Astronauts head underground to learn about life in space

29 Jun 2016

Light and shade in Tiscali Cave. Image via ESA/A Boesso

There are six astronauts currently descending into the depths of a cave network, but how does this help them survive the rigours of space?

Astronauts are trained to deal with any scenario that may come their way prior to actually heading out into space, but sometimes swimming pools and simulators are not enough to replicate the harshness of the cosmos.

That is why, as of this week, a team of six astronauts from six different national space agencies are going even further away from space – 800m underground to be exact – to recreate some of the most challenging aspects of space exploration.

Future Human

According to the European Space Agency (ESA), which is contributing one of its astronauts to the training programme, the caves of Sardinia offer a dark and alien underground environment that replicate many aspects of space, such as being deprived of many sounds and natural light.

Called CAVES – or the Cooperative Adventure for Valuing and Exercising – the programme not only tests their physical ability to navigate difficult terrain, but is also an important team-bonding exercise.

Testing advanced equipment

In total, the team will spend six days underground, starting on 1 July, where they will, for all intents and purposes, be cut off from civilisation.

One of the team’s tasks will be to test new equipment to make 3D maps of the caves they explore using photograph-based measurements, as well as test one of the latest communication systems, XFerra, deeper within the cave than any team has tried before.

Another noteworthy landmark with this year’s team is that it contains the first woman astronaut to take part in CAVES, NASA’s Jessica Meir, as well as the first taikonaut (Chinese astronaut), Ye Guangfu.

Caves 1

Astronaut Meir collecting sample organisms. Image via ESA

Caves 5

Exploring deep in the cave. Image via ESA

Caves 3

Checking out the opening in the cave 90m above. Image via ESA-S.Sechi

Caves 2

Navigating the watery depths of the cave. Image via ESA-V.Crobu

Caves 6

Team descending deeper into the cave. Image via ESA-V.Crobu

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic