In 2017, a team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., was in the process of prototyping some small autonomous robots capable of exploring caves and subsurface voids on the Moon, Mars, and Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Our goal was the development of new technologies to help us solve one of humanity’s most significant questions: is there or has there been life beyond Earth?
The more we study the surfaces of planetary bodies in our solar system, the more we are compelled to voyage underground to seek answers to this question. Planetary subsurface voids are not only one of the most likely places to find both signs of life, past and present, but thanks to the shelter they provide, are also one of the main candidates for future human habitation. While we were working on various technologies for cave exploration at JPL, DARPA launched the latest in its series of Grand Challenges, the Subterranean Challenge, or SubT. Compared to earlier events that focused on on-road driving and humanoid robots in pre-defined disaster relief scenarios, the focus of SubT is the exploration of unknown and extreme underground environments. Even though SubT is about exploring such environments on Earth, we can use the competition as an analog to help us learn how to explore unknown environments on other planetary bodies.