caves on Mars
The tentative identification of seven caves on Mars,
on the flanks of the Arsia Mons volcano, was announced in March 2007 at
the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston, Texas. The discovery,
based on pictures from NASA's Mars Odyssey
spacecraft and supported by temperature data from Odyssey's Themis instrument,
is significant because caves may be the only natural structures capable
of protecting primitive life forms on the surface of Mars from bombardment
by micrometeoroids, ultraviolet radiation, solar flares, and high energy
|Images of seven potential caves near
Arsia Mons taken using the Thermal Emission Imaging System on Mars
The spacecraft spotted what seemed to be vertical "skylight" entrances to
caves below the surface. There is a sheer drop of between about 80 m (262
ft.) and 130 m (426 ft.) or more to the cave floors below. The candidate caves
are of sufficient depth their floors mostly can't be seen through the opening.
The researchers described the candidate caves as "seven sisters" and gave
them all names: Abbey, Annie, Chloe, Dena, Jeanne, Nicki, and Wendy. During
the day, one of the features – Annie – is warmer than surrounding
pits and cooler than sunlit areas. Night time temperatures are warmer than
nearly all surrounding areas. The cave entrances are between 100 m (330
ft.) and 252 m (828 ft.) wide. Because in most cases the cave floors can't
be seen, only minimum depths are known: the researchers calculate they must
extend between 73 m (240 ft.) and 96 m (315 ft.) below the surface. However,
in one image taken of Dena by the Mars Odyssey Camera, a floor can be seen.
Using the data, the authors estimate that this cave must extend 130 m (426
ft.) below the surface.
Significance for human exploration
The discovery of caves on Mars also has potential significance for human
missions to Mars. The caves would give protection from radiation and, if
they held significant amounts of water ice, would be able to supply an underground
base with all the water it needed.