Can robots like SPOT explore underground lava tubes on Mars?

The BRAILLE mission concept envisions using robots like Boston Dynamics SPOT to explore the caves of Mars.


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The Caves of Mars: Preparing for a Mission to a Lava Tube
Monday, April 17, 2023
7:30 pm, Morrison Planetarium

Featuring Dr. Jennifer Blank, Blue Marble Space Institute of Science

Biologic and Resource Analog Investigations in Low Light Environments (BRAILLE) is a multi-year, NASA-funded Mars analog project centered around fieldwork in volcanic caves at Lava Beds National Monument in Northern California. We are motivated to search for evidence of life on Mars beneath its surface—and one way to gain access there is through a volcanic cave! 

We have identified many such "lava tubes" in images from Mars orbiters, and by visiting similar environments on Earth with the right technology, we hope to quantify the microbial life living there (and find out what it eats), to characterize mineral features that could be signatures of life, and to gain experience using robots to detect life and to map below-ground regions.

These efforts will help NASA prepare for a future life-detection mission to a Martian lava tube! Our project has evolved to include new autonomous and AI technologies that show much promise for developing future missions to Mars—or the Moon!  This presentation will provide an overview of BRAILLE, showcasing its most significant accomplishments and taking audiences inside these remarkable caves.

About Jen Blank

Dr. Blank and a SPOT robot that may one day explore the caves of Mars

Dr. Jen Blank is a Research Scientist within the Division of Space Sciences & Astrobiology at Ames and a Senior Researcher with the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science. She worked for ten years on the Mars Curiosity Rover Science team, planning operations for the ChemCam instrument, the first interplanetary laser. On Earth, her research takes her to field locations across the globe, studying water-rock interactions that can help support microbial life in extreme environments. Jen holds undergraduate degrees in Geology and English from Stanford University, a Master of Science degree in Oceanography from the University of Washington, and a PhD in Geochemistry from Caltech. She serves as a Global Mentor for the United Nations Space for Women Initiative and an adjunct professor at Amity University in Mumbai, India. Currently, she is the principal investigator of the NASA BRAILLE Project, a Mars analog research investigation.