Scientists eye the Martian underground in search for alien life

Feb 1, 2020
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If life's signature cannot be detected from the mouth of a cavern it will require drilling into or driving into the cave. Finding a cave with a drivable entrance seems possible, but requires a level of driving around and checking that is not likely to happen before there are people who can walk in where their vehicle could not go. We might get lucky and find an accessible cave entrance on our first few tries within driving distance for our current crop of vehicles. Then there is the problem of communication. With the amount of iron in Martian soil, it seems unlikely that our vehicle could communicate from within a cave. It would have to move into the cave under its own programs and extricate itself from any problem in the cave without external assistance and then report its findings on exit from the cave.

Without some major upgrades to robotic explorers, we shall have to wait for humans to arrive with testing equipment adequate to detect signs of life, past or present. Of course, that will raise significant further doubts about what is native and what is contamination. Can you imagine trying to keep everything surgically clean after X months in a tin can flying through space and then being largely limited to that same tin can once reaching Mars. If it is technically possible, can you imagine how much those people would want to escape into a cave with a bit of room, contamination or no. They would probably need to pick another cave for testing after they had a chance to clean themselves up in the first cave.

That was a little tongue in cheek, but not by far. If they are going to be exposed for another 600+ days at the very least, they will need to spend a big chunk of that under some significant shielding, either piled up Mars dirt, or in one of those many caves. Anybody not planning for that isn't serious about actually living on Mars for one Mars year or a lifetime. Since the caves don't require any construction, I would vote for them.
 
Mar 1, 2020
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If life's signature cannot be detected from the mouth of a cavern it will require drilling into or driving into the cave. Finding a cave with a drivable entrance seems possible, but requires a level of driving around and checking that is not likely to happen before there are people who can walk in where their vehicle could not go. We might get lucky and find an accessible cave entrance on our first few tries within driving distance for our current crop of vehicles. Then there is the problem of communication. With the amount of iron in Martian soil, it seems unlikely that our vehicle could communicate from within a cave. It would have to move into the cave under its own programs and extricate itself from any problem in the cave without external assistance and then report its findings on exit from the cave.
The first exploration of a Mars cave will be with a drone. The Mars 2020 rover will deliver a tech demo helicopter to the surface of Mars next year at this time. If that small version (1.2 m blade-span) works, larger ones will be planned, even though Mars is a tough place to fly, with its thin atmosphere. A drone (or quad-copter) is a perfect way to do initial reconnaissance of a Mars skylight cave (e.g., a ceiling hole in a large lava tube). The copter can fly in, do reconnaissance, and return outside the cave to transmit data and re-charge. We've developed a sensitive, lightweight instrument to do an aerial search for organic materials inside of a Mars cave. The drone never needs to land in the cave for this kind of a search. We submitted a mission concept to NASA using a helicopter equipped with this "OrganiCam" to do just this kind of search. The mission is called LIFE COVE. This kind of idea seems logical for the first survey mission inside of a Mars cave, and it is basically feasible now.
 
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Feb 1, 2020
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A drone makes sense, but is going to need ultrasonic or lidar or radar sensors to maneuver in the cave and return. Power usage is going to be a major consideration for all of the instrumentation because it takes so much energy just to fly in that atmosphere. There is some possibility that the atmosphere will be colder and denser within the cave, making the flight in the cave easier than above the external surface. There is also the possibility that the temperature in the cave will be so cold that atmosphere in the cave will have frozen onto the floor of the cave, making flight much beyond the entrance area, impossible. Obviously, this is all speculation, but I don't think any of it is completely unreasonable.
 

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