What a week for space!

With World Space Week kicking off yesterday, NASA’s 60th anniversary having just passed, and Mae Jemison‘s birthday later on in the month, October is surely a great time for talking about space science and exploration.

Claudia, one of our Science Communicators, who is an astrophysicist and ultimate space fanatic, recently had the fantastic opportunity to spend four days in Iceland to get some astronaut training in special environments, and she is super excited to tell us everything she got to do up close to the Arctic Circle. So, over to her with some out-of-this-world adventures…

 

An unexpected message…

The sight I got just before landing is already from another planet.

As all the best adventures do, my trip to Iceland started very unexpectedly with a text message from Linda, a dear friend of mine and aspiring astronaut, telling me all about GeoSpace1, a training program to be held in Hùsavìk, Iceland, and the chance to be involved in the Explorers Festival. GeoSpace1 has been organised by the Exploration Museum to commemorate the importance of Iceland’s environment for the exploration of the Moon by the Apollo missions astronauts, and for starting the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the Moon Landing the Museum was looking for an all-female crew of young, enthusiastic space explorers… and Linda was asking me to join. 

It took me a bit to come back to Earth after feeling incredibly surprised and overwhelmed. Of course I was going to participate! Iceland has a very special set of geological characteristics that makes it an analog to the Moon: this means that by studying the properties of rocks there, and by observing the landscape, you get to know as much as you can about the lunar environment here on Earth. Starting 50 years ago, astronauts from the Apollo 11, 12, 15, and 17 went to Iceland for getting geology field training before their mission to space started – and I was going to walk their steps.

So, I packed my trekking gear and some adventure spirit, and after a 3 hours flight, there I was – Iceland.

 

Lava tubes, caves, and speleology

And clearly, the best was yet to come. After a night in Reykjavík, the capital city of Iceland, I got to meet the rest of the crew – Amelia Earhart (yes, you read well, and yes, she did fly around the world), Gunnhildur Fríða Hallgrímsdóttir, leader of the Icelandic student union and young entrepreneur, Alyssa Carson, a young US student that is working on becoming an astronaut, and Linda Raimondo, student in Physics that won a special mention at the ESA competition “Odysseus” with a project on Mars colonisation. And there I felt really like we were going to achieve something great!

The beautiful interiors of the Stefánshellir lava tubes. Image credit: Dominika Zub

So, there you have five young women with a strong interest in STEM, space and exploration, all geared up to head towards the first location of the training, concerning the speleology and geology of Iceland at the Stefanshellir cave. It was formed during an eruption in the early days of Iceland settlement by human beings, around 1100 years ago – and it looks definitely awesome. It has many entrances, and can be as tight at 50cm in some points. It was generated by the flowing of lava in the Hallmundarhraun lava field: as lava cooled down, it formed a semi-solid tube that protected the inside lava, that kept flowing outside of it. The empty shell of the lava tube forms the cave today, adorned by beautiful stalactites (that hang from the ceiling) and stalagmites (that rise from the floor). During this visit, we got to talk to Dr. Clive Oppenheimer, a famous volcanologist and professor at the University of Cambridge, about the geology of Iceland and why it can be so interesting not just for learning about what is happening on Earth, but also about space.

After this fantastic visit, we hopped in the car again and headed towards Húsavík, where we were going to stay for most of our experience in Iceland, for a well deserved dinner featuring some delicious Atlantic cod.

 

Meeting Icelandic students

The following day began with some quite unfortunate weather, so it was lucky that we had indoors activities planned. We started off with a session with Dr. Ann Hartry, cognitive neuropsychologist with many years of clinic research experience, about the career steps we plan to take as young women in STEM, and what are the key skills to develop. The main points that came out of the dialogue were that resilience is a fundamental ability in order to “bounce back” from the problems one might encounter in life, and that success is something that can have different appearances for everyone – to me personally, is waking up in the morning knowing I will do everything I can for living according to my personal values.

The GeoSpace1 team in the school. From left to right: Amelia, Alyssa, Linda, Claudia, and Gunnhildur.

After that, we made our way to the school in Húsavík – there is just one school for the whole town, from reception to Year 12, and overall it has around 200 students. There we had the chance to meet some of the older children and tell them about what makes us so excited about space exploration. Being a science communicator I really enjoyed this part, it was great to speak to kids from a different country and relate to their experience. After a few minutes during which we all introduced ourselves, there was a series of really challenging questions from the kids: which one is bigger, a red giant or a blue giant? How big is space? Can we blow up a black hole? How come you are here in Iceland to learn about space? Can we visit another galaxy? You can tell I was really in my element there: I never wanted to leave!

