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Future 'Martians' Could Live in Caves
In the face of intense solar radiation and blinding red dust storms, the first humans who travel to Mars will need a protective habitation module.
After all, it's not like they can just live in a cave.
Or could they?
A handful of proponents say caves created long ago by cooling lava would be the cheapest, largest and most protective places to expand human outposts.
Mars was once volcanic, scientists say, and it shares features with Earth, which is still volcanic.
Among the common features are myriad types of caves left behind as lava flowed across the landscape and then cooled.
Caves will not likely be a first home, in part because they have yet to be mapped. The first explorers would need a place to live while they search for lava tubes and modify them to be livable. But proponents say caves could potentially provide a vast network of rooms and hallways where a colony could expand activities and store supplies.
"Depending on where we wish to establish our outposts [other considerations being mineral resources, access to permafrost as a source of water] martian lava tubes would offer substantial volumes already shielded from cosmic rays, solar flares and the sun's untempered ultraviolet," says Peter Kokh, a past board member of the National Space Society.
Kokh said cave entrances might be strewn with boulders along steep slopes.
"Attractive as they are, there are some practical problems with gaining access that may mean that we don't do this until we have a more capable operation on Mars," Kokh said in an e-mail interview. "But the tubes are a definite asset and it would be stupid not to plan on making the most of their existence."
Kokh said similar caves on the moon could also support human colonies. (He also muses that lunar caves would be the most logical place to look for possible calling cards left long ago by other intelligent beings.)
Cave Dwellers: ET Might Lurk in Dark Places
Cold, slimy and pitch dark. Just add some acid and you’ll make Diana Northup and Penny Boston happy.
Northup, Boston and their colleagues—the self-named slime team—study cave-dwelling microbes. In some cases the bacterial growth is so abundant the walls drip slime. What’s making this mucuslike substance?
"The snot? The bacteria are making sort of a biofilm in which they exist," says Northup, a microbiologist, librarian and avid caver at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.
Caves provide one of the most constant of environments; the temperature and humidity remain the same. But in some caves, hydrogen sulfide combines with oxygen to produce sulfuric acid. Some bacteria add their own acid as a waste product. To protect themselves, bacteria produce their own microenvironment within the slimy biofilm.
"It acts as a place for them to conduct their own little chemistry labs, so to speak, regardless of what is going on outside of the film," says Boston, a microbiologist at New Mexico Tech, in Socorro. "We protect ourselves (sometimes ineffectually) against the byproducts of our metabolism, everything from simple waste products like feces to the toxic substances resulting from our industrial efforts," Boston says. "In essence, the bacteria are doing the same thing."
Caves on Mars
Boston sees caves as more than just another extreme environment.
"We have thought about what the life might look like on the surface [of other worlds], but in light of the huge biodiversity of microorganisms in the subsurface of Earth, the subsurface in general and caves in particular will be an important place to look for life on other bodies," Boston said. "I believe that there may be many planets, including Mars, where the only life on the planet will be restricted to the subsurface."
As the team finds out more about how cave microbes thrive in the extreme environment of earthly caves, they’ll learn more about what chemical and crystalline signs to look for in what may be the normal environment of other planets.
Scientists use Lechuguilla cave to test theories of life on Mars
CARLSBAD, N.M. (AP) - The ponds and rocks of Lechuguilla cave pulse with the rhythms of an ecosystem that has adapted to a forbidding niche. The question is, how?
And could life on Mars be hunkered down beneath the planet's frozen crust, living the same way?
A team from NASA has come to New Mexico, looking for answers, using Lechuguilla's tough little microbes as stand-ins for life on Mars.
The bacterial creatures of Lechuguilla, a famed cave in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, have found a way to live without the sunlight that fuels the plant-animal food cycle on Earth's surface.
The sulfur-laden environment of Lechuguilla is like the environment scientists think would be found beneath the airless, forbidding surface of Mars.
With plans to return to Mars to search for evidence of life, possibly even bringing samples back to Earth, NASA is trying to understand what clues to look for.
So Penny Boston, biologist, has become Penny Boston, spelunker, trying to understand the microbes of Lechuguilla.
"We had to learn how to do some serious caving. Lechuguilla is no joke,'' she said. "The price of admission - it's a major gruntfest.''
Dropping down a 150-foot rope into Lechuguilla's opening with a 50-pound pack on her back for the four- to six-day expeditions, Boston has paid her entry fee.
Lechuguilla is the deepest limestone cave in the United States, according to Park Service cave specialist Jason Richards. Ninety miles of passages have been mapped so far, a labyrinth of huge rooms, ponds and passageways.
The cave isn't open to the public. Only scientific expeditions are permitted so as to preserve the cave's fragile ecosystem. Boston and her colleagues have been studying it for NASA since 1994.
The cave's value to scientists comes from the fact it was cut off from the surface until recently.
Formed by acids that bubbled up from oil fields below, Lechuguilla was relatively unknown until a group of cavers dug through a pile of rubble in 1986 in what was then a relatively minor cave to reveal a passageway to the great cavern below.
That means the cave had been isolated from the surface environment for at least 2 million years, and possibly much longer, a closed environment where microorganisms have developed unique survival mechanisms, says Kim Cunningham, a consulting geologist who has studied Lechuguilla.
Boston, Cunningham and their colleagues mount major expeditions for their research, hauling supplies through the cave, hiking and climbing and crawling through the mud to get to the places where they collect their samples.
The reward is a host of microbes likely found nowhere else on Earth, said Diana Northup, a University of New Mexico biologist who works with Boston.
"It's a great place for novel organisms,'' Northup said.
For the microbiologists who want to study those novel organisms, it is also a trying place.
Scientists use petri dishes and microscope slides to try to capture and cultivate the cave organisms, often leaving the petri dishes in place in the cave for long periods of time because keeping the organisms alive outside the cave is so difficult.
But working with sterile microscope slides and petri dishes is a struggle, Boston said.
"You've got to crawl and drag, and you're filthy. And it's very hard to work in a filthy environment if you're a microbiologist,'' she said.
Boston, Northup, Cunningham and others have found a range of life within the cave.
Near the entrance - they call it "the Twilight Zone'' - are spiders, crickets and other little invertebrates.
The important finds come deeper in the cave - in "the Dark Zone.''
A number of types of bacteria have been found, some similar to those found on the surface of Earth and some that appear to have developed the ability to get their energy from the cave's minerals - sulfur, iron or manganese.
Figuring out that chemistry, what the bacteria are consuming and what they're putting out is the central question facing the scientists.
But much about that chemistry remains a mystery.
"They're getting something,'' Boston said. "We don't know what it is.''
While Lechuguilla has been singled out as a promising stand-in for life on Mars, it isn't the only place where life has been found deep beneath the Earth's crust.
In Sweden, microbes have been found in ground water flowing through granite deep beneath the surface. In the Pacific Northwest, researchers have found the single-celled organisms in ground water 3,300 feet below the surface of the Columbia Base in southeastern Washington. In North Sea oil fields, organisms have been found miles down.
Everywhere where there is water at or below the boiling point, life seems to be thriving, said William S. Fyfe, a geochemist at the University of Western Ontario.
"In the cracks, the number of microorganisms per cubic centimeter is about the same as at the Earth's surface,'' Fyfe said. "The little buggers are very happy down there.''
On the surface, most life gets its energy from sunlight. Plants use the sunlight to build complex molecules that store the energy.
Underground organisms have solved the energy problem some other way, by finding some other big complex molecules to break down for their energy.
"They slurp up the energy,'' Boston said.
A big difference, Boston believes, is that underground organisms have the ability to slow down their metabolism to survive long periods of starvation.