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The Planet Within: Caves from Earth to Mars and Beyond



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PIRSA Number: 
13120045

Abstract

We can set foot on faraway planets, in a sense, by exploring the world beneath our
feet. Underground caves provide unique insights into what we might find beneath
alien landscapes. We are studying caves on Earth to understand how they
form, the spectacular minerals they produce, and the unusual creatures – from
microbes to vertebrates – that thrive in them.

By understanding the caves of our own planet, we can use them as models for the
subsurfaces of other planets. This work provides insights into the lava tubes
on celestial bodies including Mars and our Moon, as well as possible dissolved
caves on Titan, which orbits Saturn. There are many possibilities surrounding
cave formation on practically every type of object in the Solar System.

Some of the most extreme cave environments on Earth are inhabited by an amazing array
of microorganisms. Some of these creatures eat their way through bedrock,
some live in hyperacid conditions, some produce unusual biominerals and rare
cave formations, and many produce compounds of potential pharmaceutical and
industrial significance. We study these unique organisms and the physical
and chemical biosignatures they leave behind. Such traces can be
used to provide a “Field Guide to Unknown Organisms” for developing life-detection
space missions. Additionally, the lava tubes clearly present on Mars
and the Moon can provide the basis for future human habitations on those
planets.