The SETI Institute and Astrobotic Technology, Inc. successfully mapped the interior of the Lofthellir Lava Tube Ice Cave, which could be key in exploring alien life on the Moon and Mars.

Scientists are hoping to use space drones in lunar and Martian caves. Researchers have started testing the drone technology to be used for possible explorations. Using a LiDAR-equipped drone, a team at SETI successfully mapped in 3D the interior of the Lofthellir Lava Tube Ice Cave which is an ice-rich lava tube. The lava tube presented an opportunity for scientists to explore and test the technology in a possibly similar environment as the caves on the Moon and Mars.

The drone used sent out light waves and tracked reflections, so it can map out the areas that are challenging for humans to penetrate. According to Andrew Horchler, Director of Future Missions and Technology at Astrobotic, small and free-flying spacecraft could be the ideal thing to use when exploring lava tubes on Earth, the Moon and Mars. This type of spacecraft can avoid direct contact with potentially unstable and rough surfaces inside the lava tubes and caves. Astrobotic is a private space company working on the drone mapping technology, LiDAR.

Horchler added that nimble drones can go into the caves, map out the interior, exit the caves and send back data to Earth. They are also capable of returning the samples to the surface, recharging and refuelling.

Backed by NASA, Astrobotic came up with AstroNav, a custom navigation software product that allows drones and small free-flying spacecraft to independently explore and map out the subterranean environment. The software uses LiDAR and stereo vision. It can also function in real time despite being in a new environment.

Exploring caves is a point of interest for scientists because they have protected spaces not exposed to harsh surface conditions like extreme temperature changes, radiation and meteorite bombardment. This also makes them ideal for "long-term" habitation. Astronauts who will go to the Moon and Mars can take refuge in these caves. They could also be hosting alien life. Caves previously observed near the north pole of the Moon seem to be cold enough to encourage water ice buildup, also known as cold-trapping. Sheltered ice could be a significant point for searching for signs of life outside the Earth.

The Iceland lava cave contains massive amounts of ice. This can help scientists understand the opportunities and potential risks by lava caves that they want to explore on the Moon and Mars.

Supermoon NASA will explore alien life on the Moon and Mars. Pictured: The 'Supermoon' rises over Asuncion on February 19, 2019. Photo: NORBERTO DUARTE/Getty Images