KLAMATH FALLS — Robot dogs exploring lava tubes on Mars could one day help humans find evidence of life on the Red Planet.

That’s according to a recently published paper recommending regions and methods for searching for life on Mars. The paper, “Exploring Martian Lava Tubes as a Possible Biosignature Preservation Site,” was written and published through a collaborative study conducted by NASA’s Biologic and Resource Analog Investigations in Low Light Environments (BRAILLE) team and Klamath Community College (KCC) faculty.

Jim Stoutamore, the digital media and design program faculty lead at KCC, will present the findings next week in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, at the 2021 International Astronautical Congress convention, an event that attracts more than 6,000 international participants each year to learn about the latest space information and developments in academia and industry.

Chris Patterson, a researcher who assisted in conducting the study using 3-D interactive models of lava tubes at Lava Beds National Monument, said Lava Beds’ tubes have similar characteristics to Martian lava tubes, which as underground caverns could be the best place to find evidence of life, also known as a “biosignature.”

“Mars is not typically a nice place to be. We think the best bet for finding a biosignature is going to be under the surface,” Patterson said, noting that due to high levels of radiation and wind erosion processes, evidence of life is likely lost on the surface of Mars.

“Underground, however, in the absence of those degrading factors, we think biosignatures could survive for a much longer period of time, potentially several billion years,” Patterson said. “The evidence could be fossils, if we are really lucky.”

Mars missions
Historically, Patterson said, missions seeking life on Mars have consisted of wheeled, rover-based surface exploration, but those missions have yielded few promising results.

Partnering with KCC, BRAILLE was able to create a Martian-like setting by photographing and transforming Lava Beds’ lava tubes into interactive 3-D caves using light detection and ranging (LIDAR) laser sensing and virtual reality technology, which allows users to become immersed in a setting using a headset.

“Virtual reality is most well known for gaming, but that is rapidly changing. For instance, you can now train a nuclear technician to work in a highly radioactive environment safely inside a digital environment. Surgeons can also practice procedures without needing a cadaver,” Stoutamore said. “By creating a digital 3-D world, learning can take place over and over again with no detrimental outcomes.”

Patterson explained that LIDAR imaging is similar to the natural soundwave sonar bats and dolphins use to scan their environments. He said LIDAR is a nearly identical process, except the process uses light.

“ It allows you to have a much higher resolution of a scan area by sending out very small points of laser light. It can send out hundreds of thousands of dots over the course of a scan — sometimes up to several million — and from there it records the time it takes for the light to go from the LIDAR sensor to whatever object it’s reflecting off,” Patterson said.

To create the virtual caves, BRAILLE researchers photographed Lava Beds’ caves, then passed the images to KCC graduate Danny Ortiz to convert into a digital modeling program. Once that was complete, Stoutamore transformed the modeling program into a virtual reality experience that researchers used to virtually navigate lava tubes to make recommendations for exploration methods.

According to Patterson, this study is one of the first documented unions of LIDAR and virtual reality in the cave and robotic exploration context.

“We wrote this paper because we feel this particular tool has a lot of uses in extraterrestrial exploration. The process has potential to be of use on both Mars and the moon,” Stoutamore said.

Subsurface exploration
A majority of candidate sites identified in the study are located throughout the Tharsis Montes region, which contains 12 large volcanoes. The area is the largest volcanic region on Mars and
is believed to have a high concentration of sinuous lava tube formations.

Patterson noted that while the Mars rovers Opportunity and Curiosity were good for surface exploration, traversing the rough and uneven surface inside a lava tube will require a more agile technology.

“If we want to go places that are a little bit harder to get to, we’re going to need a radical new approach. And at the moment, legged robots are probably the strongest way to do that,” Patterson said, noting that a variety of robot dogs are already working in caves on Earth.

Patterson said although finding Martian fossils would be one of the more ideal pieces of evidence of life, researchers would seeking any surviving metabolic evidence, such as rocks and other geological features, that can only be formed in the presence of bacteria or some other form of life.

“There are certain minerals that cannot exist without some form of biological process. If you can find those, you can have a reasonable confidence that it’s evidence that something living was there at some point. Hopefully we will find something like that,” Patterson said.

Although NASA’s BRAILLE team is currently preparing for a mission to Mars, it could be years before the paper’s recommendations are put to the test in Martian lava tubes.

“Stay tuned. I think some cool things are going to be coming up if we can keep the momentum,” Patterson said.

Jim Stoutamore works with a Boston Dynamics SPOT robot in Valentine Cave at Lava Beds National Monument. Stoutamore is the digital media program lead at Klamath Community College.
BRAILLE researcher Chris Patterson works with robots at Lava Beds National Monument. Patterson is based in Canada.