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IGLUNA: students work towards building an icy human habitat on the Moon!

IGLUNA: students work towards building an icy human habitat on the Moon!

What does it take to build a habitat in ice on the Moon? An international group of university students and professionals is working together to provide this answer and develop a sustainable and operational habitat in lunar ice. The project is called IGLUNA and is organised by the Swiss Space Center and the European Space Agency (ESA) as the first initiative from ESA_Lab, an ESA interuniversity research platform where young professionals across Europe can work together on space projects.

Many of the participating students from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in the Netherlands presented their work on IGLUNA at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly in Vienna last month. Arlene Dingemans, a VU Amsterdam student and project participant, says,

At the moment, we are a pilot team, the first one working on this project, and we really hope that future teams will develop further this research and maybe, one day, we can go to the Moon!

The North Pole of the Moon where potential lunar cups would be located. Credit: NASA

Human life as we know it today, can only survive under specific environmental conditions; we need the right kind temperature, atmosphere, gravity, radiation, and access to oxygen and water to properly function. On Earth, we have all the necessary resources but as far as we know, our planet is the only place where human life can thrive. Thus, it is vital to carry out research and experiments in order to better understand how human life can be sustainable in places with harsh conditions. The Moon is our closest planetary object and the best place to investigate how life can be supported there.

As part of their project, the group will be testing an analog lunar habitat on Earth, on a glacier in Zermatt, Switzerland, under cold and harsh conditions similar to the Moon’s ice craters in the south pole.

Building a habitat in ice on the Moon also has several benefits. Firstly, water (ice) is essential for life as we know it on Earth, but it can also be used to produce oxygen and fuels. Furthermore, ice is a great insulator for cosmic and solar radiation, and it can function as a shield against micrometeorites.

The field campaign will also involve operating several different experiments that could hypothetically  be done on the moon. Operations will start operations on 17 June, lasting until 3 July; during this time the habitat will also be open to the public, allowing visitors to watch and even take part in experiments.

The entrance tunnel into the Glacier Palace in Klein Matterhorn, Zermatt, Switzerland, where the IGLUNA habitat will be constructed. Credit: Swiss Space Center (SSC) / IGLUNA

The research conducted by the VU Amsterdam team in IGLUNA will focus on geological, glaciological, and astrobiological experiments. Bernard Foing, a professor at VU Amsterdam supervising the student team, highlights: “It’s important not only to live on the Moon, but also to do something really useful. We are going to learn about the Moon, about the Earth, [and] do astronomy. Also this project is a way to exchange expertise and to learn a lot through hands-on activities.”

Marc Heemskerk, participant and student coordinator explains:

The simulation aims to prepare ourselves and humanity in the best possible way for going to the Moon and living there in a semi-permanent or permanent basis. And I really think that it’s not a question of whether we will go to the Moon, but of when we will go. So, eventually, we will have to learn how to live there and how to use local resources.

Transferring resources from the Earth to the Moon in order to build a base it is extremely expensive in terms of energy and money, hence, it is vital to use local materials, Heemskerk explains.

The cave in which the IGLUNA habitat will be constructed – 15m below the surface of the Matterhorn Glacier, Switzerland. Credit: Swiss Space Center (SSC) / IGLUNA

The construction of an operational habitat requires knowledge and skill exchange between people from different backgrounds. 20 student teams coming from 13 universities in nine countries around Europe  from multiple disciplines work together to address the challenges of building an effective structure, which one day could be fully independent and operational on the Moon.

Dieke Beentjes, a participating student emphasizes:

What is also interesting is that our research team is already multidisciplinary. We started out as a team of geologists and now we also have biologists, as biological research is different and needs different instruments – to look at DNA and life traces for example.

The scientific equipment includes cameras, a spectrometer, a microscope, telescopes, a seismometer, drones and many others.

This initiative inspires students to think about the idea of a habitat, while increasing international relationships and collaborations. Marjolein Daeter, another project participant says, “It’s more like an opportunity to get to know this world and we get help from our university and ESA to do that. It’s fun to work with different people on this.”

If you are interested about the project, you can follow the link here: https://www.spacecenter.ch/igluna/ 

By Anastasia Kokori, EGU Press Assistant

References

Benavides, T. et al.: IGLUNA – Habitat in Ice: An ESA_Lab project hosted by the SSC. Geophysical Research Abstracts, Vol. 21, EGU2019-17807, 2019 (conference abstract)

Daeter, M. and Dingemans, A.: VU Science Experiments (VUSE) for Igluna, a science showcase for a Moon ice habitat. Geophysical Research Abstracts, Vol. 21, EGU2019-17500, 2019 (conference abstract)

De Winter, B. et al.: VUSE, VU Science Experiments at Igluna, a Science Showcase for a Moon Ice Habitat. 50th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference 2019 (LPI Contrib. No. 2132) (conference abstract)

Heemskerk, M. V. et al.: IGLUNA Habitat in Ice: An ESA_Lab project hosted by the Swiss Space Center. 50th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference 2019 (LPI Contrib. No. 2132) (conference abstract)

April GeoRoundUp: the best of the Earth sciences from the 2019 General Assembly

April GeoRoundUp: the best of the Earth sciences from the 2019 General Assembly

The EGU General Assembly 2019 took place in Vienna last month, drawing more than 16,000 participants from 113 countries. This month’s GeoRoundUp will focus on some of the unique and interesting stories that came out of research presented at the Assembly!

