Science News

Robots Use Mt. Etna As Lunar Mission Testing Grounds

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On Italy’s Mount Etna, a robot wheels across the dry, rocky landscape of its slopes, looking like something out of a movie set.

It is, in fact, a test run for future lunar missions conducted by the German Aerospace Centre, which runs Germany’s space program. The three-foot-high machine runs across the surface of Europe’s most active volcanoes on the island of Sicily, in preparation for future moon landings, The New York Times reports.

The program has an international team of experts from Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States and Italy researching ROBEX (Robotic Exploration of Extreme Environments), with the goal of improving robots and robotic machines that will be used in space.

Boris Behncke, a volcanologist from the National Vulcanology Institute in Catania, said, “This is aimed at simulating a future, hypothetical landing mission on the moon or Mars and they use a lot of robots which are there to transport and install different instruments.”

Scientists are also looking into exploring Mount Etna with these robots, reporting back useful data on seismic movement. These techniques would then be deployed in lunar missions, or space projects for a Mars landing.

Initial robot testing was conducted on the Piano del Lago region of the volcano, which is a desolate, windswept stretch. Next, the team will test a network of equipment, including rovers and drones, to monitor seismic activity that closely mimics what happens on the moon.

While Mount Etna’s slopes are the closest on Earth to an alien landscape, it is a highly volatile volcano that is almost always in a state of activity. It was declared a Decade Volcano by the United Nations – joining its infamous neighbor, Mt. Vesuvius – and was assigned a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2013.

The volcano’s eruptions and landscapes were even used in footage for the planet Mustafar in the 2005 movie, “Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith.”

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