Kartchner Caverns State Park is hosting its annual Cave Fest this weekend, and it aims to encourage visitors to explore the cave's science.

The caverns were discovered in 1974 by Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts, who at the time were spelunking in the Whetstone Mountains in Southern Arizona. The two kept their discovery a secret for 14 years to protect their find from vandalism.

Today, the park is not only protected, it has also become an internationally known tourist destination and a living laboratory. Researchers in a variety of fields - from biology to geology, hydrology and even astronomy - collaborate to conduct science in the state park.

"Underneath all the hills, there are various caves and voids that have been imaged prior to the development of the park," said Robert Casavant, manager of Science and Research/Natural Resources for Arizona State Parks. However, "We are recently redoing our geophysical surveys of the caves and have found other large rooms that we would like to explore in the future".

Casavant said, one advantage to research at Kartchner is that the public can learn about it right away, and not have to wait for it to be published in a journal. "The minute information is had or understood, we put it into the cave tour and share that with the public."

Some of the research projects at the cave include studies of bats, underground water systems, how caves form, and the impacts of artificial night time light on animals and plants.

One of the newer projects could help astronomers explore planets other than earth. It tests imaging programs that can be used from outer space to help scientists determine what exists underground, and maybe even determine if there is life below a planet's surface.

Cave Fest visitors can see displays showcasing some of the animals and activities in the park, listen to lectures by researchers, and try out CavSim, and electronic simulator that gives people a realistic spelunking experience.

Cave Fest takes place from Feb. 8 to 9. For more information call 586-2283.

And, if you want to see a bit of the caverns at Kartcherner, you take a look at this excerpt from 'Under Arizona', produced by Eight, Arizona PBS in Phoenix.