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Exploring other planets by going deep below the Earth's surface

(2 March 2020 - STFC) How do scientists test technology designed to explore Mars? By going deep below this planet’s surface to one of its harshest environments: Boulby Underground Laboratory nearly a mile beneath the North York Moors.

This UK government-funded underground laboratory will be home to the eighth Mine Analogue Research Programme (MINAR) from 2-13 March where research teams from across the globe work on finding new ways to prepare for the human and robotic exploration of space. The unique environment below ground in the north-east of England is ideal to advance our understanding of the challenges that may be faced on other planets.

A team from NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratories will use a newly-created “Mars pond” in the laboratory’s Mars Yard to test new technology for the search for life on Mars. A Mars Rover prototype will be guided to the pond, take samples from the water and return the samples for testing by the NASA scientists.

Another team from Lulea University in Sweden will test a full-size planetary exploration rover prototype designed to detect gases and map underground spaces, while a University of York team will be testing underground drone technologies in the subterranean environment.

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Lulea University’s full-size planetary exploration rover prototype designed to detect gases and map underground spaces (courtesy: Prof Charles Cockell, University of Edinburgh)

Professor of Astrobiology at University of Edinburgh Charles Cockell said: “Boulby has allowed us to bring together space scientists and engineers from the UK and internationally to develop new technology for space that has down-to-Earth applications from mining to exploring extreme environments.”

The Boulby Underground Laboratory is funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) on behalf of the UK. Revealing the complexities and wonder of space exploration to future generations of scientists is an important aspect of the MINAR event and a special project will give children from remote areas of Scotland a link to the unique environment. A team from the University of Edinburgh and STFC are helping children build and program their own mini Mars rovers to complete a set of tasks in Boulby’s Mars Yard. The Remote3 project launches during MINAR and will take place over the summer of 2020.

Scientists from India’s Kalam Centre will also transmit live from the laboratory to thousands of schools in India in both Hindi and English.

ICL Boulby mine offers unparalleled opportunities to study extreme forms of microbial life that live underground in the deep, dark and salty environments of the mine. Teams from around the world have come to study this life to inform them about the search for life on other planets, but also to advance our understanding of extreme life on Earth, its limits and what it might tell us about our own biosphere and its sensitivity to human changes.

Director of STFC’s Boulby Underground Laboratory Professor Sean Paling said: “It is really exciting to have the MINAR event teams here again. The work they do with us is important and really interesting and although there are a number of underground science laboratories around the world the work the MINAR teams do with us here is quite unique in the underground science world.”

MINAR is a successful example of a science and industry partnership as researchers work closely with the commercially active mine at ICL Boulby. It is the only mine in the world processing the mineral polyhalite, an organic ‘super fertiliser’.

ICL UK Vice President and General Manager of ICL Boulby Andrew Fulton said: “We are proud to host this great example of science and engineering excellence in the North East region. We see it enhancing technology transfer between Earth and space uses. Many of the things MINAR researchers want to do on other planets, such as detecting gases and mapping geological structures, are the same things we want to do in mines like this.”


MINAR has run since 2014 and since then hosted over 30 teams testing everything from cameras to life detection technologies for NASA and ESA space missions and educating the next generation of space scientists. MINAR is designed to bring the mining and scientific communities together. The event is a partnership between University of Edinburgh, STFC Boulby Underground Laboratory and ICL Boulby Mine.

About Boulby Underground Laboratory and Boulby Mine

STFC Boulby Underground Laboratory is the UK’s deep underground science facility operating in the ICL Boulby mine, a working Polyhalite and salt mine in the North East of England. Boulby is a rare and special place for science and hosts a number of internationally important science studies from astrophysics (the search for Dark Matter in the Universe) to studies of geology/ geophysics, climate, the environment, life in extreme environments on Earth and searches for life beyond Earth.

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