ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti on a planetary geology course last week with a field trip to the Italian Dolomites.
By combining clues from aerial or satellite photography with field observations, geologists can create a billion-year history of a planet’s formation. When rovers and humans return to the Moon a large part of their work will focus on reading the landscape and identifying areas to collect samples for return to Earth. Scientists want to understand the first few billion years of the history of our Solar System and unchanged rocks that have not been have not been continuously renewed by plate tectonics, as on Earth, will help their research.
The Pangaea course is helping to develop new techniques and approaches for mission designers to prepare scientists, astronauts and rovers to work together.
Aside from classroom lessons, the course sends its participants to areas on Earth that resemble other planets in some ways. This year they visited Ries Geopark in Nördlingen, Germany, to study impact craters, and Bletterbach Geopark, in the Italian Dolomites, (pictured) as a stand-in for Mars sedimentary landscapes. The focus in the Italian Alps was on rock recognition and Mars sedimentary geology – how surface processes can shape a planet.
Exercises for the astronauts included describing rocks, identifying minerals and sketching the landscape as a means to read its history in minute detail.
Looking for clues is like a billion year-old crime site investigation. In the Dolomites the puzzle has been worked on by many researchers for centuries, but on Mars the puzzle is only just beginning to be pieced together.