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Cave Research That’s Out of this World

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

National Park News

Would it surprise you to discover that to find life up in the solar system, researchers are going down into caves? This week, Carlsbad Caverns National Park hosted field trips for 28 participants of the first International Planetary Cave Research Workshop. An alphabet soup of agencies and organizations sponsored the workshop – USGS, NASA, USRA, LPI, and NCKRI * – to “promote …cave exploration and research across the solar system.” Yes, you read that right, “cave exploration…across the solar system.”

Workshop topics included autonomous robots for exploring subsurface sites, ice caves, microclimates, lava tubes, microbial mats, and thermal imaging cave detection. Presenters described research they did in person or through various remote methods of such far flung locations as Antarctica, Mexico, Romania, Mars, Texas, Moon, Spain, Titan, New Mexico and Saturn’s Rings.

This is not science fiction. Around the world, scientists and engineers are searching for, speculating about and devising ways to reach other planets and study extraterrestrial life. Because of their remoteness, harsh environments, and often “unreachable” places, exploring caves and lava tubes offers challenges similar to exploring other worlds. Also, life forms that exist in extreme conditions underground – where the sun’s energy is nonexistent, digestible resources are scarce, and competition is high – may have qualities akin to what we’d expect to find off-world. The assertion is that knowing what evidence of life looks like here, such as chemical signatures or microbial patterns, may help us recognize signs of life, past or present, throughout the solar system.

Dr. Penny Boston, who led NASA’s Caves of Mars Project, helped assemble and organize the workshop. She said, “One of my primary interests is looking at the caves on Earth, in all their spectacular diversity, and rethinking them in the context of another planetary body.”  For over twenty years, much of her geomicrobiology research has been done in national parks, including Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

 “National parks exist to help us understand and appreciate our world,” said Dale Pate, Cave and Karst Coordinator for the NPS. “It’s great that science occurring in parks could help us understand not only this world we’re on but also other worlds beyond.” It should be no surprise to hear that scientific research is ongoing in national park sites, but perhaps it’s incredible to imagine that earthly explorations could reach from a microbe in a national park cave to the discovery of life beneath the surface of Mars!


* United States Geologic Survey (Astrogeology Science Center), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Mars Program Office), Universities Space Research Association, Lunar and Planetary Institute, and National Cave and Karst Research Institute


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