Robots may one day head into Mars underground

The NASA Curiosity rover is currently scouring the surface of Mars, looking for evidence that the planet could have one time supported life. While looking at the surface is currently the best we can do to find out more about the Red Planet, it may not be long before we have robots that can actually go underground to look for more clues there. Discovery News reports that recently discovered "skylights" – sinkholes which lead to caverns and inactive lava tubes beneath the surface of Mars – have scientists thinking of ways we can get down there and have a look around.

Naturally, being underground would offer a number of protections for the samples NASA hopes to obtain. The surface of Mars is constantly fried with radiation from our Sun, bombarded with meteorites, and subject to greatly varying temperatures as day shifts to night and vice versa. These underground caverns don't suffer as much from those issues, so samples collected there could give scientists a better idea of the history of Mars than samples collected on the surface can.

"You just couldn't get better samples than what can be retrieved from these depths," Carnegie Mellon University robotics researcher William "Red" Whittaker tells Discovery News. Robots that can descend the depths of these skylights and examine below the surface aren't some far-off fantasy either, as Whittaker's firm Astrobotic Technology has been given a $500,000 grant from NASA to develop a prototype of a robot that could do such a thing. Astrobotic is currently considering a number of different of robots for the task, ranging from one that can rappel down the side of the skylight to one that is lowered down through the hole by a suspension line.

There are also these skylights on the moon, and Whittaker says that Astrobotic may be testing these robots there within the next three years. That's certainly an exciting prospect, especially if going underground can give us a better idea of the evolution of Mars. Sadly, it sounds like we have a number of years to wait before these robots land on Mars, but in the meantime, we have the findings of Curiosity to look forward to. Be sure to have a look at our story timeline below for more posts on the Curiosity rover and its exploits on the surface of Mars!

[Image via HiRISE]