An international team of scientists led by Christopher Hamilton of the University of Arizona will use Iceland’s Holuhraun lava field to test a “next-generation Mars exploration concept,” SpaceRef reports. NASA has awarded the team a USD 3.1 million grant for the project, titled RAVEN.
Located north of Vatnajökull glacier, in Iceland’s Central Highland, the Holuhraun lava field was formed by a months-long eruption that began in August 2014 and ended in February 2015. “It’s some of the newest real estate in the world,” Hamilton stated when describing the barren landscape that attracted the RAVEN team. “What makes it especially interesting to us is that the lava was emplaced in a sandy area, which is very similar to what some Martian terrains look like.”
There is a long history of space-related training and research in Iceland – in 1965 and 1967, NASA astronauts trained in the country to prepare for the 1969 moon landing. In 2019, NASA returned to Iceland to test the Sand-E space rover, which will search for signs of ancient microbial life on Mars.
The RAVEN project involves a team of over 20 scientists and engineers and presents a novel approach to space exploration. Previous robotic missions have consisted in flyby passes to collect data, followed by a space probe placed in orbit, then a lander (which studies the surface in one place), and finally a rover built to move around the surface.
“With RAVEN, we’re adding ‘fly’ to that list,” Hamilton said. “And not only that – the whole concept is really geared towards building new technology and procedures for two robots to work together on an extraterrestrial body. We are going to look at how a rover and a drone can work together to maximize the scientific output of such a mission.”
Many of the young, volcanic terrains on Mars are too rough for a rover to traverse, which is a major challenge in exploration of the planet. RAVEN intends to overcome this obstacle with the help of a drone. By flying ahead of the rover, the drone will be able to scout possible paths for the rover as well as retrieve samples that the rover itself can’t reach.
“Volcanic terrains offer exciting targets for exploration because of their potential to generate habitable hydrothermal systems, which could support or preserve microbial life,” Hamilton said. “RAVEN would make such locations accessible for the first time,” Hamilton explained.
It’s not only scientists but also filmmakers who have taken advantage of how Iceland’s landscapes resemble those of other planets. Films including Interstellar, as well as several installations of the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises, have used Icelandic landscapes to portray other worlds.