ESA Explores Alien Worlds On Earth To Prepare For Future Space Missions
October 17, 2013

ESA Explores Alien Worlds On Earth To Prepare For Future Space Missions

[ Watch the Video: Catalogue of Planetary Analogues For Rovers? ]

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

The European Space Agency (ESA) announced on Wednesday it had begun testing a preliminary version of its ExoMars rover – highlighting the space agency’s recent commission of a catalog listing sites on Earth that resemble locations on distant celestial bodies such as the Moon or Mars.

The sites listed in the Catalogue of Planetary Analogues (CPA) are some of the more unusual places on Earth that can be used to prepare space agencies for human flights, robotic missions and other endeavors beyond our own planet. These 'analogues' were selected because they could be used to test technology and research methods before spending the time and effort to launch something into space.

In the past, NASA and ESA researchers have taken expeditions to the island of Svalbard, located north of Norway. The research teams have included geologists, biologists and engineers, and their work has resulted in some of the instruments now being used on Mars aboard the Curiosity rover. Other sites, like the Atacama Desert, can be used to determine what kind of surfaces a rover can cross, what type of inclines it can go up and down, and if it can sample surface soil and rocks.

Many of these sites are quite hostile and home to extraordinary life forms. By studying 'extremophiles' at these locations, astrobiologists can develop methods and theories for scouring certain environments outside of Earth which might be home to comparable organisms.

Unlike remote islands or South American deserts, some of the sites listed in the catalog, like impact craters in Arizona and the Rio Tinto in Spain, are much more accessible.

"We examined what kind of interesting areas there are on Mars and the Moon, and how to find something similar on Earth," said Oliver Angerer, Human Exploration Science Coordinator for ESA. "For example, if you want to study lava tubes on Mars, what is the nearest equivalent on Earth? Depending on your mission requirements, you can choose Iceland, Hawaii or Tenerife."

The catalog, which lists sites on seven continents, draws on the knowledge of a large network of planetary experts and was assembled for ESA's General Studies Programme by researchers at the UK’s Open University. The catalog includes details on everything from nearby gas stations to what type of dangerous wildlife might be living in the vicinity.

“The CPA is a work in progress and will grow over time through user additions and future planetary mission results,” the catalog reads. “The information included so far is a combination of literature research and contributions by academics, engineers and mission planners. As such some material may be currently missing or incomplete; however, as the information becomes available it will be included.”

"I am particularly pleased with the amount of practical information included. The OU did a really excellent job on that side," Angerer said.

"There are a lot of places in this catalogue that I would like to visit," he added. "So far, I haven't been to the Dry Valleys in Antarctica, which is an amazing area for field activities. It’s the closest you can get to being on another planet while staying on Earth."