Summary: For millennia, caves have served as shelters for prehistoric humans. Caves have also intrigued scholars from early Chinese naturalists to Charles Darwin. A cave ecologist has been in and out of these subterranean ecosystems, examining the unique life forms — and unique living conditions — that exist in Earth’s many caves. But what does that suggest about caves on other planetary bodies? In two connected studies, engineers, astrophysicists, astrobiologists and astronauts lay out the research that needs to be done to get us closer to answering the old-age question about life beyond Earth.
Is there life in Martian caves?
It’s a good question, but it’s not the right question — yet. An international collaboration of scientists led by NAU researcher Jut Wynne has dozens of questions we need asked and answered. Once we figure out how to study caves on the Moon, Mars and other planetary bodies, then we can return to that question.
Wynne, an assistant research professor of cave ecology, is the lead author of two related studies, both published in a special collection of papers on planetary caves by the Journal of Geophysical Research Planets. The first, “Fundamental Science and Engineering Questions in Planetary Cave Research,” was done by an interdisciplinary team of 31 scientists, engineers and astronauts who produced a list of 198 questions that they, working with another 82 space and cave scientists and engineers, narrowed down to the 53 most important. Harnessing the knowledge of a considerable swath of the space science community, this work is the first study designed to identify the research and engineering priorities to advance the study of planetary caves. The team hopes their work will inform what will ultimately be needed to support robotic and human missions to a planetary cave — namely on the Moon and/or Mars.
What we know about extraterrestrial caves
There are a lot of them. Scientists have identified at least 3,545 potential caves on 11 different moons and planets throughout the solar system, including the Moon, Mars and moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Cave formation processes have even been identified on comets and asteroids. If the surrounding environment allows for access into the subsurface, that presents an opportunity for scientific discovery that’s never been available before.
The discoveries in these caves could be massive. Caves may one day allow scientists to “peer into the depths” of these rocky and icy bodies, which will provide insights into how they were formed (but also can provide further insights into how Earth was formed). They could also, of course, hold secrets of life.
“Caves on many planetary surfaces represent one of the best environments to search for evidence of extinct or perhaps extant lifeforms,” Wynne said. “For example, as Martian caves are sheltered from deadly surface radiation and violent windstorms, they are more likely to exhibit a more constant temperature regime compared to the surface, and some may even contain water ice. This makes caves on Mars one of the most important exploration targets in the search for life.”See complete article at Science Daily.
Spelunking on Mars? I’m sure it could be fascinating, but it bears keeping in mind that environment doesn’t produce life.