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LAVA BEDS NATIONAL MONUMENT — A National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) rover is training at Lava Beds National Monument to go where no other rover has gone before — spelunking in extraterrestrial caves — if the need arises.

On Friday, NASA’s Biologic and Resource Analog Investigations in Low Light Environments (BRAILLE) Project opened up Valentine Cave, which has been temporarily closed to the public this week, for the day to showcase their rover CaveR.

A team organized by NASA has been using the cave to simulate cave exploration on other planets such as Mars, and testing out how the rover interacts with the cave in the event of some out-of-this-world cave exploration in the future. The program is funded by NASA’s Planetary Science and Technology Analog Research (PSTAR) program.

It’s the third visit for NASA to Lava Beds in three years, according to NASA officials, with CaveR’s debut visit this summer. The space agency plans to return in summer 2019.

“There’s no active project actually going on at NASA to explore planetary caves,” said Cindy Nguyen, a public affairs intern for NASA BRAILLE.

“I call it kind of like a test-run for if we were ever to explore caves on other planets,” Nguyen added.

Gretchen and Richard Hillman, of Klamath Falls, weren’t anticipating bringing their 8-1/2-month old daughter Minta to see a NASA rover on Friday morning, but after seeing a post in a Facebook group about the NASA BRAILLE Project at Lava Beds, the couple headed to Tulelake.

They were among at least 150 who attended the media day for news outlets and public to see what NASA is up to with the project.

Gretchen is studying to be a Family Nurse Practitioner via an accelerated nursing program at Oregon Health & Sciences University in Ashland. Richard is a stay-at-home dad, Oregon Tech Mechanical Engineering student at Oregon Tech, and a self-described NASA enthusiast.

The couple have been in Klamath Falls for about a month after moving from southern California. But they never expected an opportunity nearby for such an experience.

Richard stopped at the entrance of Valentine Cave so Gretchen could snap a photo of him with a team assistant, clad in a NASA jumpsuit.

“He’s obsessed with NASA,” Gretchen said of her husband.

Surrounded by a tour group inside the cave, Richard, carrying Minta on his back, and Gretchen watched intently as scientists maneuvered the CaveR over rocky terrain. One team member likened the roving robot to the Disney character Wall-e, drawing smiles from the crowd.

Red planet rover

CaveR is much bigger than the fictional character Wall-e, but significantly smaller than the Mars Science laboratory’s Curosity rover, which landed on Mars on Aug. 5, 2012. Opportunity Rover landed on Mars on Jan. 25, 2004.

While there is not a current mission in place for CaveR, it’s preparing for the trip if ever the need arises.

“When we send a rover into a cave, we’re not just going to a cave to drive a rover for fun, although it is kind of fun for whoever’s driving it,” said Bruce White, an electronics engineer for NASA, to a group of attendees.“We want to take data in the cave … those are places that are shielded from the radiation. Here on earth, we are protected from radiation by our atmosphere, and by the magnetic field that’s around our planet.”

Similar terrain

Lava Beds was chosen for testing ground for CaveR because of its volcanic similarities to the Moon and Mars, White said.

“Every platform that goes to Mars, whether it’s a rover or a lander or an orbitor, the reason that it goes is so that it can carry a box of intruments that take the measurements,” White said.

Inside Valentine Cave, the rover has been scanning the walls for signs of life and and mapping information that’s sent to a remote scientist team — all similar to what it might do in an extraterrestrial cave.

“The thing is about the remote scientist team is they’ve never actually been inside Valentine Cave,” Nguyen said.

“They’re seeing everything through only the eyes of the rover, which is what you would be doing if we were to be conducting an analog mission,” Nguyen said.

“Then we have our foot scientists, Diana Northup and Penny Boston, they are are renowned scientists at NASA Ames,” she added.

“They are there to kind of cross-examine whether the remote science team can pull out the same information using the robotics operation versus doing the actual footwork.”

The Moon and Mars do not have magnetic fields, White said, with Mars having a very thin atmosphere.

“If there’s life on the Moon, if there’s life on Mars, caves are great places to at least go look for them,” White said.

Scientists often find life if they can find water, according to White.

“We would imagine that any life that we would be looking for would also need water,” White said.

“You shine a light on the wall of the cave … depending on what the wall is made of, the light will either absorb or reflect back based on what it’s made of.”

Seeing in the dark

The rover utilizes a system that can turn any image into a 3-D map for scientists to analyze.

The team uses instruments that spans from visible light to Ultra Violet rays to Infrared Spectrum.

“Your eyes can’t see infrared,” White said.

That’s where the rover comes in. The CaveR uses instruments to collect information about the cave’s wall, such as rocks and biology that are then transferred back to the scientific team.

“This doesn’t detect life, but it’ll see water, it’ll see other things that’ll make you say, ‘Let’s go look there again,’” White said.

White said that the team has already detected some algae and bacterial film on the walls of Valentine Cave, which they found using Ultra Violet light.

How did they get the roughly 600-pound robot into the cave?

“We took it apart and broke it into pieces,” White said.

“Logistically, that’s one of the hardest parts of looking for life in a cave on Mars with a rover is to actually find a cave you can drive into. There’s a million and one obstacles in the way of this happening in the future, but you’ve got to figure it out one piece at a time.”

The thrill of exploration

Curious attendees young and old got an opportunity to get up close to the robot, and a photo with it as well.

“We were totally nerding out,” Richard said, while watching the rover move about the cave.

Gretchen is glad they were able to bring their young daughter to see the robot, just one of the many experiences they hope for her to take with her through life.

“She won’t remember this but it’s a culture we plan to continue, of ‘science is cool, math is accessible, observing your natural environment is the prime entertainment,” Gretchen said.

Many like the Hillmans either found out about the rover’s arrival last minute or while already planning a visit to the caves.

The Schubert family, of Nuremburg, Germany, rolled up to the visitor parking lot in a camping van, after already being in the area to see Crater Lake National Park.

Klemens and Annette Schubert, and their children Elias, 18, and Clara, 13, arrived just in time to attend the last tour of the day.

Ward Bertram, another last minute attendee, said it was a “happy accident” that he was able bring his daughters Dora, 5, Lucy, 9, and Violet, 11, along for the experience.

“I’m just obsessed with space stuff,” said Violet Bertram, 11. “I’m just excited to see cool robots and space people.”

“You’ve got to be open to adventure,” Ward Bertram said.

“How often do you get to experience something like that?”

White expressed enthusiasm about the turnout for the public tours and the interest in space projects.

“We are all here and enthusiastic about pushing the limit of what humans know,” White said.

“It’s a real privilege to participate in something like this and be able to add to that body of knowledge.”

The future of space exploration on Mars in particular looks bright as well, as White’s son, Gabriel, 8, told the Herald and News he plans to be the first man to step foot on on the Red Planet.

“We’ve got a lot of space talk in our house,” said his mom Bri Wood.

It was unclear how long NASA’s BRAILLE Project team would remain at Lava Beds, due to smoky conditions, though public tours are no longer available.

To learn more about NASA’s BRAILLE Project, go online at www.nasa-braille.org and follow the project at @NASA_BRAILLE on Twitter.