The rocky, volcanic surface scree of Mt Etna on the Italian island of Sicily is the closest thing to an alien landscape we’ve got here on Earth.
As such, it’s become the testing site for a range of new space rovers that could one day be exploring the surfaces of both the moon and Mars.
Deployed by the German Aerospace Center, the rovers are busy getting to grips with the unstable geography, high winds and constant seismic activity in order to better understand what kind of robotic equipment is needed for space exploration.
“We chose Etna because the volcanic, the seismic [activity] here is near that [which] we could expect it to be on the lunar surface,” researcher Armin Welder told Reuters.
Although led by the German space agency, the testing program – known as ROBEX (Robotic Exploration of Extreme Environments) – has had input from British, American and Italian specialists.
As well as learning lessons for moon and Mars landings, the rovers are also helping out Earth-based scientists. Seismic-monitoring equipment has been mounted to them in order to give volcanologists more data about Mt. Etna’s rumblings.
“This is aimed at simulating a future, hypothetical landing mission on the moon or Mars and they use a lot of robots which are there to transport and install different instruments,” Boris Behncke, a volcanologist from Italy’s National Volcanology Institute, based near Mt. Etna said.