In the afternoon we enjoyed two talks by Kim Frank, a journalist and writer, about her trips to Siberia and India, and Leonardo Piccione, which is about to publish a book about Icelandic volcanoes and landscapes and the charming stories that took place in this fantastic scenery. This was all set in the Whale Museum, where a lot of skeletons from water mammals are displayed. These species are quite common in the ocean around Húsavík, and this is the tribute that the town pays to its local fauna. The town is, to this day, a very famous destination for whale watchers.

To finish off the day, we headed to the local cinema to see two movies: Earthrise, about the Apollo 8 astronauts and their memories of their trip to space, and The Erebus Enigma, about the Erebus volcano in Antarctica and its lava lake, constantly bubbling and bursting.

Another great day in Iceland was now going to end, with five very tired but thrilled explorers. One of the most exciting moments was when we got to wear our flight suits, made by StephanH, a professional company for flight gear. I have to confess, it was so comfortable I almost didn’t want to take it off for going to sleep…

I was able to shoot a brief video to pin some thoughts down in the beautiful port of Húsavík, in which you can also see that the weather wasn’t being particularly good to us.

The Explorers Festival

After a well deserved night of rest, we started our morning at the Whale Museum with a round table about Mars colonisation. Mike Dunn and Christa Maria Feucht from 4th Planet Logistics lead the discussion about how Iceland can be at the forefront for space exploration when talking about Mars colonisation. It is thought in the scientific community that configurations like the lava tubes we visited in Iceland can also be found on Mars, and that they would make ideal places for settling on the red planet. 4th Planet Logistics wants to conduct research in this field, trying to pressurise lava tubes and study possible habitats by making sure that the exceptional environment in Iceland is preserved at its best for future generations.

We then headed to the Húsavík Museum for a discussion about the decision of Iceland to join the European Space Agency, which was opened by the Minister for Foreign Affairs. The case was made for the role of Iceland in space exploration and all the possible new job openings in science and technology that could greatly benefit the country. Space is a great inspiration for the generations to come and a fantastic way to imagine a world free from borders, where we all cooperate for a better future. It was an empowering experience to be able to witness the efforts of a small, but highly innovative country to join forces for a common goal.

The rest of the afternoon was devoted to two very interesting talks by David Concannon, who participated in the exploration of the Titanic among other endeavours, about his submarine explorations, and Clive Oppenheimer, that presented his exciting work stemming from 13 seasons of field work in Antarctica. I was able to have a short interview with him at the end of the afternoon, with the promise that he will come and visit us at our Centre very soon.

You would think that was enough emotion for the day, yet some surprises were still being held for us. In the evening, during the closing dinner of the Explorers Festival, we were raptured by Amelia’s story on how she got to fly around the world, following the steps of her namesake. It was an incredibly emotional moment for all of us, especially considering her great work in encouraging young girls in pursuing their dream of becoming aviators thanks to the Fly with Amelia foundation. At the end of the dinner, the Leif Erikson Exploration Awards 2018 for outstanding achievements in the field of exploration were also announced, with Clive receiving the Exploration Award for his contribution to vulcanology and geology by studying Mt. Erebus in Antarctica. And I interviewed him before he was famous 😉

With the weather having been quite grim so far, I had given up my secret hope of seeing the northern lights, and that was going to be the last evening available for some nice auroras. I was feeling a bit disappointed, but hey, you can’t always get what you want. And as this thought crosses my mind, the sky opens…

The northern lights! Ok, it might not be the best picture you get to see of them, but I was crying happy tears for seeing them.

Ok, I am an astrophysicist, so let’s provide a little explanation about how northern lights work. Electrons coming from the Sun get to Earth near the poles, where the magnetic field is not very good at shielding us from particles travelling in outer space. As these electrons hit the molecules in the atmosphere and shuffle the electrons inside them, they release a bit of energy; the molecules then rearrange themselves in their original states and re-emit the energy as light that our eyes can see. Essentially northern lights are a proof of the fact that the Earth is a giant magnet, and that we have particles zooming around outer space that can also get to us.

But I can tell you, with all this in my mind, as the lights started unfolding in the sky and decorating it like some multicoloured green, white and pink ribbons adorning a hall, when I saw those colours dancing above me and making my wish come true, I couldn’t help by start crying. It was so beautiful and overwhelming to be right there, in that moment, and witness the arrival of space particles to Earth. Because I am an astrophysicist, yes, but also have a very soft heart.