Major Stories

Glacial disappearing act in the European Alps

New research from a team of scientists estimated the future of all glaciers within the European Alps, and the results aren’t that hopeful. After running new simulations and analysing observational data, the researchers predict that, if we limit global warming below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, by 2100 glacier volume in the Alps would be roughly two-thirds less than levels seen today.

Furthermore, according to the new research, if we fail to put global warming in check, more than 90 percent of Europe’s glacier volume in the Alps will disappear by the end of the century. “In this pessimistic case, the Alps will be mostly ice free by 2100, with only isolated ice patches remaining at high elevation, representing 5 percent or less of the present-day ice volume,” says Matthias Huss, a researcher at ETH Zurich and co-author of the study.

Evolution of total glacier volume in the European Alps between 2003 and 2100. Credit: Zekollari et al., 2019, The Cryosphere.

The data also suggests that from now until 2050, about 50 percent of the present glacier volume will melt, regardless of how much greenhouse gas emissions we produce in the coming years. This is because glaciers are slow to respond to changes in climate conditions, and still reflect colder climates from the past. In addition to presenting their research at the EGU General Assembly, the team also published the results in The Cryosphere.

The search for the oldest ice announces their drill site

Ice-core extraction near Concordia station (Credit: Thibaut Vergoz, French Polar Institute, CNRS)

After three years of careful consideration, a collection of European ice and climate researchers have pinpointed the spot where they would most likely uncover the oldest ice core possible, one that dates back to 1.5 million years from today.

The consortium of researchers, also known as the Beyond-EPICA project, hopes to pull out a sample of ice containing a seamless record of Earth’s climate history. Such ice samples contain trapped air bubbles, some sealed off thousands to millions of years ago, thus providing undisturbed snapshots into Earth’s ancient atmospheres. Using this climate data, researchers can make predictions on how Earth’s will warm in the future.

At the General Assembly, the scientists formally announced that the drilling operation will be conducted 40 kilometres southwest from the Dome Concordia Station, which is run jointly by France and Italy. The team plans to collect a three km-long ice core from the site, nicknamed ‘Little Dome C,’ over the course of five years, then will spend at least an additional year examining the ice.

Map of Antarctica showing the areas surveyed by BE-OI and the selected drill site (Credit: British Antarctic Survey (BAS))

 

What you might have missed

Predicting the largest quakes on Earth

Scientists have long discussed how intense quakes can be on Earth, with some studies suggesting that Earth’s tectonic features cannot generate earthquakes larger than magnitude 10. However, new research conducted by Álvaro González Center from Mathematical Research in Barcelona, Spain estimates that subduction zones, regions where one tectonic plate is pushed under another, subsequently sinking into the mantle, have the potential to release 10.4 magnitude earthquakes. González’ analysis suggests that such events happen on average every 2,000 years.

“Such events would produce especially large tsunamis and long lasting shaking which would effect distant locations,” Gonzalez said to the Agence France-Presse.

His findings also propose that large asteroid impacts, such as the dinosaur-killing Chicxulub event 66 million years ago, may trigger even larger magnitude shaking. According to data analysis, shaking events reaching magnitude 10.5 or more likely happen on average once every 10 million years.

Where deadly heat will hit the hardest

Heatwaves and heat-related hazards are expected to be more prevalent and more severe as the Earth warms, and a team of researchers looked into which regions of the world will be the most vulnerable.

The scientists specifically analysed human exposure to ‘deadly heat,’ where temperatures as so high that humans aren’t able to cool down anymore. By examining data projections for future population growth and annual days of deadly heat, the researchers assessed which areas will be hit the hardest. They found that, if global warming isn’t limited to 2°C above pre-industrial levels, there will be a few ‘hots spots,’ where large populations are predicted to experience frequent days of deadly heat annually.

Dhaka, Bangladesh, is expected to experience significant exposure to deadly heat in the future, according to research presented at the EGU 2019 meeting. Credit: mariusz kluzniak via Flickr

The research results suggest that future deadly heat will most significantly impact the entire South Asia and South-East Asia region, Western Africa and the Caribbean. Sub-Saharan Africa in particular will experience big increases in deadly heat exposure, due to climate change and population growth.

The researchers also found that a minority of large cities in very poor countries will be the most affected by future heat conditions. “There is a big inequality of who takes the toll of deadly heat,” said Steffen Lohrey, a PhD student at the Technical University Berlin who presented the findings at the EGU meeting.

