NASA Aircraft Aids Earth-Mars Cave Detection Study

Thermal and visual imagery was recently collected from high above California’s Mojave Desert through a NASA-funded airborne study designed to aid in detection of caves on Earth, the moon and Mars.

“This is important because once we develop techniques for detecting caves on Earth, we can then apply these techniques to looking for caves on Mars,” said Judson "Jut" Wynne, a doctoral candidate at Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, and a researcher at the SETI Institute.
NASA Dryden's King Air N801NA climbs after takeoff from Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. (NASA / Tony Landis)
Wynne, project manager of the study, said caves may be a source of shelter for astronauts establishing colonies in the harsh conditions of the moon and Mars, and are the best place to search for evidence of life on Mars.

A NASA Beechcraft 200 King Air research aircraft, based at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards, Calif., flew two missions in April carrying NASA’s Quantum Well Infrared Photodetector or QWIP, developed jointly with QmagiQ LLC of Nashua, N.H. The QWIP camera, operated by engineer Murzy Jhabvala of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., is based on a detector technology that can see invisible infrared light in a range of "colors," or wavelengths.

 Martian pit feature found by NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

The flights over a large lava bed in California’s eastern Mojave Desert were conducted in the early morning and mid-afternoon so the QWIP camera could image the temperature variation of the caves and surrounding surface that occurs as a result of the heating effects of the sun. Temperature and barometric pressure instruments on the ground were logging data in and near the caves as the King Air collected the imagery from overhead. The thermal imagery collected during the King Air flights will be compared to the ground-based measurements to better understand differences between cave entrances and the surrounding terrain.

Wynne believes if life existed on Mars, the evidence will be found in caves. He envisions this research contributing to the development of a selection criteria used to identify suitable cave targets for future robotic exploration, and perhaps one day finding evidence of life on Mars.

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