LANZAROTE, Spain – The European Space Agency confirmed on Wednesday to EFE it was seriously considering establishing a training facility for manned missions to other planets in the Canary island of Lanzarote in order to evaluate astronauts’ response to the isolated conditions of an 18-month round trip to Mars.
ESA’s veteran astronaut trainer and Mars project leader, Loredana Bessone, has for some time entertained the idea of creating a training facility inside a large, cavernous, volcanic tube in Lanzarote that has similar conditions to those found on the Red Planet’s surface.
“We haven’t proposed it officially, but it keeps going round my head. It would be useful if we could deploy a habitat just outside the cave,” Bessone told EFE.
ESA’s intended Lanzarote expedition, called Pangaea-X, is set to carry out a dozen experiments with a team of 50 specialists in La Corona, one of the world’s biggest lava tubes – it is 6 kilometers (3.73 miles) long – that was created by a volcanic eruption 21,000 years ago.
The idea, however, is not new: NASA has used the extreme environment of Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano to train US astronaut teams, confined for months and with no resources other than those available to a real Martian expedition, including radio contact with a 20-minute delayed response between Mars and Earth.
Why Lanzarote? According to Spanish geologist Jesus Martinez-Frias, who advised NASA and ESA in their last robotic missions to Mars, “Lanzarote is Mars on Earth” because of the island’s uncanny geological resemblance to the fourth planet from the Sun.
European astronauts Samantha Cristoforetti and Mathias Maurer – supervised by ESA’s Pedro Duque, geologist Francesco Mauro, and space-suit specialist Herve Stevenin – have all traveled to Lanzarote.
The astronauts’ tasks included integrating 21st-century equipment such as pads to send images and data to Mission Control, along with replicas of lunar equipment used by NASA to collect geological and soil samples inside a cumbersome space suit.
A set of lasers will also help create spectacular 3D views of the lava caves, while the ESA astronauts will wear smartphones on their wrists displaying instructions and DNA results on the spot.
For the second year running, ESA has deployed a team of specialists, scientists and astronauts with a spate of gadgets to test: spacewalks in rocky areas, underground communications, high-tech scanners, a drone and a rover, as well as on-the-ground geological sampling and DNA analysis of microorganisms.
Regarding ESA’s interest in volcanic tubes, Italian geologist Francesco Sauro explained to EFE that there is possibly no safer place on Mars than underground to protect astronauts from lethal solar and cosmic radiation, and if there is any life on Mars, these tubes would be one of the first places to check.
German ESA astronaut Mathias Maurer thinks humankind will travel to Mars by around 2030, although sending a team on a 1,000-day round trip, with no outside help and a homebound window which only opens every two years – when the orbits of Earth and Mars are closest to each other – remains an imposing challenge.