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Why NASA Is Exploring An Alien World In Antarctica


Mount Erebus towers over the Antarctic landscape, covered in snow and ice on its surface. But inside, it's filled with bubbling, steaming lava. It looks like something out of an alien world, and that's exactly why NASA is sending researchers there. They're using Mount Erebus as a proxy for moons and comets far out in space that might be explored one day. Joining me to talk about that is Aaron Curtis of NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab. He's part of this research.

Welcome to the program.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you spent the month of December - pretty cold, I imagine - at Mount Erebus. And you've been there many times before. Bring us there. What does it look like when you step off the helicopter?

CURTIS: Well, it's pretty white. You can see all the way down to the sea ice. It's gorgeous. The landscape is, as you said, pretty otherworldly.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I read that the volcano's gases have carved out these massive caves in the ice. I've seen pictures of you in some of them. What does it look like?

CURTIS: So in the caves, you often get this magnificent blue light when the light actually makes it through the ceiling of the cave. So this is just the ones that are shallow. In other places, deeper into the caves, especially if it's cold, you have these enormous ice crystals which have a wild variety of formations. Sometimes they're pointy, sometimes they're big, hexagonal plates and sometimes they're sort of a combination that looks a bit like a flower or a sort of spiraling cup.


So you are working on ice-climbing robots. First, describe the robots. And what exactly do you want these robots to eventually do?

CURTIS: Sure. So in JPL's Extreme Environment Robotics Group, we have a climbing robot called LEMUR. As we explore the solar system, we're realizing that the landscapes and the topographies that we're targeting are pretty complex, and climbing is one type of mobility that we might need. And in particular, my project is ice climbing, taking the existing rock-climbing robot and replacing the hands of the climbing robot with ice screws.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: These aren't necessarily destined for this world. Where would you like to see these go?

CURTIS: Well, there are interesting ices all over the solar systems on comets, on asteroids, dwarf planets like Pluto. But I'm most interested in a moon of Saturn called Enceladus, which is one of the really good places to search for life. It's a ball of ice about 500 kilometers in diameter. And we know that there's a global ocean underneath that icy crust, and this ocean is warm.

It's a great place to search for life. And we also know that there are geysers coming out of the South Pole, and so we'd like to get down into that ocean. And one way we've been talking about doing it is actually climbing down through the geyser vents.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So signs of life - when you say that, we're not talking little green men or women, I'm assuming (laughter).

CURTIS: (Laughter) Well, you know, they'd probably have to have some scuba gear if they were little green men.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) I'm assuming microbes.

CURTIS: Most likely, most likely.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right. When you are in Antarctica in this very otherworldly environment, do you sometimes imagine yourself - that you are somewhere elsewhere in the solar system?

CURTIS: Sure. I feel like an astronaut a lot out there, actually. You know, we get all bundled up in tons of layers and in some senses, it's kind of like a space mission getting out there. You know, you have to bring all of your own food and equipment, and you are in close quarters with people. So maybe it's a little bit like going to space. Certainly, there are surprises lurking around every corner, and so it's a real journey of exploration.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right, that was Aaron Curtis of NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab.

Thanks for talking with us.

CURTIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.