king_air_apr11.jpgAircraft used for thermal imagery collection mission in April 2011.  This plane is flying over the Mojave Desert, southern California.  Courtesy NASA Dryden.

Since 2005, Jut Wynne has been involved in several studies to develop techniques to detect caves on Earth using thermal remote sensing imagery and then apply these tested techniques to searching for caves on Mars.  Jut has served as project director on two NASA-funded projects and as an assistant investigator on another NASA-funded project.  Also, he has worked with NASA Spaceward Bound! on several expeditions to further this work in both the Atacama Desert and the Mojave Deserts.  To date, this work has focused on salt caves in the Atacama Desert, deep vertical volcanic pits on the Big Island, Hawaii, as well as lava tube caves in the Mojave Desert of Southern, California and western New Mexico. 

DSC04799.JPGJut and Dr. Murzy Jhabvala, NASA Goddard, examining thermal imagery captured during field operations in the Mojave Desert, southern California.

On Earth, detecting caves using remote sensing will enable researchers and land managers to identify and subsequently inventory caves of high conservation priority.  As our planet is experiencing unparalleled human-induced climatic change, we do not know how cave-adapted animals or cave-roosting bats will respond. A systematic approach for identifying a large number of caves will enable us to efficiently identify and target caves of biological concern so the animals using these caves can be appropriately studied and conservation measures established.

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 <script type='text/javascript'>
 </script>Jut climbing up rope (or jugging) to deploy temperature instruments in the upper level of a salt cave, Atacama Desert, northern Chile. 

Caves are important features on Mars for many reasons.  First and perhaps most importantly, if life existed or exists on the Red Planet, we will find the evidence underground. Caves offer protection from low surface temperatures, unfiltered ultraviolet radiation and violent windstorms, which may degrade and decompose organic materials.  Secondly, studies suggest some caves on Mars may contain significant water ice deposits. A manned mission to Mars will require access to water for drinking water, as well as conversion to oxygen for human consumption and liquid hydrogen for fuel. If these water ice deposits exist, caves may provide the best access to these resources.  Finally, because the Martian surface is blasted with violent windstorms and cosmic radiation, NASA may desire to build temporary or permanent astronaut (or speleonaut) bases underground. By their nature, caves contain a natural protective rock cover that can provide an ideal environment where these shelters may be built.


Visible (A) and QWIP thermal imaging without contrast (B) of a cave with vertical skylight entrance, Mojave Desert, CA. (A) Visible color image of a small cave skylight captured at an oblique angle from the ground; no nadir-viewing visible imagery is available. (B) QWIP thermal image (raw image 20110413054724109) with skylight entrance color enhanced.  Image was captured at Nadir, 3000 feet AGL, the April 13, 2011 at 5:47:24 hrs / min / sec. (C) and (D) were the result of two spectral enhancement techniques used to better resolve the cave entrance. Thermal imaging processing was done using hte program ImageJ.

To date, this project has been quite successful.  Based on their earlier work, they have demonstrated the detection of caves in the thermal infrared is possible. They have observed diurnal and seasonal temperature variations in detection, and have determined caves are most detectable when the temperature contrast between the entrance and ground surface is greatest. However, configuration and size of the cave entrance, geology, and location of the cave in terms of both latitude and elevation will all influence the caves detectability.

NASA2011_nightflight.jpgJut onboard NASA aircraft during the pre-dawn thermal imagery collection mission over the Mojave Desert, CA, April 2011.  Courtesy NASA Dryden.

Although Jut and his team have gained considerable insight into detection of terrestrial caves in the thermal infrared, considerable work needs to be done. Jut and colleagues have collected hourly temperature and barometric pressure data for over two years on nearly 20 caves on two continents, and collected over 17,000 thermal images from the Mojave Desert in southern California.

Their next steps will involve analyzing the ground-based cave data collected from the Atacama and Mojave Deserts, as well as processing and analyzing the thermal imagery collected from the Mojave Desert.  They also hope to launch another project in southern Spain to collect, interpret and analyze thermal imagery to systematically identify caves for biological conservation.

AnnieMars.jpgTHEMIS VIS (18m) and IR images (100m) show diurnal thermal behavior of “Annie” on Arsia Mons, Mars.  (A) visible image, (B) IR image captured concurrently with VIS (~1500 hrs), and (C) early-morning at 0400 hrs.  From Cushing, Titus, Wynne and Christensen, 2007.

Several studies have shown caves exist in several regions on Mars. Many of these features have thermal characteristics similar to some of our study sites here on Earth.  While they are not certain whether these features are actually “caves,” these findings are compelling and definitely warrant further research.

MissionPatches.jpgMission patches from the 2008 and 2009 Atacama Desert expeditions in northern Chile.






Since its inception, this project has been funded by NASA Exobiology grants NNH04ZSS001N-EXB and EXOB07-0040, and the National Speleological Society.