Europe and the Mediterranean at risk of malaria due to climate change

While malaria was eradicated in Europe and the Mediterranean in the 20th century, there have been an increasing number of new cases in this region of the world, primarily due to international travel and immigration. New research presented at the General Assembly by Elke Hertig, a professor at the University of Augsburg, Germany, suggests that Europe’s future climate may further increase the risk of local malaria recurrence and expansion.

Malaria is transmitted to humans by Anopheles mosquitos and these disease-carrying insects are very sensitive to temperature and precipitation conditions. In particular, these mosquitos thrive in areas with warm spring temperatures and high precipitation in the summer and autumn.

Using climate models, Hertig found that the malaria-carrying mosquito population will likely spread northward as Europe’s climate changes, reaching much of northern Europe by the end of the century. Alternatively, her models suggest that mosquito populations will decline in the Mediterranean regions, mainly due to decreases in summer and autumn rainfall.

A statistical analysis also revealed that, by the end of the century, disease transmission from mosquitoes will be the most effective in southern and south-eastern European regions, including parts of Spain, southern France, Italy, Greece, and the Balkan countries.

Other noteworthy stories

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Could beavers be responsible for long-debated deposits?

Could beavers be responsible for long-debated deposits?

Following her presentation at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly in Vienna, I caught up with geomorphologist and environmental detective Annegret Larsen from the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, about beavers, baffling sediments and a case she’s been solving for the past seven years.

Back in 2012 the German geomorphology community was seriously debating the source of buried black soils, a stark black layer of sediment found in floodplain deposits all over Europe. Such dark sediments are usually associated with organic, carbon-rich materials, like peat. But unlike the other dark deposits, these soils are low in organic carbon, leading to a wide spectrum of ideas about their origin.

“They’re almost everywhere, and many people have had big fights about them and where they come from. Fire might have played a role, or human impact, or a rising water table associated with changes in climate,” explains Larsen.

The soils themselves are quite variable. Some deposits are quite muddy, while some trap fragments of long-dead plants. “They look a little like the relic of a swamp, containing grassy vegetation, sticks, leaves and little nuts, and they’re mainly black,” said Larsen. At the University of Lausanne, Switzerland and the University of Manchester, UK, she and her colleagues have been studying the composition and chemistry of black soils in an effort to understand how they formed.

Recently, Larsen has uncovered a possible connection between the black soil deposits and European beaver habitats. She presented her findings at the annual EGU meeting earlier this month.

The accused: a European beaver. Credit: Per Harald Olson via Wikimedia Commons

The idea began to take shape while Larsen was driving within the Spessart region of Switzerland. During her travels, she had found the soil situated in environments where beaver populations had been dwelling for some 25 years.

“There are huge swamps, what we call beaver meadows. And the vegetation communities are just like the ones found in those deposits,” said Larsen.

This discovery led her to develop a field experiment with the aim to determine whether beavers could be responsible for these puzzling black deposits.

“It’s like a big mystery for me. To find out if the black floodplain soil really come from when there was a widespread beaver population, before humans eradicated the beaver, I need to understand what the beaver does nowadays, and that’s how I started the project.”

Larsen thinks the beaver-created landscapes change with age, and she has been keeping a close watch on four sites across Switzerland and Germany, where beaver communities have been established for up to 25 years.

The long-toothed mammals have striking impacts on the landscape, which differ depending on where they build their dam. Upstream architecture results in beaver cascades, a series of closely packed ponds, each separated by a beaver dam. Down river, efforts go into one ‘megadam’ that stretches across a slow, meandering section of the stream and cause it to spill out into a large swampy floodplain.

The cascades, Larsen describes, are pretty dynamic. “Sediment gets trapped behind each dam, then they get strained, breach and break, causing sediment to flush downstream. It’s collected by the next dam and that then overtops and then that breaks” and the process starts all over again.

One of Larsen’s field sites: the Distelbach beaver reach. Credit: Annegret Larsen

Beaver meadows begin as large expanses of water, ponds teeming with semi-aquatic vegetation. Over time, fine sediment gathers in the ponds. As the sediment builds up, the area becomes a swamp – a patchwork of shrubs, trees, running water and tough, grassy plants. “You definitely get an explosion in diversity, but it’s a complete change, the area becomes a wetland,” adds Larsen.

And the wetland contains plants that resemble those found in the buried floodplain soils.

“For me, it’s fascinating to think about how all our streams would have looked with a beaver in there: before humans impacted those streams, before humans eradicated the beaver, and before [humans] settled there. There must have been beavers everywhere. Every stream would have been a beaver stream. And a beaver stream looks totally different [to what we see today].”

With the deposits all over Europe, it isn’t hard to imagine that, in years past, beavers shaped the streams, swamps and landscapes of the continent. It’s feasible that these regions might have been swampy landscapes at one point in history.

So, are the beavers behind the black soils? “I think we’re on a good path to contribute to this discussion. It’s at least as reasonable as fire and climate,” she replies.

Larsen makes a strong case, but the jury, it seems, is still out.

By Sara Mynott, EGU Press Assistant