Terceira Island, in the Azores, has been chosen to host the first analogous space mission to Mars, in Gruta do Natal or Nativity Grotto. This initiative aims to replicate the extraterrestrial challenges faced by astronauts on the Moon, paving the way for future manned missions to Mars.
A team of seven astronauts, including three women, coming from five countries speaking eight languages, commanded by two women, will transform the Azores into a global hub for astronaut training.
This pioneering project, officially unveiled on November 8, is scheduled to unfold from November 22 to 28, marking the first of its kind in Portugal.
The first project of the CAMões – Caving Analog Mission for Ocean, Earth and Space Exploration, the venture is led by the Montanheiros Association, in partnership with other entities, such as the Institute for Systems and Computer Engineering, Technology and Science (INESC TEC), the University of the Azores and the University of Aveiro, in partnership with private companies.
Gruta do Natal is an underground cave, composed of lava tunnels, which mirrors the harsh conditions of lunar and Martian landscapes. Over the course of a week, astronauts will undergo intensive training, simulating a lunar environment while planning and designing future space missions.
Throughout the training, astronauts will be closely monitored by a team of experts in speleology, volcanism, microbiology, geochemistry, and space medicine, who will act as the mission control crew.
“What will happen is a lunar simulation. In other words, it is spatial training. We will spend seven days, six nights in this volcanic cave simulating a lunar environment,” Ana Pires, researcher at INESC TEC – Institute of Systems and Computer Engineering, Technology and Science and mission commander, explained to the Lusa news agency.
The first project of its kind carried out in Portugal, the mission embraces a strong educational component, connecting with schools in mainland Portugal, the Azores, Madeira, Puerto Rico, Indonesia, South Africa, and the United States through video conferencing for students between the ages of 3 and 17 years old. This innovative approach ensures that students are actively engaged, making them part of this transformative experience.
“It’s a tremendous source of pride for the region to provide this experimental site, allowing Portugal, specifically the Azores and Terceira Island, to contribute significantly to the development of lunar analog missions on a national and international scale,” expressed Ana Pires, emphasizing the immense potential of the Gruta do Natal project.
After the completion of the mission, a book will be published dedicated to the CAMões project. Published by Springer Nature, the anticipated publication date is set between 2024 and 2025. The goal is to highlight the main results of the project, stressing the significance of the science and technology applied throughout the mission.
The Azores (population 250,000) is a region of Portugal composed of nine islands. The archipelago discovered by Portuguese explorers in the 15th century, became an Autonomous Region of Portugal in 1976. The government of the Autonomous Region of the Azores includes the Legislative Assembly, composed of 57 elected deputies, elected by universal suffrage for a four-year term; the Regional Government and Presidency, with parliamentary legitimacy, composed of a President, a Vice-President and seven Regional Secretaries responsible for the Regional Government executive operations. The Autonomous Region of the Azores is represented in the Council of Ministers of the Central Government by a representative appointed by the President of Portugal. According to the latest US census over 1.3 million individuals of Portuguese descent live in the United States, the majority with roots in the Azores. It is estimated that over 20,000 US citizens live in Portugal.