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MIT Technology Review

A drone map of lava tubes shows how we’ll go spelunking on Mars

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A lidar-equipped drone has mapped a lava tube in Iceland in a matter of minutes, using a technique that can be applied to space exploration.

The news: The drone was able to safely and accurately map the Lofthellir lava tube’s rocky and icy features quickly without the use of GPS or preloaded maps. The work, a collaboration between the SETI Institute and startup Astrobotic Technology, is a proof of concept for exploring similar caves on the moon or Mars autonomously. You can see a video of the robotic explorers here.

Why use drones? The moon and Mars both have caves that open to the surface. Many of these are suspected to be lava tubes—open spaces that form when the top layer of a lava flow cools off and solidifies, while molten rock beneath it drains away. “Small, free-flying spacecraft might be the ideal robotic platform for the exploration of lava tubes on Earth, the moon, and Mars for the simple reason that they would not need to come in direct contact with any of the rough and potentially unstable surfaces found inside caves and lava tubes,” said Andrew Horchler, director of future missions and technology at Astrobotic in a press release. “Nimble drones could enter, map, and exit caves quickly, returning from the darkness to send data back to Earth, return a sample to the surface, recharge, and refuel.”

From Earth to the moon: Translating the technology to something that will work in lunar and martian environments, which have thin or no atmosphere, will require some adjustments. While the craft will need to be propelled by thrusters rather than propellers, the team's experiment proves the rig’s navigation systems and sensors are lava tube ready.

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