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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A Collapsed Martian Lava Chamber, Seen From Space

This HiRise image of Hephaestus Fossae shows a volcanic area that's collapsed into a pit. We should explore it. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UArizona

Lava tubes and chambers attract a lot of attention as potential sites for bases on the Moon and Mars. They provide protection from radiation, from temperature swings, and even from meteorites. They beg to be explored.

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Exploring Lava Tubes on Other Worlds Will Need Rovers That Can Work Together

Artist's rendition of autonomous rovers using the breadcrumb style communication network within a lava tube. They are exploring and collecting data, which is then relayed back to the mother rover at the tube's entrance, which then relays the data to an orbiter or a blimp. (Credit: John Fowler/Wikimedia Commons, Mark Tarbell and Wolfgang Fink/University of Arizona)

Planetary exploration, specifically within our own Solar System, has provided a lifetime of scientific knowledge about the many worlds beyond Earth. However, this exploration, thus far, has primarily been limited to orbiters and landers/rovers designed for surface exploration of the celestial bodies they visit. But what if we could explore subsurface environments just as easily as we’ve been able to explore the surface, and could some of these subsurface dwellings not only shelter future astronauts, but host life, as well?

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Lava Tubes on the Moon and Mars are Really, Really Big. Big Enough to Fit an Entire Planetary Base

The first lava tube skylight discovered on the moon. Image credit: JAXA/SELENE

Could lava tubes on the Moon and Mars play a role in establishing a human presence on those worlds? Possibly, according to a team of researchers. Their new study shows that lunar and Martian lava tubes might be enormous, and easily large enough to accommodate a base.

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Why Lava Tubes Should be Our Top Exploration Priority on Other Worlds

Spectacular high Sun view of the Mare Tranquillitatis pit crater revealing boulders on an otherwise smooth floor. The 100 meter pit may provide access to a lunar lava tube. Image Credit: By NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University - http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA13518, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54853313

When magma comes out of the Earth onto the surface, it flows as lava. Those lava flows are fascinating to watch, and they leave behind some unique landforms and rocks. But a lot of what’s fascinating about these flows can be hidden underground, as lava tubes.

These lava tubes are turning out to be a very desirable target for exploration on other worlds, just as they are here on Earth.

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