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One does not have to send space exploration robots into space to test their ability to tolerate extreme conditions. The are plenty of places on earth where extremes of heat and cold can be found, and where space exploration robots can be tested. Mount Erebus in Antarctica is such a place. Unlike most active volcanoes, the top of Mount Erebus is not covered in rock. At the top of the Mountain is an open pit of boiling, nearly 2000 degree lava. The remote Antarctic location, therefore, is a place on earth where a machine can be exposed to otherworldly temperatures. Historically, Mount Erebus has been studied only to gain a better understanding of the nature of volcanoes. Researcher Aaron Curtis, on the other hand, wants to use it as a location to test space robots.
Technology used to explore Antarctic caves may be used in future space exploration
One of the most interesting locations in the solar system that NASA intends to explore is Europa, an icy moon of Jupiter that is believed to contain icy water under the surface. If there is still any possibility that life may be found in the solar system, Europa may be one of the best choices. There does not seem to be any liquid water on Mars, but Europa might be different. Last December, he spent a month using robots to investigate caves under Mt. Erebus – the sort of work that the robots could someday be doing on distant worlds.
One cannot use conditions on Earth to directly simulate the conditions on other worlds. The temperatures are never cold enough; the atmosphere is too different, a machine will often be exposed to hostile radiation on another world. The cave complexes are, however, similar to what one might expect in a place like Europa. Bacteria are often found to survive in very difficult conditions, such as Antarctic caves, which implies that microbial life may exist elsewhere in the solar system. An important recent technological feat was a robot called PUFFER, which has the power to change shape and thus navigate through small caves. The robot was not designed for an icy environment, but with new snow wheels, it was able to move around underneath the Antarctic mountain. New light sensors used to create 3D cave maps have also been tested on Earth before their potential use in space. While Antarctica is not similar to Europa, many technological hurdles that are being overcome in Antarctica will someday be put to use in places that are much colder and more hostile.
Image credits, JPL and erebus.nmt.edu