Europlanet Field Trips

 

Europlanet’s Transnational Access programme allows any European planetary science researcher access to a set of state-of-the-art laboratory facilities and field sites. A call for proposals is put out each spring and all applications are peer reviewed. Applicants must apply to use facilities outside the country in which they are based.

Europlanet's Field Sites TNA provides access to five sites that have been selected as realistic analogues of surfaces of Mars, Europa and Titan, to which planetary missions have either recently been directed or are planned. The five sites are:

  • riotinto1.jpgRio Tinto a 100 km stretch of river located in the Huelva province in South West Spain. The river water at this site, uniquely in Europe, is very acidic (the pH averages 2) and is therefore a desirable site for studying possible habitats for life on Mars. Indeed sulphate-rich deposits suggest that Mars experienced a very acidic global environment during its history. The acidity of the water and the mineral presents at Rio Tinto give an opportunity to assess the relative roles of biological and inorganic processes in producing similar geology found recently on the surface of Mars by NASA’s Mars Environmental Rover, Opportunity.

     

  • chott_el_jerid1_small.jpgTunisian Chott, located in South West Tunisia, is a seasonal lake that is completely dry most of the year. The surface of the lake is covered with a hard crust of sodium chloride (table salt) covering underground water. From the astrobiology point of view it is extremely interesting to examine the biological cycles at such low and salty water levels. Future space missions are expected to take advantage of remote testing facilities such as Tunisian Chott El Jerid to validate their instrumentation. Before the wider community could access the site, it needed to be fully characterised by Europlanet’s JRA1 team, using field, geophysical and microbiological methodology. It is open for Transnational Access from 2011.

     

  • svalbard1.jpgNy-Ålesund in the Svalbard archipelago is the world's northernmost permanent settlement, only 1,200 km from the North Pole. It includes areas in front of two glaciers that are very well suited for testing instruments for ground ice and permafrost mapping. In addition, there are locations that include large amounts of buried glacier covered by layers of sediments that comprise mixtures of silicate minerals and organic material. Growing interest in the icy moons of Jupiter, and the possibility that they may host life forms, has made opportunities to carry out research at this site highly competitive. Europlanet provided access to the site during a field campaign in 2010.

     

  • ibnbattuta1.jpgIbn Battuta Centre near Marrakech in Morocco is a desert field facility. This extreme environment is used to test rovers, landing systems and instruments for Mars exploration and to perform scientific analysis of Mars-like terrains, including sand dunes, rocky deserts and flash flood drainage-features. Geological analysis of the region aims to understand the origin of environments that appear remarkably comparable to those observed on Mars, such as mud volcanoes and features shaped by the wind. Astrobiologists are also examining potential habitats and energy sources within ancient mud volcanoes and evaporated sediments to understand how organisms that live within rocks and bacteria in arid environments function.

     

  • kamchatka2.jpgThe Kamchatka Peninsula in Siberia Russia is one of four regions in the world with extensive geyser activity. The site will allow scientists to study the complex inter-relationship between volcanism and how land-forms develop, whilst the hot springs are also the habitat of diverse microbiology. The microorganisms living in these springs survive in extreme conditions both in terms of temperature and acidity. The site is therefore both useful for studying prebiotic conditions and as an analogue for some of the surfaces of Jupiter and Saturn’s moons (e.g Europa and Titan). The Kamchatka region also offers Mars analogue terrains and was used in the Soviet/Russian space programme for testing of Mars rovers for Mars-96 mission.

Several field trips have already taken place through the Europlanet TNA programme.  Some of the scientists that participated have blogged about their experiences:

felipe_chott.jpgDr Felipe Gómez led an expedition to study the similarities between the Chott El Jerid Desert and mineral deposits in the surface of Mars, and look at ecosystems that survive in extreme conditions below the surface.  Read more

slice_drilling_small.jpgProfessor Liane Benning (University of Leeds) travelled to Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard, to study how life could exist on other icy places in our Solar System. Read more

agnes_samper.gifDr Agnes Samper (University of Quebec, Montreal, Canada) travelled to one of the remotest places on Earth, the Kamchatka peninsula, to piece together the complex life story of two volcanoes. Read more>

Europlanet - Taking European planetary research beyond state-of-the-art

rosetta.jpgIn recent years, Europe's planetary space science programme has received wide-spread recognition for a string of successful missions. Mars Express, the first purely European mission to another planet, was an outstanding success.  The dramatic landing of the European Huygens probe on Titan in January 2005 and the on-going success of the joint ESA/NASA Cassini-Huygens Mission to Saturn show Europe's capability and innovation in planetary science technology.

The development of EU planetary science must be viewed in the context of a rapidly changing international environment. Alongside the traditional planetary science and space 'powers', China and India have announced ambitious planetary science and space programmes. It is vital that Europe, with its large knowledge and skills base, remains at the forefront of the planetary science field. Central to this aim is the need to overcome the current fragmentation of the EU planetary science community. Europlanet is consolidating the integration of Europe’s planetary science community (in activities started in 2005-2008 under FP6 with a Coordination Action and continued through an FP7 Research Infrastructure in 2009-2012) and building a major distributed European infrastructure to be shared, fed and expanded by all planetary scientists.

Europe has great breadth in its scientific expertise, in both ground-based observing and space missions.   Flagship activities include the launch of the Rosetta mission to study and land upon a comet and Europe's major investment in the European Southern Observatory (ESO) through use of the Very Large Telescope (VLT). ESA's programme for planetary and space exploration includes the ExoMars mission to send a rover to Mars in 2016-18 to search for evidence of past or present biological activity. In the build up to Horizon 2020, Europlanet is bridging a crucial gap between a series of enormously productive missions, and new and exciting challenges for Europe's planetary scientists.

Consolidating the community

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Europe boasts one of the largest international communities of planetary scientists, composed of over 800 tenured academics and five times that number of early-career researchers and postgraduate students, in more than 200 research groups/institutions spread across nearly all Europe’s national states. Europe’s existing and emerging competitors rely on just one national agency (e.g. NASA) that has the responsibility both of putting on space missions and supporting the scientific communities that contribute to those missions. ESA, however, only has responsibility for building and flying space missions; support for the underpinning scientific community is distributed among its national members, each with their own funding and support regimes, as well as individual institutions that have their own institutional requirements. Europe’s planetary science community is, therefore, much more fragmented and hence coordinated activities within that community are correspondingly more difficult to carry out.

The Europlanet initiative was launched with the aim of overcoming this fragmentation and providing coordination across the European planetary sciences community. Through the auspices of an initial Framework 6 Coordination Activity and subsequently a Framework 7 Research Infrastructure, Europlanet has now forged a considerable degree of cohesion and unity of purpose amongst Europe’s planetary scientists.