Simulating space under the Earth, under the sea
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) 2012 is an opportunity for Canadian Space Agency Astronaut David Saint-Jacques 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 such as Chris Hadfield's upcoming six-month stay on the International Space Station (ISS).
Some of those extremes include:
- working in isolation with a small group, often international
- a confined, remote location
- communication with the rest of the world that is limited and/or delayed
- lack of a day-night cycle
- lack of privacy
- dangerous surroundings
- carrying-out complex scientific and technical tasks under the above conditions
For the last few years, the European Space Agency 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.
This time around, a six-person support team will join crew members from the UK, Japan, Russia, the US and Canada.
Into the abyss
From September 2-14, Saint-Jacques and the rest of the CAVES team will have 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 will eat, sleep, and work together, creating 3D cave maps of the areas around their ‘base-camp', making detailed photographic surveys, and taking samples of rarely-seen cave organisms.
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 Canadian space explorers – including Hadfield and Saint-Jacques – as part of the 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 (in Saint-Jacques' case) a "spacewalk" during a simulated asteroid exploration.
In the summer of 2012, Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen embarked on an analogue "Moon mission" to Victoria Island in the Canadian Arctic, helping to investigate a possible meteorite impact crater.
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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