, making them good candidates for ice accumulation.
Astronauts on the surface of Mars will likely need to take cover underground to avoid the harsh radiation environment of the surface. Natural caves such as lava tubes have been suggested as ideal ready-made shelters for astronauts, and they are only looking better. Not only could ice caves provide water as a resource, the ice could preserve valuable records of past climate cycles, and the caves may be important habitats for past or present martian life.
Williams and his team plan to continue refining their models, particularly focusing on the Tharsis and Elysium regions, using higher-resolution atmospheric models and more precise geologic data to pinpoint areas that are best for cave-ice formation.