'Like the moon': astronauts flock to Spanish island for training

‘Like the moon’: astronauts flock to Spanish island for training

Thanks to its black lava fields, craters, and volcanic tubes, Lanzarote’s geology can be eerily similar to that of the Moon and Mars.

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

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

Thanks to black lava fields, craters and volcanic tubes, Lanzarote’s geology can be eerily 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 for training. .

“This place has lava very similar to the one we find on the moon,” Gerst, a 46-year-old German astronaut with the European Space Agency, told AFP.

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

Gerst, who has completed two missions on the International Space Station, is one of about a dozen astronauts who have taken part in the European Space Agency’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 needed for missions to other planets.

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

“Here, they are put into the field to experience terrain exploration, something they would have to do on the moon,” said course technical director Francesco Sauro.

outbreak six years

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

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

He completed Pangea training with Stephanie Wilson, a senior NASA astronaut. Both are potential candidates for upcoming NASA missions to the Moon.

Named after the goddess who was the twin sister of Apollo in ancient Greek mythology, NASA’s Artemis program aims to return astronauts to the lunar surface as early as 2025, although many experts believe the time frame may be delayed.

Twelve astronauts walked on the Moon during the six Apollo missions from 1969 to 1972, the only spaceflights that did not put humans on the Moon.

NASA and the European Space Agency regularly use Lanzarote’s landscape of twisted mounds of solid lava to test Mars rovers – remote-controlled vehicles designed to travel on the surface of the Red Planet.

Lanzarote’s unique geography stems from a volcanic eruption that began in 1730 and lasted six years, releasing ash and lava over vast tracts of land.

Considered one of the greatest volcanic disasters in recorded history, the eruption destroyed more than 200 square kilometers (77 square miles) of terrain — about a quarter of the island that is currently home to about 156,000 people.

“look away”

While there are other volcanic regions like Hawaii that can also be used for astronaut training, Lanzarote has the advantage that it has little vegetation due to its desert-like climate.

“You have a lot of different types of igneous rocks in Lanzarote. It’s open. You don’t have trees,” said Pangea Project Manager Loredana Bissoni.

“You can see as far away as you’re on the moon,” she told AFP.

The Canary Islands make a huge 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.

Perched on top, the Great Canary Telescope is capable of detecting some of the faintest and farthest objects in the universe.

La Palma was chosen as the location for the telescope because of a cloudless sky and relatively low light pollution.

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