YOU LIVE ON an alien world. Like, literally on it. Beneath your feet, caves, mines, and crevasses are filled with life that’s dramatically different from the stuff on the surface. So different, in fact, that NASA uses those lifeforms as a guide to its exploration of the universe.
Penny Boston is the new director of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute. Her job, when it begins on May 31, will be advising the agency in its search for life on other worlds. And believe it, there are plenty of candidates beyond Earth. Mars gets the hottest press, but Saturn’s moons Enceledus and Titan are both prime candidates, as is Jupiter’s Europa. Even cave life on the Moon is not out of the question.
Boston has a few more months to enjoy kicking around the caves in her current post as Director of Cave and Karst Science at New Mexico Tech. She took time out of her spelunking to chat with WIRED about her new gig, the globetrotting job of a cave scientist, and what life might look like on other worlds.
So do you really work in a cave all day?
When I’m not buried by paperwork, yes. I do a lot of work in subsurface and cave exploration and some work in mines, which are human-created caves. That gives us a window into Earth’s subsurface, where a whole lot of biology is going on.
Why is life in caves so interesting?
There’s a huge amount of it, for one thing. There’s an entire hidden part of planet that we don’t think about. The rock fracture habitat goes down to 5 kilometers, maybe down to 10, and is thoroughly infested with life forms. We think the great places for biodiversity are forests and corals, but so does the rock fracture habitat, and caves let us get in there. In the subsurface world, there are so many different ways of making a living. Surface life has photosynthesis, but subsurface only a tiny fraction of that energy trickles down. Not a lot of organisms are using organic material, they are processing minerals from rock they live in.
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