Kansas State scientist part of $3.9 million lava caves study funded by NASA

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Saugata Datta, geology professor at Kansas State University. (Photo: ksu.edu)

An Indian-American professor at Kansas State University is one of the primary investigators of a new multimillion dollar National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) study that will use a robotic vehicle to explore and collect data inside caves at Lava Beds National Monument in Northern California, to help answer the long-asked question on whether life existed on Mars.

Saugata Datta, geology professor at Kansas State will be examining the lava flows on the volcano slope which houses unusual microbial life and potential clues to answering that question.

“Humans have always had the idea that Mars has the progression of life,” Datta is quoted saying in the April 30 press release from Kansas State. “Studying delicate, extreme closed environments on Earth can give insight to the probabilities of finding more such features that relate to life and its presence on some extraterrestrial planetary surfaces,” Datta added.
The team of scientists and engineers from different institutions, recently received $3.9 million from NASA’s Planetary Science and Technology for Analog Research program to support the three-year project in the lava caves. The team will use a four-wheeled rover, called CaveR, to explore the caves and produce a detailed map of the inside of the caves.

“Lava tubes and collapsed lava structures are quite common on the surface of Mars,” Datta said. “Orbiter missions currently observing the red planet can see them. A terrestrial cave on Earth can be explored and really studied to its extreme end to understand such a situation or environment that can form on the surface of Mars.”
The robot will collect highly magnified images to give Datta and the team information about the chemical makeup of the features on the cave walls.

Datta surmises that the earthly lava caves are home to microbial life that thrive in the dark and interact with water dripping from the cave ceiling and seeping through cracks in the walls. The Earth’s caves could provide the scenario for creating preliminary findings to better detect any possible evidence of past or present life that may have been preserved on Mars.
Datta’s research will focus on the water, rock and soil chemistry in the caves and their interaction.
“Our intergraded approach will give us a big picture of the ecosystem of the cave,” Datta said, adding, “It will give us an idea of the type of microbial community that can live in a system with a certain temperature and moisture. There are so many extreme environments where microbial communities can occur. This is what we are targeting because Mars is an extreme environment.”