Exploring alien landscapes on Earth

How space agencies use extreme environments on Earth to explore other planets. Photo: Cerro Armazones in the Atacama Desert. Image credit: ESO/S. Brunier (wikimedia)

UNITED KINGDOM, November 7, 2013 – If every voyage starts with a single step then our exploration of alien worlds begins with understanding our own planet. In recent decades we have sent missions out to the handful of planets and moons within our reach and found worlds that boil with volcanic activity, geysers spouting from oceans deep beneath its icy crust, giant mountains, vast lakes, and canyons, deep craters and river systems.

To understand these alien environments we can start by studying similar landscapes right here on Earth. Some of the most extreme environments on Earth can also be used to prepare for human flights, robotic missions and the search for life beyond our own planet.

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ESA’s Catalogue of Planetary Analogues, a detailed list of analog sites on Earth for missions to the Moon and Mars was recently commissioned to help researchers. The Concepts for Activities in the Field for Exploration (CAFE) study produced the catalog compiled for ESA’s General Studies Programme by researchers at the UK’s Open University. Sites listed are scattered over all seven continents and include impact craters, lava flows, deserts and tundra.

“We examined what kind of interesting areas there are on Mars and the Moon, and how to find something similar on Earth,” says 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 Atacama Desert was recently used to test a sampling rover for ESA’s ExoMars mission. Atacama is amongst the driest places on Earth, high winds, dust devils and unpredictable terrain making it one of the closest terrestrial matches for Mars. The five-day Sample Acquisition Field Experiment with a Rover, or SAFER, field trial to find out what sort of terrain a rover could deal with, what kind of slopes it can go up and down, and whether it can sample the surface, concluded on Saturday 12 October.

SAFER field test rover in the Atacama Desert. Image credit: ESA-Michel van Winnendael

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For added pressure on the rover’s remote overseers, who were based at the Satellite Applications Catapult facility in Oxfordshire, each day of the five-day test was treated as equivalent to two Mars days, or ‘sols’. For each sol they downlinked data then prepared a set of commands for the next sol for the rover to then carry out on its own.

“SAFER’s purpose is really to build up experience in rover field testing, so the remote team worked as realistically as possible,” explains Michel van Winnendael, overseeing the testing for ESA.

NASA’s Research and Technology Studies (RATS) team uses analog missions to gain data about strengths, limitations, and the validity of planned human-robotic exploration operations, and help define ways to combine human and robotic efforts to enhance scientific exploration.

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Black Point Lava Flow, in Arizona provides an environment geologically similar to the lunar surface, while the sand dunes, rugged terrain, soil inconsistencies, sandstorms, and temperature swings of Moses Lake, Washington, also provide a very good test for spacesuits and rovers.

Testing spacesuits at Moses Lake. Image credit: NASA


The volcanic terrain of Hawaii’s islands was use to demonstrate technologies for oxygen extraction that could sustain a crew on the moon and other technologies that could be used to look for water or ice at the lunar poles.

At McMurdo Station in Antarctica, NASA conducted a range of analog tests to evaluate the Inflatable Lunar Habitat that astronauts may one day live in on the moon. The analog test was used to evaluate the structure’s power consumption and resilience and how easily a suited astronaut could assemble, pack, and transport the habitat.

Antarctica has been the site of much interest in the past few years with three teams from America, Russia and the United Kingdom all searching for life under the subglacial lakes there. Water in these lakes can remain liquid even at minus two degrees Celsius due to the 3 kilometer thick ice layer that covers it, which traps geothermal heat & keeps the lake under high pressure.

Any life found in the lakes has remained untouched for up to half a million years. It would have had to adapt to the darkness, cold and to high levels of oxygen, telling us more about the way microbial organisms evolved.

Russia broke through to Lake Vostok, the largest of the subglacial lakes, in February 2012, after drilling for over 20 years. Claims that they have found signs of life in samples are disputed by some scientists due to possible contamination by the antifreeze that the Russians used to keep the bore hole from refreezing.

Earlier this year the American team, called WISSARD (Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling) and supported by the National Science Foundation, broke through to Lake Whillans and found photosynthetic organisms that died and settled to the sea floor 10 to 20 million years ago. Results from samples being tested for present-day life are still to come.

The UK team from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), and the Universities of Northumbria and Edinburgh targeted Lake Hodgson on the Antarctic Peninsula which was covered by more than 400 m of ice at the end of the last Ice Age, but is now an emerging subglacial lake, with only a thin covering of just 3 to 4 metres of ice. They used clean coring techniques to sample sediments at the bottom of the lake which is 93 metres deep. The top few centimetres of the core contained current and recent organisms, but once the core reached 3.2 m deep the microbes found most likely date back nearly 100,000 years.

Lead author David Pearce, who was at BAS and is now at the University of Northumbria, says, “What was surprising was the high biomass and diversity we found. This is the first time microbes have been identified living in the sediments of a subglacial Antarctic lake and indicates that life can exist and potentially thrive in environments we would consider too extreme.”

“The fact these organisms have survived in such a unique environment could mean they have developed in unique ways which could lead to exciting discoveries for us. This is the early stage and we now need to do more work to further investigate these life forms.”

The existence of such extremophiles greatly increases the likelihood of such organisms existing in the waters under the thick ice crusts of Jupiter’s moon Europa, Saturn’s moon Enceladus or even deep underground on Mars.


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Jenny Winder

Jenny Winder is a British science writer for SEN - the Space Exploration Network,  specialising in astronomy, physics and space exploration.

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