Participants of the Pangaea geology field training course take a break at the riverbed during week two of the 2018 course in the Italian Dolomites. Designed to train astronauts and future explorers on planetary formation and detecting signs of life, the course combines classroom lectures with field trips to sites of geological interest.
Led by European geologists, this year’s participants ESA astronaut Thomas Reiter, Roscosmos cosmonaut Sergei Kud-Sverchkov and ESA science expert lead Aidan Cowley studied geological processes, how to read rock formations and tools available to researchers before moving out into the field to put their knowledge into practice.
After exploring one of the best-preserved impact craters in Germany, the crew took on the Bletterbach canyon in the Italian Dolomites.
Over 10 billion tonnes of rock were transported by ancient rivers to this valley since the end of the glacial age some 18 000 years ago. The multi-coloured layers of rock that make up the eight kilometre long and 400-m deep canyon forge has much in common with the sedimentary processes found on Mars.
Geologists have unearthed crystallised white gypsum in the area, a rock-like mineral found after an abundance of water evaporates. This same mineral has been detected on Mars and points to flowing water under the surface.
Digging into the layers of the Bletterbach canyon reveals the footprints of prehistoric reptiles as well as plants and animals that lived millions of years ago. Following the thread of life on Earth in a region that shares many similar qualities to the martian surface is invaluable to unravelling the mystery of life on Mars.
Pangaea’s last stop will be the alien landscapes of Lanzarote, Spain, in November. This is one of the best areas on Earth to understand the geological interactions between volcanic activity and water – two key factors in the search for life.