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Exploring the Moon

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Researchers study the “lunar” landscape at Lava Beds National Monument
Photo by Lee JuilleratDave Sheppard lines up a magnetometer at Lava Beds National Monument while Yasmina Martos prepares to record data.
Photo by Lee JuilleratJacob Richardson, left, and Emileigh Shoemaker photograph soils inside a reference hole near Schonchin Butte.
Photo by Lee JuilleratDaniel Cremons uses a flux device in Valentine Cave that helps to create 3D maps.
Photo by Lee JuilleratZach Morse shows 3D image captured inside a cave with a laser instrument.

Editor’s Note: Lee Juillerat visited Lava Beds National Monument last Friday to meet with some of the 13 researchers from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. The team arrived May 6 and remained at the park through Sunday, May 15.

LAVA BEDS NATIONAL MONUMENT — When astronauts land on the Moon and Mars, their explorations and research will likely be aided by lessons learned and information gathered from visits to the lunar-like landscapes at Lava Beds National Monument.

Thirteen researchers from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, recently spent a week at Lava Beds conducting tests and studies involving applications for future astronauts.

The researchers, members of NASA’s GEODES, or Geophysical Exploration of the Dynamics and Evolution of the Solar System, team divided into sub-groups during the week — some focusing on navigation techniques while others studied the potential for living on the moon or Mars. Teams also investigated aspects of biology, tested instruments that could be used on planetary research, and gathered other data.

“We’re preparing for robotic and human exploration on the Moon and Mars because we’ll be going there in the next couple of years,” said Jacob Richardson, who does planetary studies for NASA. While some team members were conducting their first studies on Lava Beds’ volcanic landscape, it was his third visit.

NASA teams have visited Lava Beds several times, including four years from 2016 to 2019. Richardson said the park’s lava tubes share similar features with the Moon and many planets, and that “helps us to understand our solar system better.”

According to NASA, while at Lava Beds “scientists explore lava caves from both inside and out, working toward a future in which astronauts will be able to detect hidden caves from above ground. Caves like these on the Moon and Mars could someday shelter astronauts from harmful radiation.”

One of the teams consisted of Dr. Yamina Martos, who studies magnetic fields on Earth and other planets, and Dave Sheppard, an electrical engineer who investigates flux substances used to promote fusion. They tested magnetometers, which can detect underground caves from above ground, near Skull Cave. Sheppard said a goal is to create less costly, more compact, lighter weight and more powerful magnetometers than those currently being used. Magnetometers, Martos explained, can detect underground lava tubes that could possibly be used as habitation sites on the Moon or Mars to shield astronauts from deadly radiation.

Richardson, who was working near Schonchin Butte, said one of the overall goals of last week’s study was to determine “how places on Earth and planets might be inhabitable.” He said extremely high radiation levels on the Moon and Mars will prevent extended stays unless lava tube-like shelters can be found.

Richardson was in a sub-group that included Emileigh Shoemaker, a graduate student at the University of Arizona who is studying radar on Mars, and Patrick Whelley, a research scientist at the University of Maryland, who has made previous Lava Beds visits with NASA Goddard. They were using radar antennae to locate and determine “geophysical signatures,” such as lava flows, lava tubes, ice and above-ground soil like that found on the Moon and Mars.

“There’s so many lava tubes you can’t possibly see them all,” Whelley said.

Dina Bower, a mineralogist, and Maepa Millan, an astro-chemist who is now researching in France, were collecting minerals and microbes in Valentine Cave that will be studied and analyzed at NASA labs in Maryland.

“We’ve seen a lot and made some measurements,” Bower said, noting the studies could determine whether the samples are living or extinct. Millan said they spent three days in Golden Dome Cave where, “There were so many different features, so many different colors.”

A purpose of their studies, both explained, is to determine whether the current generation of instruments can be used to help determine life on the Moon and planets, either by astronauts or by rovers, devices that move across the surface of a planet. Another goal is to see if there are similarities on Earth and Mars. According to Millan, who will be in Hawaii later this year to study the Big Island’s lava tubes, “If life was there (on Mars) it might have migrated underground.”

Spending time in Valentine Cave were Zach Morse, who helps create and build lidar instruments, and Daniel Cremons, an instrument development technologist. They were using laser devices to create 3D images of Valentine and other caves. The maps are envisioned for use by astronauts and rover-devices.

The instruments they used also can determine the presence of minerals and water or ice. “We don’t expect to find any blocks of ice,” Morse said, noting he and Cremons also conducted testing in Skull and Sentinel, which have or have had ice, and Crystal Cave, which during winter often has large ice pillars and other features.

“It’s important to “let the American people know what we’re doing,” Morse said, adding, “Someday we might be exploring one of these (lava tube) caves on the moon.”

Richardson said Lava Beds, with its hundreds of caves and above-ground lunar-like landscape, is an ideal site to study. “If we take away the grass and the trees the terrain here, this is actually like the Moon. This is our testing ground.”

Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.