On September 7, an international crew of six astronauts will venture inside a largely-uncharted cave system on the island of Sardinia, Italy. The purpose of the research effort is to simulate procedures that will be applied in the search for alien life, during upcoming space exploration missions.
The caving adventure is called Cooperative Adventure for Valuing and Exercising human behavior and performance Skills (CAVES), and is meant to train the astronauts for working in hostile environments.
Following the 6-day stay underground, the team will be able to work safely and effectively in space, using procedures developed specifically for this purpose. At the same time, astronauts will learn to work as part of a multicultural team, which is a challenge by itself.
This week, astronauts from all space agencies involved in the International Space Station (ISS) project will arrive in Sardinia, and begin a week of training. They will learn the basics of exploring caves, as well as the safety procedures associated with this type of expedition.
Though it may seem counterintuitive at first, exploring a cave system shares many similarities to visiting another planet. Astronauts will have to work in isolation, in very tight space, with no privacy, while at the same time solving issues related to various equipment breaking down, and to limited supplies.
CAVES will also feature a Mission Control crew, which will be stationed at the cave's entrance. The astronauts will hold briefings twice every day, just like the permanent crew on the ISS does.
Most of the cave system in the Sardinia is uncharted and unexplored, and very few studies have been dedicated to searching for life inside its corridors and chambers. This means that there is a chance the astronauts may actually find new species underground.
The crew will have to decide which areas to explore, draw detailed maps of their surroundings, and then proceed to investigate. They will only get one shipment of supplies, so they have to notify Mission Control about what they need 24 hours in advance.
“Nobody has systematically looked for life in these caves. Finding life big and small is always good, so I am very excited we will be looking for exotic bacteria and cave dwellers such as anthropods,” explains CAVES course designer Loredana Bessone, an astronaut trainer at the European Space Agency
The crew will use the same safety protocols employed during spacewalks, and will also test out a new communications system.