Cave-exploring rover tested for moon and Mars

Cave rover team
NASA’s robotics team drives the test rover, CaveR, into Valentine Cave at Lava Beds National Monument in California. One of the CaveR engineers is perched on a lava ledge, a marker of one of the lava flows in the cave. (NASA Photo)

BELLEVUE, Wash. — Underground lava tubes are great places to set up bases on the moon, or look for life on Mars — but they’ll be super-tricky to navigate. Which is why a NASA team is practicing with a cave rover in California.

Scientists are sharing their experiences from the Biologic and Resource Analog Investigations in Low Light Environments project, or BRAILLE, here at this week’s Astrobiology Science Conference.

The site of the experiment is California’s Lava Beds National Monument, which houses North America’s largest network of lava tubes. These are tunnel-like structures left behind by ancient volcanic flows of molten rock. They’re known to exist on the moon and Mars, and in some places there are even openings that make those lava tubes accessible from the surface.

The underground passageways provide shelter from the harsh radiation hitting the surface of the moon and Mars, which would be a big plus for would-be settlers. There’s even a chance that microbes could find a foothold in lava tubes on Mars, as they do on Earth.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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