Exploration of Planets Past, Present, and Future Habitability
With this task, we pursue our research in sedimentology related to the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission (mission data and terrestrial analogs), which has now entered its third extended mission and the interpretation of orbital imagery focusing on the basin deposits of the martian highlands.
Our objective is to characterize and map potential life habitats from the ground and orbit. The current missions show that Mars was habitable in the past and possibly still habitable today in specific environments (e.g., the discovery of ice, salts, and potential nutrients at the Phoenix landing site, and orbiters observation of abundant subsurface ice and geologically recent volcanic activity that could have provided water and energy). There is, therefore, a possibility that life, if it ever appeared on Mars, might have survived the climatic transition of the Noachian/Hesperian period, 3.7-3.2 Gy ago up to the present, and could still be sheltered from hostile environmental surface conditions. In that perspective,the identification and characterization of underground habitats is becoming a priority in the search for life on Mars. As a result, within that task - and in addition to the tasks related to our participation to the MER team - we are now initiating a sub-task which objective will be the geological and morphological characterization of regions on Mars where caves could have formed and are possibly sheltering microbial life.
The interest of caves is not only astrobiological. Human exploring planets will require shelters against hostile planetary environments as well as habitats. The idea that caves could be used as a foundation for human habitats on the Moon and Mars is being seriously considered by NASA. As a result, it is critical to develop the tools and skills to detect them. This new task will support this effort and is relevant to both NASA’s human exploration and astrobiology science objectives.