July 12, 2014

CAVES Program Organizers Set The Scene For Space-Like Astronaut Training Later This Summer

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

When considering all the time, energy and money it takes to send astronauts into space, it quickly becomes apparent that heading into space isn’t the most efficient place to train an astronaut if it can be done right here on Earth.

That’s the idea behind the European Space Agency’s CAVES program. Short for Cooperative Adventure for Valuing and Exercising human behavior and performance Skills – the program recently sent cavers and ESA trainers underground near Sardinia, Italy to prepare for astronaut training later this summer.

The space agency said their CAVES program will be stepping up the space realism this year, with trainees following space exploration-like timelines and procedures, like those in place on the International Space Station.

“Caves is an exploration mission,” said program instructor Francesco Sauro in a recent statement, “and this year will be more difficult as the astronauts venture further from basecamp.”

From basecamp, the CAVES group will descend down hundreds of feet below the surface using safety tethers, which is very similar to performing a spacewalk. Like astronauts, cavers must also make sure when they pass an item that the recipient is grasping it before letting go. In space or in a cave, a “dropped” object can easily disappear forever.

This year’s mission will also be different in that the trainees will build an overnight outpost more than 3 miles from basecamp using details provided from last year’s ‘cavenauts.’

“It will be interesting to see how they manage the further exploration,” Sauro said. “As they distance themselves from basecamp it will get more challenging and I am curious to see how far they can go.”

In addition to practicing techniques and terminology, the astronauts will also be testing carbon dioxide and radon levels along with taking microbiological specimens of the life they come across. New methods will be put to the test using apps created by the trainers at the European Astronaut Centre that might be used on the International Space Station in the coming years. Step-by-step directions integrating schedules, methods, crew notes and information collection in a single application should accelerate tests to get more work done, the ESA said.

The cavenauts will be assessing new technology for cavers as well. A system incorporating 3D cameras, laser scanning and a wearable computer provides the chance to map uncharted areas in real time and construct a detailed 3D map.

Earlier this month, National Geographic released a major cover story detailing the 3D mapping of caves in southeast China.

“It’s a brilliant technique, which has only just been started to be used in caves, and it’s almost uniquely applicable in cave because in caves – you cannot see unless you’ve got an extremely large light,” team member Peter Smart, a geography professor at the University of Bristol, told National Geographic in a video interview.

Writing for the National Geographic magazine, journalist Natalie Funk said researchers would set up the scanner, press a button on it and three minutes later the system would produce a low-resolution 3D map of the surrounding cave.

The ESA said it expects its astronauts to come back with similar state-of-the-art maps.

“What we are doing will be very interesting and useful for cavers all over the world,” Sauro said.


FOR THE KINDLE: Space Technologies on Earth: redOrbit Press