Simulating space under the Earth, under the sea
Learn "All about CAVES" in this ESA CAVES 2012 video featuring CSA astronaut David Saint-Jacques.
It bears more than a little resemblance to an environment in Ridley Scott's Prometheus, or one of the Aliens movies. So it's no surprise that Sa Grutta Cave, on the Mediterranean island of Sardinia, is being used to simulate the real-life challenges, inconveniences and dangers of space exploration.
CAVES (or Cooperative Adventure for Valuing and Exercising human behaviour and performance Skills) 2013 was an opportunity for Canadian Space Agency (CSA) Astronaut Jeremy Hansen and five other astronauts to get advanced experience on Earth in some of the situations they'll face during the extremes of a long-duration space mission.
This training prepares astronauts to work safely and effectively and solve problems as a multicultural team while carrying-out complex scientific and technical tasks and exploring uncharted areas using space procedures. They have worked in confined spaces, with minimal privacy, technical challenges and limited equipment and supplies for hygiene and comfort - just like in space.
For the last few years, the European Space Agency (ESA) has hosted an international crew of "cavenauts" on the island to help them hone skills they can use during launch, spacewalks, emergencies, and everyday life in orbit and beyond. CSA Astronaut David Saint-Jacques was the first Canadian astronaut to complete the training in 2012.
Into the abyss
From September 16-27, 2013 Hansen and the rest of the CAVES team spent time training for and setting out on a six-day journey into Sa Grutta, navigating gigantic underground halls, tiny unexplored passages, rivers, lakes and other obstacles.
While camped hours into this dwelling, the team ate, slept, and worked together, creating 3D cave maps of the areas around their 'base-camp', making detailed photographic surveys, and taking samples of rarely-seen cave organisms.
The mission objectives also included airflow, temperature and humidity monitoring; geological, biological and microbiological sampling with a particular interest in gaining better understanding of the fauna and environment of the area, as well as contributing to research in planetary protection.
Over the past 15 years, the CSA, NASA, and other space agencies have made extensive use of "analogue environments" – locations on Earth that stand in for destinations in space.
Since 2001, Aquarius, an undersea lab the size of a large motor home, has hosted five Canadian space explorers on six missions – including Saint-Jacques (2011) and Jeremy Hansen (2014) – as part of the NASA NEEMO program.
Roughly 19 metres below the waters of the Florida Keys, NEEMO aquanauts have participated in science research missions, long-duration space trip simulations, and "spacewalks" to evaluate exploration tools and techniques that could be applied in space.
In the summer of 2012, Jeremy Hansen embarked on an analogue "Moon mission" to Victoria Island in the Canadian Arctic, helping to investigate a possible meteorite impact crater. In July 2013, he took part in a geology field expedition in Devon Island, in Canada's High Arctic to study impact cratering processes while learning methods and techniques for conducting geological fieldwork that can be applied to sites beyond our planet. In the summer of 2014, David Saint-Jacques also took part in field geology training at the West Clearwater Impact Structure in Nunavik, in Canada's Arctic.
As analogue missions become more diverse and commonplace, so will astronauts with specialized skills for coping for the long-term in space.
So next time an astronaut gets ready for their upcoming space launch or extravehicular activity, they might be thinking less of their time in a centrifuge and more of what they learned bouncing along the bottom of the ocean, or wiggling around a tricky obstacle, deep in a remote cavern.
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