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Astrogeology program prepares future astronauts for space missions

Posted at 1:00 PM, Dec 16, 2022

Every rock tells a story of past volcanic eruptions, meteoric impacts, and giant earthquakes. What we learn on Earth can also be applied to other planets. It involves what's called terrestrial analogs.

"I personally work on the Curiosity and Perseverance Mars Rovers," said physical scientist Ryan Anderson, who is with the U.S. Geological Survey Astrogeology Science Center. "I'm involved with the laser instruments that are on top of their heads. They zap rocks with the laser and tell us what they're made of."

Analogs are places on Earth with geological, biological, or environmental conditions similar to those found on other planets. Anderson says there are many terrestrial analogs in northern Arizona, including Sunset Crater.

"It's useful to have these analogs because we can't send people to everywhere we want to study in the solar system," Anderson said. "You know, we've been to the moon, but just a couple of places. It's really hard to get there and the moon is the closest thing."

The USGS Astrogeology Science Center launched a program this year that will put extra attention toward studying the similarities and differences between analogs and sites on other planets.

USGS Geologist Amber Gullikson, an expert in analogs, says they were first used as training grounds for the Apollo missions in the 1960s. Now, they're being used again so future astronauts can map out best practices and make space missions as efficient as possible.

"To understand, you know, the length of a traverse, how long it takes to get there, to test out the various instruments that you're going to use in order to collect samples," Gullikson said. "Also, how long it will take to collect those samples."

"We're really in the business of maximizing the science return from NASA's missions," Anderson said. "And now we're coming full circle because NASA's planning to go back to the moon again, and we're right there with them, helping them train and practice and get ready to go again."