Have you ever wondered which places on Earth most resemble other planets? For some of us, imagining the landscape of other worlds might just be for fun, but scientists and engineers wonder about what the otherworldly places on Earth can tell us about neighbours like the Moon and Mars.
Working in the most unusual places on Earth can help us to prepare for human flights, robotic missions and the search for life beyond our own planet. These ‘analogues’ are chosen because they are similar in one way or another to particular planetary environments. They can be used for technical tests and research before the effort and expense of a launch into space.
The most hostile environments on Earth are home to unusual life forms. By studying these ‘extremophiles’ that can cope with extreme heat, cold, pressure or radiation on Earth, astrobiologists can consider whether certain environments in space might be home to similar tiny creatures. Needing unspoiled land, often without vegetation, means that astrobiologists and geologists often find themselves in very remote places.
Past research for ESA includes expeditions to Svalbard in conjunction with NASA. The teams visiting this remote island far to the north of Norway included geologists, biologists and engineers, and their tests included some of the instruments now working on Mars aboard the Curiosity rover.