Why Is NASA So Interested in Mount Erebus?
When it’s finally time to explore distant planets, scientists are going to have to know how to get around some unusual terrains. For instance, if NASA were to attempt to shoot a robot to the planet Jupiter, would the robot be able to survive in such an extreme environment? Not unless the scientific community knows what to prepare for. That brings us to Mount Erebus, a massive volcano in Antarctica. This frozen lava zone is a rarity in the natural world for obvious reasons. Find out why NASA is spending so much time on top of it.
The Peculiarities of Mount Erebus
As one of the few still-active volcanoes on the continent, Mount Erebus must be feeling pretty special. Scientists believe that this frosty chunk of rock has been active for roughly 1.3 million years, and it’s still going strong. This presents a unique opportunity to scientists around the globe. There are only a few continuously active volcanoes on earth. This one happens to be close to the McMurdo Station, a small facility run by the U.S. For decades, scientists have been making the trek to see volcanic eruptions in action.
Life Without Limits
There are more wonders to behold on Mount Erebus. Another obsession of scientists are oligotrophs. The tiny organisms that require minimal resources to survive are quite plentiful in the area. Oligotrophs, in many ways, represent a rare section of speciation. How does life survive when there are no resources to be found? Scientists typically find a few species of fungi and bacteria stuck to pieces of rock, living off of the moisture in the air.
The Land of Ice and Fire
Mount Erebus is also one of the only places to find what are known as ice fumaroles, the ice that forms when gases are released from the vents of the volcano. The region is full of magnificent ice structures. The intense juxtaposition between all of this heat and ice can lead to some surprising discoveries. The gases have carved out a series of caves in the ice with some dazzling ice crystals on display.
The First Robot to Make Contact
As noted, Mount Erebus is no stranger to the scientific community. The volcano has been playing host to all kinds of expeditions over the years. One of the most notable was back in the early 1990s when a robot known as Dante I successfully explored the inside of the volcano. Unfortunately, it encountered some technical difficulties before it had a chance to gather any data. But scientists’ ability to explore the inside of a volcano was well within reach.
What NASA Is Looking to Achieve
Today, NASA is back in the area and this time they’re working on ice-climbing robots. Scientists are learning more and more about the closest planets in our solar system and most of them have no shortage of ice. Climbing large patches of treacherous ice is a challenge that any future space-traveling robot will likely have to contend with. NASA has already perfected a rock-climbing robot that can get up and down the side of a mountain like nobody’s business. But looking ahead, NASA scientists are eager to push things a bit further.
Partnering with JPL Robotics, NASA has equipped its latest model with a series of ice screws that allow the robot to attach itself to some slick patches of snow and ice. Of course, there are icy cliffs all over the world so why should NASA put so many of its resources into Mount Erebus? As it turns out, numerous planets have a strikingly similar geothermal makeup as Mount Erebus. While they’re climbing ice, these robots are also going to have to face scorching temperatures and some volatile gases.
Destined for Another World
As soon as NASA has perfected its latest endeavor, it has its sights set on some far-out destinations. The next stop will most likely be the South Pole where scientists are studying some geysers on the ocean floor. With the right funding, NASA is also gearing up for a trip to one of Saturn’s moons. Under a wall of ice, there appears to be a fairly warm ocean, which could be the prime spot to collect some extraterrestrial microbes. It all starts with a robot climbing its way through a series of ice caves in Antarctica.
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