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Into the Deep


Copyright: ESA–A. Romeo

There is never a dull day for participants of the CAVES campaign, ESA’s field training adventure that hones the communication, problem solving and teamwork skills an international crew will need to explore the tough, uncharted terrain of the Moon and Mars. 


This week six astronauts turned ‘cavenauts’ from five space agencies headed underground in Slovenia, where they are currently living and working for the week. To keep the element of exploration, astronauts themselves do not know the exact location.


The goal is to run scientific experiments while managing the psychological toll of being in an extreme environment with a multinational crew.


Following a week’s training above ground, including lectures from experts and practical exercises, the team is now underground searching for signs of life that have adapted to the extreme conditions in the caves.


One of the team’s main scientific objectives is to follow the water, a vital resource on- and off- our planet.

Caves are usually formed by running water and ESA picked a cave where rivers flow underground for this training expedition.  For the first time, the team will be on the lookout for microplastics. They will also test water chemistry and learn to find and interpret waterways in a cave system.


Trainees are also sampling and analysing microbes that have managed to survive in such inhospitable conditions. Geochemistry, meteorology and other environmental studies are on the list. Read more about the science happening beneath the surface.


If it sounds like a lot to ask of astronauts in a two-week period, fear not. The cavenauts are well prepared and supported.


The astronauts are also using an upgraded version of the Electronic Field Book. This all-in-one, easy-to-use application will allow them to deliver science and video logs while checking procedures and cue cards on a tablet.


Above ground, mission control will track their progress with a 3D map generated on the app as they explore the cave. Scientists can locate the astronauts’ scientific observations paired with pictures, and send their comments back to the cave.


The six cavenauts of this edition of CAVES are ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst, NASA astronauts Joe Acaba and Jeanette Epps, Roscosmos’ cosmonaut Nikolai Chub, Canadian Space Agency astronaut Josh Kutryk and JAXA’s Takuya Onishi. Chub and Gerst are serving as co-commanders of the expedition.

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