Astronauts flock to Spanish island for training


Lanzarote’s geology can be eerily similar to that of the Moon and Mars.

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

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

With its blackened 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 for years been sending astronauts on the island for training.

“This place has lavas very, very similar to those found 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 a dozen astronauts who have attended ESA’s Pangea training course in Lanzarote over the past decade.

Named after the ancient supercontinent, Pangea seeks to equip astronauts as well as space engineers and geologists with the skills needed for expeditions to other planets.

Trainees learn to identify and collect rock samples, perform on-site DNA analysis of microorganisms, and report their results to .

“Here they are put on the ground to experience the exploration of a terrain, which they will have to do on the Moon,” said Francesco Sauro, the technical director of the course.

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

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

Six-year rash

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

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

He completed Pangea training with Stephanie Wilson, one of NASA’s most experienced astronauts. Both are possible candidates for NASA’s next crewed lunar missions.

Named after the goddess who was Apollo’s twin sister in ancient Greek mythology, NASA’s Artemis program aims to get astronauts back to the surface of the Moon as soon as 2025, although many experts believe that delay could slide.

Twelve astronauts walked on the Moon during six Apollo missions from 1969 to 1972, the only spaceflights to still place humans on the .

NASA and ESA also regularly use Lanzarote’s landscape of twisting mounds of solidified lava to test Mars Rovers, remote-controlled vehicles designed to navigate the Red Planet’s surface.

Lanzarote’s unique geography stems from a which began in 1730 and lasted for six years, spitting ash and lava over large swaths of land.

Considered one of the greatest volcanic cataclysms in recorded history, the eruption devastated more than 200 square kilometers (77 square miles) of land, roughly a quarter of the island which is currently home to around 156,000 people.

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

“See from afar”

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

“You have a lot of different types of volcanic rocks in Lanzarote. And they are exposed. You don’t have trees,” said Loredana Bessone, Pangea project manager.

“You can see from afar, as if you were on the moon,” she told AFP.

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

Located on a peak, the Canary Islands Large Telescope is able to spot some of the faintest and 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

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