Future Mars Helicopters Could Explore Lava Tubes

The circular black features in this 2007 figure are caves formed by the collapse of lava tubes on Mars. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/USGS

The exploration of Mars continues, with many nations sending robotic missions to search for evidence of past life and learn more about the evolution of the planet’s geology and climate. As of the penning of the article, there are ten missions exploring the Red Planet, a combination of orbiters, landers, rovers, and one helicopter (Ingenuity). Looking to the future, NASA and other space agencies are eyeing concepts that will allow them to explore farther into the Red Planet, including previously inaccessible places. In particular, there is considerable interest in exploring the stable lava tubes that run beneath the Martian surface.

These tubes may be a treasure trove of scientific discoveries, containing water ice, organic molecules, and maybe even life! Even crewed mission proposals recommend establishing habitats within these tubes, where astronauts would be sheltered from radiation, dust storms, and the extreme conditions on the surface. In a recent study from the University Politehnica Bucuresti (UPB), a team of engineers described how an autonomous Martian Inspection Drone (MID) inspired by the Inginuity helicopter could locate, enter, and study these lava tubes in detail.

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Machine Learning Could Find all the Martian Caves We Could Ever Want

Examples of potential cave entrances (PCEs) on Mars and their assigned category from the Mars Global Candidate cave Catalogue (MGC3). Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/The Murray Lab.

The surface of Mars is hostile and unforgiving. But put a few meters of regolith between you and the Martian sky, and the place becomes a little more habitable. Cave entrances from collapsed lava tubes could be some of the most interesting places to explore on Mars, since not only would they provide shelter for future human explorers, but they could also be a great place to find biosignatures of microbial life on Mars.

But cave entrances are difficult to spot, especially from orbit, as they blend in with the dusty background. A new machine learning algorithm has been developed to quickly scan images of the Martian surface, searching for potential cave entrances.

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