Scientists Want to Embark on Underground Mars Mission

While NASA is busy working on a strategy that would see bits of rock and soil from the Martian surface returned here to Earth, some scientists say that the most intriguing samples from the Red Planet lie in underground caverns.

NASA's next move on Mars is geared towards mounting a sample-return mission, which is widely believed to be the best way to look for signs of life there. These signs are more likely to be found in material pulled from the planet's subsurface, so some researchers are hoping that the space agency's first sample-return mission will not be its last.

Astrobiologist and cave scientist Penny Boston from the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, said:

"While I'm very much interested in a surface sample-return to get us over this hump of doing it, of course I immediately want to go on and start sampling more cryptic materials in lava-tube caves. I would love that."

Subterranean formations are common on Mars, and orbiting spacecraft have spotted many snaking lava tubes that were created by long-ago volcanism on the planet. These caverns could preserve a vast amount of information about Martian history and evolution, including its past and current potential of hosting life.

Many researchers say that the Martian surface is unlikely to host life as we know it today, but organisms could possibly be able to survive in a lava tube or other underground habitat where conditions are more benign. Unfortunately, exploring the surface of another world is a monumentally difficult task in itself, and investigating the subsurface would be even more challenging.

Any potential cave exploration mission would need to start with a pinpoint landing close to the cavern mouth, much more precise than what technology today allows for. The actual exploration of the caves would require advances in technology as well. Cave rovers would need to be much more autonomous, since overlying rock would decrease the ability to communicate with Earth.

Scientists aren't ready to send a cave exploring robot to Mars just yet, but such a mission could be possible in the future. Boston is optimistic that a robot to explore Mars' underground caves could be ready to launch by the early 2030's or so. Soohe believes that the technology needed for this kind of mission is being helped a long by the fact that they have important applications here on Earth, such as autonomous search and rescue robots.

An unmanned mission to explore the Red Planets underground could also assist efforts to send astronauts to Mars. Lava tues are likely to be the most promising spots to establish human settlements, but it is important to make sure that they are safe for habitation and examine them for indigenous life forms that could harm or be harmed by astronauts.