March 22, 2023
'Like the Moon': Astronauts flock to Spanish island to train

‘Like the Moon’: Astronauts flock to Spanish island to train

The geology of Lantharote may be remarkably similar to that of the Moon and Mars.

Kneeling at the edge of a deep crater, astronaut Alexander Gerst uses a chisel to collect a sample of volcanic rock which he carefully places inside a white plastic bag.

Gerst is not on the Moon, even if it looks like it. It is located in the middle of Los Volcanes Natural Park on the island of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands of Spain, off the northwest coast of Africa.

With its blackened lava fields, craters, and volcanic vents, Lanzarote’s geology can be uncannily similar to that of the Moon and Mars—so much so that the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA have been sending astronauts to the island for years to education.

“This place has lavas that are very, very similar to what we find on the Moon,” Gerst, a 46-year-old German ESA astronaut, told AFP.

He said the island was “a unique training ground”.

Gerst, who has completed two missions to the International Space Station, is one of about a dozen astronauts who have taken part in ESA’s Pangea training course in Lanzarote over the past decade.

Named after the ancient supercontinent, Pangea seeks to give astronauts as well as space engineers and geologists the skills they need for missions to other planets.

Trainees learn how to identify and collect rock samples, perform in-situ DNA analysis of microorganisms, and communicate their findings to mission control.

“Here, they enter the field to experience the exploration of a terrain, something they will have to do on the Moon,” said Francesco Sauro, technical director of the course.

Lanzarote's unique geography comes from an 18th century volcanic eruption that lasted six years

Lanzarote’s unique geography comes from an 18th century volcanic eruption that lasted six years.

Six year blast

Gerst said the Pangea training course, which he just completed, helps prepare astronauts to work in a remote environment on their own.

“If we face a problem, we have to solve it ourselves,” he said.

He completed training on Pangaea with Stephanie Wilson, one of NASA’s most senior astronauts. Both are potential candidates for NASA’s next manned missions to the Moon.

Named after the goddess who was Apollo’s twin sister in ancient Greek mythology, NASA’s Artemis program aims to return astronauts to the surface of the Moon as early as 2025, though many experts believe that timeframe could slip.

Twelve astronauts walked on the Moon during six Apollo missions from 1969 to 1972, the only space flights that have yet to place humans on the lunar surface.

NASA and ESA also regularly use Lanzarote’s landscape of twisted mounds of solidified lava to test Mars Rovers—robust vehicles designed to travel on the Red Planet’s surface.

Lanzarote’s unique geography comes from a volcanic eruption that began in 1730 and lasted for six years, spewing ash and lava over large areas of land.

Considered one of the largest volcanic cataclysms in recorded history, the eruption destroyed more than 200 square kilometers (77 square miles) of land – about a quarter of the island that is now home to about 156,000 people.

“If we face a problem, we have to solve it ourselves,” says astronaut Alexander Gerst.

“look away”

While there are other volcanic areas such as Hawaii that could also be used for astronaut training, Lanzarote has the advantage of having little vegetation due to its desert-like climate.

“You have many different types of volcanic rock in Lanzarote. And they’re exposed. You don’t have trees,” said Pangea project leader Loredana Bessone.

“You can see far, like you’re on the moon,” he told AFP.

The Canary Islands make a significant contribution to space exploration in another way as well. The island of La Palma is home to one of the largest optical telescopes in the world.

Mounted on a peak, the Large Canary Telescope is able to spot some of the faintest, most distant objects in the Universe.

La Palma was chosen as the site for the telescope because of its cloudless skies and relatively low light pollution.

© 2022 AFP

Reference: “Like the Moon”: Astronauts flock to Spanish island for training (2022, November 12) Retrieved November 12, 2022 from .html

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