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’re on the surface of the moon,” he says.

“Training Ground”

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

With its blackened lava fields, craters and volcanic flows, the geology of Lanzarote bears an uncanny resemblance to that of the Moon and Mars, so much so that the ESA and NASA have for years sent astronauts to this island for form.

“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 a dozen astronauts who have taken part in the Pangea training course, provided for ten years by ESA in Lanzarote.

So named in reference to Pangea, the supercontinent that preceded the separation of the current continents, this program aims to give astronauts, space engineers and geologists 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.

Full size exercise

“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 the training, the Italian Francesco Sauro.

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

This specialist in geophysics followed the 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 the budgetary constraints weighing on NASA.

A total of 12 astronauts walked on the Moon during six successive Apollo missions between 1969 and 1972. The return 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 of twisted mounds of lava, also offers the opportunity to test the “Mars Rovers”, these remote-controlled vehicles designed to move on the surface of the red planet.

Lanzarote’s unique geography stems from a volcanic eruption that began in 1730 and lasted six years. Considered one of the greatest 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.

Even though 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, the Italian manager of the Pangea project. “You can see very far, like you’re 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 because of its cloudless skies and relatively low light pollution, this giant telescope is capable of spotting some of the smallest and most distant objects in the Universe.


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