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July 15, 2008
By Andrea Turman
A research expedition through the desert caves of Chile may give NASA scientists just the information they need to one day survive on Mars.
And while Reno astronomer Dan Ruby mainly looks skyward as part of his work as associate director of Fleischmann Planetarium and Science Center at the University of Nevada, Reno, this summer he’s been tapped to go underground as one of a 10-member team of astrophysicists, geologists, speleologists and others who will spend a month in Chile’s Atacama desert region, developing techniques for discovering and studying the caves on Mars.
As the driest place on Earth and one similar geologically to Mars, the Atacama region is as close to conditions on Mars as can be found anywhere on our planet. Joining Phase ll of NASA’s Earth-Mars Cave Detection Program from July 15-Aug. 15, Ruby and scientists on the expedition in northern Chile will map and plant sensors in lava tube and salt caves similar to those expected on Mars.
“Martian caves have already been detected through techniques developed by this program, and are significant as a potential habitat for microorganisms and other extremeophiles that might exist or have existed on Mars,” Ruby said.
“They may also serve as future habitats for astronaut explorers to the red planet, as they offer protection from radiation and the harsh environment of the surface.”
Funded by NASA-Ames and SETI-CSC and led by Jut Wynne of the USGS-Southwest Biological Science Center in Arizona, Phase ll of the NASA expedition is part of a larger three-year study of caves in the Atacama desert, where thermal imaging of cave entrances has helped refine techniques already proven successful in finding caves on Mars through remote sensing. Wynne and NASA’s Astrobiology/Exobiology Program intend to find whether it is possible to detect caves by studying the amount of heat they radiate. If the team can reliably pinpoint caves on Earth, Wynn believes it should be possible to do the same on Mars.
“Phase ll will use an instrument called a QWISP, quantum well infrared photometer — basically a high-tech thermal camera — intended for use on future Mars obiter, lander and rover missions,” Ruby said. "This project plays a small part to help lay the foundations for the next generation of Mars exploration, both manned and unmanned, which will have immeasurable payoff for humankind."
Fleischmann Planetarium’s involvement in the project stems from associate director Dan Ruby’s participation in Phase l as part of NASA’s Spaceward Bound program, which puts teachers and educators such as Ruby, in the field with planetary scientists to bring back and share current NASA research with their classrooms and the public. In spring 2007 Ruby spent a week in the Mojave Desert, working with a team using a hot-air balloon to photograph volcanic caves. He will serve as a mapping assistant during Phase ll and expects to return to Reno with plenty of new insights.
The 10 team members in Phase ll of the NASA Earth-Mars Cave Detection Program represent the Northern Arizona University; the University of Nevada, Reno; the University of New Mexico; the University of Virginia and other American agencies and organizations; a Chilean geologist from Universidad Católica del Norte is the logistics lead.
“I’m honored to be part of this expedition and excited to do the fieldwork,” Ruby said. “This opportunity provides the public with a connection to cutting-edge space research, and greatly benefits our planetarium programs, which attract more than 57,000 visitors a year, including the 15,000 students who visit on field trips. It contributes another link to the already-strong relationship the University of Nevada, Reno has with NASA projects, and opens the door for similar opportunities in the future for students and other scholars and colleagues.”
For more information about the Atacama Cave expedition and the Earth-Mars Cave Detection Program, visit the NASA Astrobiology website.
Fleischmann Planetarium and Science Center is located north of Lawlor Events Center on North Virginia and 16th streets, on the University of Nevada, Reno campus, 1.5 miles north of the downtown Reno arch. Free parking is available in the West Stadium Parking Complex, level 3, just east of the Planetarium.
For more information about the planetarium and its involvement in the NASA program, call (775) 784-4812 or visit the Fleischmann Planetarium and Science Center.