ESA launches Pangaea space geology course
Equipping next-gen astronauts with geological fundamentals Metal Tech News - September 8, 2021
Last updated 9/7/2021 at 1:13pm
As NASA prepares for Artemis, which will establish an outpost on the Moon in preparation to send humans to Mars, at least some of the next generation of astronauts will need to have a discerning eye for lunar geology. The European Space Agency's Pangaea training campaign is equipping some of the top candidates for future lunar missions with a basic course in Moon geology.
Pangaea, designed to provide astronauts with the fundamental knowledge and practical skills to be effective field scientists during future planetary exploration missions to the Moon and Mars, is not a new program. Through three previous editions of this program, ESA has been teaching astronauts the basics of field geology and astrobiology.
As NASA closes in on more robust Moon missions and establishing a permanent base on the lunar surface, however, the latest rendition of Pangaea is more focused on the geology of Earth's only natural satellite.
"There has never been a better time to run this course now that we are going to the Moon with NASA's Artemis missions," says Loredana Bessone, Pangaea's project lead.
From selecting a landing site and planning a lunar expedition to searching for local resources, Pangaea is "an excellent foundational course to prepare astronauts for collecting rocks on the Moon and to understand why we are going back," says training coordinator Samuel Payler.
NASA astronaut Kathleen Rubins, an Artemis astronaut who could become the first American woman to land on the Moon, is taking the latest Pangaea course that launched on Sept. 6.
A microbiologist, Rubins has spent a total of 300 days on the International Space Station and became the 60th woman to fly in space during a mission in 2016.
Rubins is joined by European Astronaut Centre engineer Robin Eccleston and ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen.
A big fan of adventure expeditions, Mogensen is looking forward to gaining the geological knowledge to collect relevant moon samples and report his findings in geologically accurate terms.
"Any human mission to the Moon will have geology as one of its primary goals. This makes this course very relevant, especially for the next class of ESA astronauts," he said.
To achieve this goal, some of Europe's top planetary scientists are providing lessons to the Pangaea 2021 trainees during this geological, astrobiological, and operational field training course.
The instructors will also talk about the diversity and tenacity of life and how to detect it during future planetary missions. Amid strict COVID-19 safety guidelines, participants will also learn about planetary protection.
"How to collect samples and prevent contamination is paramount," Payler said.
Overall, the Pangaea team is very motivated to train this next generation of lunar explorers "to be partners in Moon science and not just astronauts executing orders from Earth," explained Payler.
"They will build realistic lunar missions with us."
And this training is getting a whole lot more realistic, at least virtually realistic.
While Pangaea 2021 and its earlier editions brought future space geologists to locations here on Earth that mimicked Martian and Moon geology, this year's trainees will be more immersed into out-of-this-world geology.
"We are bringing in virtual reality for 'augmented science' and more efficient operations," says Francesco Sauro, Pangaea's technical course director.
To the Moon and then onto Mars – participants will wear a virtual reality headset to immerse themselves in a real Martian landscape.
Together with images and dozens of 3D maps, the trainees will see a combination of ground truth information and satellite images with the Planetary Mapping project (PLANMAP) running behind the scenes.
"The crew will feel closer to a real planetary expedition and will choose their own path. It is quite a unique and powerful lesson, never done before in Pangaea," explains Sauro.
ESA is also developing a digital space book that will allow lunar field geologists to take field notes.
This Electronic Field Book is an all-in-one information system that works on handheld devices, a sort of space tablet, used to record science in remote environments. With this app, astronaut geologists will be able to access a database to identify minerals, document each step of the space expedition, communicate with scientists on Earth, and enter images collected from microscopes and 360-degree cameras.
Equipped with an EFB, a rock hammer, and the latest space geology tools, Pangaea graduates will be trained to be effective field scientists able to find the resources needed to build a permanent base on the Moon and pioneer space geology as humans head out to explore our solar system.