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Field trip! European Space Agency sends astronauts abroad to learn about rocks

Astronauts need better autonomy as ground control gets further away

While astronauts are often engineers or scientists, they usually aren’t geologists, which is why the European Space Agency (ESA) is investing in training to make sure its next mission crew can accurately identify rocks and geological features.

“Today, some astronauts have scientific backgrounds, although only a very small number have field science experience,” said ESA affiliates in a March 2023 Acta Astronautica paper.

Planetary ANalogue Geological and Astrobiological Exercise for Astronauts (Pangaea) is the ESA’s astronaut’s geology-focused training course that preps the future Moon and Mars walkers with field knowledge. The program has been ongoing since 2016 and has trained astronauts from ESA, NASA, and Roscosmos.

The four-week curriculum includes studying existing sites on Earth that are similar to what will be found during a mission, in hopes that the astronauts will be able to make split-second decisions about the importance of geological features.

Now in its sixth year, the program includes on site trips to Italy, Germany, Spain and Norway.

“The geology training takes them to the Italian Dolomite mountain range known for its pristine sedimentary layers, the Ries impact crater in Germany, the Spanish volcanic island of Lanzarote, and to the Norwegian fjords of Lofoten to learn about rocks similar to those found in the lunar highlands,” said ESA.

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“Utilizing human explorers instead of robotic platforms to complete these exploration tasks brings many benefits, such as faster data gathering and rapid real time adaptability to new information, thereby facilitating more efficient and effective operations and increasing the chance of novel discoveries,” said the paper authors.

All these benefits will become much more apparent as missions increase in complexity and distance from Earth. Astronauts will need to work with increased autonomy to handle communication delays in places like Mars and the Moon.

The ESA, India and Russia all have plans to launch missions to the moon and further in 2023. NASA is slated to send astronauts to the moon and back in 2024 via the Artemis 2 Mission. Artemis 3, targeted for 2025 or 2026, will see a crewed lunar touchdown, assuming all goes to plan. ®

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