astronauts train on a volcano

Kneeling on the edge of a deep crater, Alexander Gerst takes a sample of volcanic rock with a chisel, then carefully places it in a plastic bag. “You feel like you are on the surface of the moon,” he says.

“Training camp”

This 46-year-old German astronaut, a member of the European Space Agency (ESA), is still on Earth. In this case in the natural park of Los Volcanes, in Lanzarote, one of the islands of the Spanish Canary archipelago, located off the north-west coast of Africa.

With its blackened lava fields, craters and volcanic flows, the geology of Lanzarote bears a strange resemblance to that of the Moon and Mars, so much so that ESA and NASA have been sending astronauts to this island for years to take shape.

“This place has very, very similar types of lava to those found on the moon,” says Alexander Gerst, who sees the Spanish island as a “unique training ground”.

Gerst, who has carried out two missions on the International Space Station (ISS), is one of the dozen astronauts who have taken part in the Pangea training course, delivered for ten years by ESA in Lanzarote.

Named in reference to Pangea, the supercontinent that preceded the separation of the present continents, this program aims to equip astronauts, space engineers and geologists with the necessary skills to enable them to carry out expeditions to other planets.

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

Exercise in full size

“Here they are in a situation to get used to exploring the terrain, which they will have to do on the moon,” explains the technical director of training, the Italian Francesco Sauro.

A life-size exercise considered essential for preparing astronauts to work alone in a remote environment. “If we run into a problem, we have to solve it ourselves,” explains Alexander Gerst.

This geophysics specialist followed Pangea training with Stephanie Wilson, one of NASA’s most experienced astronauts. Both are possible candidates for NASA’s next manned lunar missions.

Called Artemis, this ambitious project aims to bring astronauts back to the moon in 2025, for the first time since 1972. However, some experts consider this deadline unrealistic given NASA’s budgetary constraints.

A total of 12 astronauts walked the moon during six successive Apollo missions between 1969 and 1972. Returning to the satellite from Earth is considered a necessary step before a possible trip to Mars.

“See very far”

For ESA and NASA, the landscape of Lanzarote, made up of twisted piles of lava, also offers the opportunity to test the “Mars Rovers”, these remote-controlled vehicles designed to move across the surface of the red planet.

The unique geography of Lanzarote stems from a volcanic eruption that began in 1730 and lasted for six years. Considered one of the largest volcanic disasters in history, it devastated more than 200 square kilometers of land, or about a quarter of the island, where 156,000 inhabitants live today.

Although there are other volcanic regions, such as Hawaii, which could be used for training missions, Lanzarote has the advantage of having little vegetation due to its desert climate.

“There are many types of volcanic rocks in Lanzarote. And they are bare, there are no trees ”, explains Loredana Bessone, Italian manager of the Pangea project. “You can see very far, as if you were on the moon,” she says.

The Canary Islands contribute to space exploration in another way: they host one of the largest optical telescopes in the world, the “Great Canary Telescope” (GTC).

Perched on a peak on the island of La Palma, chosen for its cloudless skies and relatively low light pollution, this gigantic telescope is capable of detecting some of the smallest and most distant objects in the Universe.

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