Gadgets for Mars

A rover crawls over a slope in Spain’s Canary Island of Lanzarote, also known as the island of a thousand volcanos. This rover is taking part in a test campaign that brings together geology, high-tech survey equipment, and space exploration. Credit: ESA–H. Stevenin.

A mini-rover, tools once used on the Moon, and lasers for three-dimensional mapping are in the backpack of the explorers of tomorrow. The terrain will be hazardous, and it will be dark in volcanic caves, but this equipment could one day help to scout other planets.

The alien-like landscapes of Lanzarote, Spain, are almost surreal, but this volcanic island is helping bring future space missions to reality. In late November, an expedition with a dozen experiments mobilized 50 people and four space agencies during five days in five different locations. This pioneering exercise is Pangaea-X, an extension of the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) Pangaea geology training.

“We are supplementing the training with the latest technologies in instrumentation, navigation, remote sensing, 3D imaging, and geoscience equipment,” says ESA project leader Loredana Bessone.

“Tests in a real environment with so many geological analogies to the Moon and Mars will allow us to learn much more than in any possible artificial simulation,” notes geologist Francesco Sauro, scientific director.

European astronauts, scientists, and engineers work side by side to prepare for human and robotic operations away from Earth. Volcanos, caves, and underground tunnels formed by lava are included. Like on Mars, some of the caves are large enough to accommodate highways.

There is a lot to be tested, from spacewalks in rough areas to underground communications. Together with high-tech scanners, a drone, and a rover, there is sampling and in situ DNA analysis of microorganisms. While a set of lasers help to create spectacular three-dimensional views of the lava caves, European astronauts are wearing smartphones on their wrists displaying instructions and DNA results on the spot.

“We have to test all this technology and a full set of analysis tools in the field and learn how to best integrate it into future operations,” adds ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer.

Not everything will be state-of-the-art technology. Spacewalk experts are carrying NASA replicas of sampling tools used during Apollo missions on the Moon to assess if they are suitable for future missions.

They are encountering obstacles and mobility constraints all along the way. “It is essential to optimize the tools and equipment for exploration. Safety and efficiency will be key for the success of future spacewalks on the Moon,” says ESA spacewalk instructor Hervé Stevenin.

The organizations involved in Pangaea-X will benefit from ESA’s expertise in astronauts operations and training, as well as from the knowhow of scientists, technicians and planetary field geology instructors.

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