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How Iceland helps us understand Mars' past and Earth's future

Iceland’s terrain — and mythology — yield surprising insights into potential past life on Mars, and sobering lessons on Earth’s future.

Rovers test out ‘Mars-like’ terrain of Iceland in preparation for July 2020 mission

NASA has taken to the lava fields of Iceland to get its new robotic space explorer ready for its planned July 2020 Mars Mission. (Halldor Kolbeins/AFP via Getty Images)

*Originally published on June 11, 2020.

The terrain of Iceland's desolate, black lava deserts in the highlands in the south of the country is the closest to Mars you can get on Earth.

The Nordic island country was the training ground for NASA's 2020 Mars Mission, with the aim to determine the potential for life on Mars. The launch date was July 30, 2020 and the goal duration of the mission is to spend at least one Martian year on the planet — about 687 Earth days.

In preparation of this ambitious exploration, a team of scientists and engineers tested equipment, strategies and techniques in this Mars-like environment.

"The terrain looks like a scene from outer space," said Ewan Reid, president and CEO of Mission Control Space Services located in Ottawa. The company develops robotic software that helps rovers navigate safely and work with NASA to support their research.

The NASA base at the Lambahraun lava field, at the foot of Iceland's second biggest glacier, Langjokull, which was chosen as a stand-in for Mars’ surface. (Halldor Kolbeins/AFP via Getty Images)

"We were located in a valley between two large volcanoes. We were mostly operating in an area that was sand that had broken down from the volcanic rock. All around you otherwise was an area that was entirely barren and devoid of life."

The rocks formed in this area are created by eruptions in the earth's surface, volcanoes, lava, water, raging wind.  

Iceland to the Moon

This isn't the first time Iceland has been the training grounds for outer space exploration. Apollo astronauts were trained in northern Iceland in 1965 and 1967.

"We had the astronauts training in Iceland for the Moon landing because Iceland is such a young country and it's still being formed… It's still a work in progress. It's still happening," said Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson. The musician and art director is considered the modern equivalent of a Viking chieftain, heading an old pagan Norse group, and therefore in spiritual contact with the ancient Icelandic deities.  

Neil Armstrong leads Edwin 'Buzz' Aldrin and Michael Collins out of the space centre on the Apollo 11 space mission to the moon. Armstong was one of 14 Apollo astronauts who trained in Iceland before flying to the Moon. (Keystone/Getty Images)

Thirty-two Apollo astronauts in total were sent to Iceland for training in geology for lunar missions. Fourteen of the trainee astronauts later flew to the Moon, and seven of those conducted geology work on the lunar surface.

It's all about water

If NASA finds water on Mars — which it once had plenty of — they might discover traces of ancient life. And from the spacecraft that have already orbited Mars, you can look down on geographical features which "mimic" the Iceland landscape.

This image provided by NASA of Mars was taken on May 12, 2016. A study published in 2018 suggests a huge lake of salty water appears to be buried deep in Mars, raising the possibility of finding life there. (NASA/ESA and The Hubble Heritage)

"Iceland is a snapshot of what certain places on Mars look like. Over three billion years ago, at a time that Mars was considerably wetter than it is now, with more liquid water flowing both on the surface and beneath the surface," said Bethany Ehlmann, a professor of Planetary Science at The California Institute of Technology.

Ehlmann has spent a lot of time using robot explorers to understand the history of Mars and had been to Iceland for research, in preparation for the Mars landing.

"What's remarkable is Mars preserves its rock record over 50 per cent of the records from the first billion years. So it's there for us to explore and really get to answering these questions about how rare, or how common is the occurrence of life throughout the universe?"

Ehlmann said that three-and-a-half billion years ago, Mars had lakes, rivers, hydro-thermal systems very similar to what's seen in Iceland today.

"But all of that changed. The atmosphere thinned, the surface froze, and, if there is water on Mars today, it is only deep underground."
 



* This episode was prodcued by Malgorzata Zerwe and David Zane Mairowitz.

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