House-Hunting for Caves on Mars Has Already Started

The neighborhood is a wild card, and moving there is bound to be expensive. But one of the best options for shelter when humans finally make it to the red planet will be subterranean caves. These rocky hollows, which exist in droves on both Earth and the moon, are natural buffers against the harsh conditions of Mars.

In a presentation this month at the Geological Society of America Connects 2022 meeting in Denver, researchers pinpointed nine leading cave candidates worthy of future exploration. All of these grottos appear to extend at least some distance underground, and they’re close to landing sites accessible to a lightweight rover.

These structures might offer a respite from the challenging Martian environment, said Nicole Bardabelias, a geoscientist at the University of Arizona. “Everything at the surface is subject to harsh radiation, possible meteorite or micrometeorite bombardment and really large day-to-night temperature swings,” she said.

To home in on Mars’ most sought-after real estate, Ms. Bardabelias and her colleagues consulted the Mars Global Cave Candidate Catalog. This compendium, based on imagery collected by instruments aboard the Mars Odyssey spacecraft and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, inventories over 1,000 candidate caves and other peculiar-looking features on Mars. (Think of it as the first Martian multiple listing service.)

Just as any discerning home buyer would filter search results on Zillow or StreetEasy, the researchers narrowed the catalog by imposing two criteria. First, they required that a cave be within roughly 60 miles of a suitable spacecraft landing site. Second, they stipulated that high-resolution imagery be available.

Ms. Bardabelias and her collaborators defined a suitable landing site as one below an elevation of roughly 3,300 feet. Such relatively low-lying locales are favorable landing sites because they give spacecraft more time to slow down as they travel through Mars’ thin atmosphere, Ms. Bardabelias said.

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