Geomorphological studies of the hidden and protected subsurface environments are crucial to obtain a greater insight into the evolution of planetary landforms, hydrology, climate, geology and mineralogy. From an astrobiological point of view subsurface environments are of interest for their potential habitability as they are local environments that are partially or fully shielded from the high levels of space and solar radiation. Furthermore, in the case of Mars, there is an increasing interest in searching for the presence of past or extant life in its subsurface. These applications make it mandatory to investigate equipment and instrumentation that allow for the study of subsurface geomorphology, as well as organic chemical biomarkers, such as biomolecules, carbon, nitrogen and sulphur isotopes, and other biologically significant minerals and gases. Mines on Earth can be used as analogues to investigate the geomorphology of Martian subsurface environments and perform astrobiology studies. With that goal, we have developed a low-cost, robust, remotely operable subsurface rover called KORE (KOmpact Rover for Exploration). This work illustrates the studies of a terrestrial analogue for the exploration of Mars using KORE during the Mine Analogue Research 6 (MINAR 6) campaign with the low-cost 3D mapping technology InXSpace 3D (In situ 3D mapping tool eXploration of space 3D). InXSpace 3D utilizes an RGB-D camera that captures depth information in addition to the RGB data of an image, operating based on the structured light principle capable of providing depth information in mm scale resolution at sub 3 m mapping range. InXSpace 3D is used to capture point clouds of natural and artificial features, thereby obtaining information about geologically relevant structures and also to incorporate them in earth mining safety. We tested two of the dense simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) algorithms: Kintinuous and Real-Time Appearance-Based Mapping (RTAB-Map) to check the performance of InXSpace 3D in a dark mine environment. Also, the air accumulation of volatiles such as methane and formaldehyde due to thermogenic and mining process was measured with the environmental station payload on the rover platform, which caters to both astrobiological significance and mine safety. The main conclusions of this work are: (1) a comparison made between the RTAB-Map algorithm and Kintinuous algorithm showed the superiority of Kintinuous algorithm in providing better 3D reconstruction; although RTAB-Map algorithm captured more points than the Kintinuous algorithm in the dark mine environment; (2) a comparison of point cloud images captured with and without lighting conditions had a negligible effect on the surface density of the point clouds; (3) close-range imaging of the polygonal features occurring on the halite walls using InXSpace 3D provided mm-scale resolution to enable further characterization; (4) heuristic algorithms to quickly post-process the 3D point cloud data provided encouraging results for preliminary analyses; (5) we successfully demonstrated the application of KORE to mine safety; and (6) the multi-sensors platform on KORE successfully monitored the accumulated volatiles in the mine atmosphere during its operation. The findings obtained during this KORE campaign could be incorporated in designing and planning future subsurface rover explorations to potential planetary bodies such as Mars with synergistic applications to subsurface environments in mines on Earth.
The authors of this paper would like to thank Kempe Foundation for its generous funding support to develop KORE, the workshop at the Teknikens Hus, Luleå, for their invaluable and unconditional support in helping with the fabrication of the KORE components and the organizers of the MINAR campaign comprising the UK Centre of Astrobiology, ICL Boulby Mine and STFC Boulby Underground Laboratory, UK. MPZ has been partially funded by the Spanish State Research Agency (AEI) Project No. MDM-2017-0737 Unidad de Excelencia ‘María de Maeztu’- Centro de Astrobiología (INTA-CSIC)
- Rover development