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Out of this world: artists' impressions of Boulby

The subterranean world of the Boulby Underground Laboratory is a place of extremes rarely captured by an artist’s sketch. Last month, two artists spent a week in Boulby’s dark tunnels to investigate how art is made and used in conditions deep underground.

Operated by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), Boulby is the UK’s deep underground science facility, located 1.1 kilometres below ground in a working salt and polyhalite mine in northeast England. Its radiologically quiet “low-background” environment makes it ideal for research in the fields of astrophysics and particle physics. And the geology of the subterranean environment also enables studies in other science areas, including research into life in extreme environments, both on this planet and beyond. The salts and brines found at Boulby are home to various forms of hardy microbial life, offering a window on what life could be like in similar conditions on Mars. Now Boulby is playing host to artists looking at the role their work might have in the search for extraterrestrial life.

Annalea Beattie and Cliff Dolliver, from the Mars Society Australia, were drawn to Boulby’s Mars Analogue site. Here, researchers investigate the limits of life on Earth to prepare for human exploration on other planets such as Mars. Planetary exploration instruments are developed and tested and life in extreme environments is explored at the site, a collaboration between Boulby and the UK Centre for Astrobiology, based at the University of Edinburgh.

The artists spent a week underground to discover what conditions are like in a subterranean environment. The extreme conditions – including heat, darkness, dryness and dust – are hardly conducive to creating art, but Annalea and Cliff took the opportunity to focus on how sensory deprivation affected their work.

They are interested in how art might be used in settling people in places such as Mars or Moon colonies. While early extraterrestrial settlers will be astronauts and scientists, art has been important to humans for thousands of years as evidenced by cave paintings up to 40,000 years old – and conceivably art could be just as important to human life on other planets.

Annalea said: “If we are to build rich cultures and healthy communities off-Earth, artists will have an important role to play. They will need to be considered as a resource like any other as it will take all kinds of people to go into space.”

The preliminary sketches produced by the artists give a sense of the claustrophobic setting inside the mine. The mystery of the site, known predominantly to researchers for now, is strongly conveyed in the work of the artists.

“Boulby Mine offers a fantastic opportunity for us to consider not only what life might be like living underground on planets like Mars but what role art and artists might haven in those circumstances. We have been privileged to work in an extraordinary environment that few people experience and we hope to return,” said Annalea.

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Last updated: 09 May 2019


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