Wow, THAT was a great ending to the day!

 

The GeoSpace1 crew performing some (freezing) field training. Where are those pesky bacteria?!

Astrobiology in Þeistareykir

On the morning of our last full day in Iceland it was time to get some practical work done, so we headed to Þeistareykir, a volcanic area not far from Húsavík for extracting some ground samples and analysing them for possible signs of life. These techniques are the same that are used for extracting and examining ground samples from the Moon and Mars: by analysing pieces of rock and dirt in a laboratory it’s possible to look for DNA, and thus finding possible alien life. This part of the training was lead by Dr. Oddur Vilhelmsson, professor at the University of Akureyri, who shared the basics on how to conduct field work. It is incredibly hard not to contaminate your sample – be it by walking too close, or also by an accidental sneeze. We got to see another landmark of the Icelandic scenery, geysers, that got me overexcited to the point I almost walked on it and I got my hiking boots covered in warm mud (some of which followed me all the way back to Cambridge…). Also it’s incredibly hard to collect your samples when it’s very cold and windy, a valuable training for an inhospitable planet.

At work in the lab. From left to right: Amelia, Gunnhildur, Alyssa, Linda, Prof. Vilhelmsson and Claudia.

After a lot of hard work for collecting samples, we made our way to the University of Akureyri, where we learned some of the techniques used by astrobiologists to extract DNA from soil and to grow possible microbes in a Petri dish. It was an incredibly interesting experience for me, I have done laboratory work before but never related to biology. In order to foster the growth of alien bacteria, an enriched solution of minerals and aminoacids is added to the sample, so that the micro-organisms can find the right nutrients to thrive and duplicate. The number of bacteria that could be found in an alien ground is extremely low, so helping them grow is crucial, otherwise it’s really hard to detect them. These experiments take quite long to provide results – you need to wait up to one or two months to see your bacterial culture developing. And I have to say that using pipettes and Petri dishes has been an experience I look very much forward to repeat – maybe the next workshop we will develop at Cambridge Science Centre could be about growing a bacteria colony? I need to mention this to the Exhibitions department…

It was now time to leave the lab, and ready to head towards the next surprise. In Akureyri there is a very well documented Museum of Aviation, a real must if you are fond of aviation and flight, or if you have 5 crew members eager to show off their flight suits in a huge hangar full of replicas and original planes. Iceland has a very interesting story in the realm of aviation – what a better place than this for a short video to document the aerial trips of Icelandic people?

HEADING TO REYKJAVÍK

And again, what a day we had! From Akureyri we had still a few hours worth of drive to get to Reykjavík, for catching our flights the following day. We were starting to feel the ending of this amazing few days approaching, and slightly sad, but also hyped for all the great things we did together. Even this last part of the trip was meant to surprise us – we got briefly stuck under the rain somewhere in West Iceland, and for a second we doubted we were going to make it. But after all… maybe I wouldn’t have minded being stranded in Iceland a few days more. We faced the unknown at the best of our spirit and started belting out some ABBA songs as we passed through our hands astronauts memorabilia, such as Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 mission patch, an authentic bit of Moon rock, and many others. We shared anecdotes from the early days of space exploration and I felt so blessed to have been part of this group, to have walked on the same path that lead humankind to step foot on the Moon. We got to our hotel with huge smiles and just a tad of melancholy for having to part – but rest assured that a real crew stays together even after the mission is over.

The official mission patch for GeoSpace1. Never stop dreaming about space!

SPECIAL THANKS

I would like to thank again the amazing GeoSpace1 crew for being eager explorers, curious scientists and wonderful human beings. This adventure wouldn’t have been the same without all of you. I also would like to acknowledge all the amazing people that we had the chance to talk to during the Festival – Clive Oppenheimer, David Concannon, Kim Frank, Leonardo Piccione, Mike Dunn, Ann Hartry, Christa Maria Feucht, and the many others I am surely forgetting. A huge thank you to Kacper Gawron for the help with the first two videos in this post, and to all the other volunteers that helped running the Festival. And most of all, an immense thank you to Örlygur Hnefill Örlygsson, head of the Exploration Museum, for organising everything, for bringing together all this amazing talent from the remote corners of the world and for letting me be a part of this. Thank you for everything you have done for us, until the last surprise. I surely look forward to welcome you all to Cambridge, sooner rather than later.

Or, maybe, meet you on Mars!