There’s no place on Earth exactly like Mars or the Moon, but there is one location that’s similar to both: Lanzarote. Its resemblance to the origins of everything have turned this Canary Island into the setting for films and books populated by dinosaurs, aliens and any kind of creature who’s natural environment is, or might be, an almost barren landscape. In real life, it’s just the same: the volcano isle draws in astronauts who, since 2015, have been carrying out Mars simulation exercises there, as they do at the Hawai’i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation Habitat.

Although Werner Herzog ruled out his original idea of using shots of Lanzarote to depict the landscape of another planet in Fata Morgana, María Lidón turned the island into Mars with Stranded. That likeness to the red planet, an inspiration to film directors, was already evident in ancient place names. Before the Genovese sailor Lanceloto Malocello arrived to the island in the fourteenth century, Lanzarote was known to its native inhabitants as Titerogakaet. Apparently, this name is Berber in origin. Various possible meanings have been suggested, all of which allude to the landscape: “the burnt island” or “coloured mountain”. That said, Lanzarote has been millions of years in the making.

The Atlantic opened up, Africa moved like the hands of a clock and the lava began to flow, still without breaking through the surface. These shifts produced the Canary Islands, which began to appear during the Jurassic Period and took shape as the planet spat out lava, alkaline rock and basalt. The archipelago’s origins have even been linked to the mythical island of Atlantis, although there is no reliable evidence that these islands are the peaks of the submerged continent referred to by Plato. Lanzarote, which emerged 15 million years ago, has experienced fewer eruptions than its neighbours but of a much greater magnitude. And with a total 2,141 days of activity, that makes it the most volcano-shaped landscape in the Canaries.

The Ajaches and Famara formations were the first to appear. The climate was not yet arid and the lava dragged the water which fed the island’s forests from its peaks, creating aquifers. This whole process gradually shaped Lanzarote’s martian landscape, an open book in varying shades of ochre. Volcanic activity, a virtual absence of precipitations, along with wind and stable temperatures have created a mantle practically devoid of vegetation, dotted with volcanoes, hardened lava flows, caves, layers of tephra, valleys, cliffs, gorges, islets, beaches and dunes. In 1993, the island was declared a Biosphere Reserve and in 2015, a UNESCO Global Geopark.

Astronaut school

There are three ways to explore Mars: the study of martian meteorites, missions and Mars analogue sites. The latter are not exact replicas of the planet because there’s nowhere on Earth that’s identical. However, their geological conditions enable us to study the red planet with a certain level of accuracy.

The European Space Agency (ESA) was searching for one such analogue, a location to carry out its PANGEAE project to train astronauts as if they were on Mars. The Canary Islands, with their volcanic regions and scarce vegetation, had already provided the setting for interplanetary battles on screen. And in the 1970s, during the Apollo 17 mission, photos of Timanfaya were used to help envisage what the Moon would be like.

Jesús Martínez Frías, a geologist from the Geosciences Institute and PANGEAE instructor, has been working in the Canaries since 1987 and in 1999 set forward, “for the first time, their relevance for planetary sciences and astrobiology.” Working together with La Laguna University and the Museum of Natural History and Mankind, the first location where such similarities were found was in Tenerife, specifically, Anaga.

The ESA drew up a list of locations with volcanic and sedimentary geology and impact craters. “Lanzarote is one of them, with the additional advantage that it’s accessible all year round and has stable conditions,” explains Loredana Bessone, ESA instructor and PANGEAE project director.

Although Martínez Frías underlines that the site is not identical, because there’s no exact equivalent on Earth either to the Moon or Mars, “not even in the past, when it had a more active geological system than now,” he states that “there are certain areas where we can carry out scientifically analogous tests, trial new models and planetary exploration equipment.” This geologist, who has worked as a consultant with NASA and the ESA on their most recent Mars missions, considers Lanzarote a “scientific pearl,” and “a true geological museum and natural laboratory in which to carry out this research.”

Volcanoes and water, he says, are the key elements which make it possible to establish a parallelism. Likewise, the predominance of basalt and the morphological processes which the island has experienced allow us to interpret what Mars may have been like in the past, as well as its possible habitability, without leaving the Canaries.

“In terms of the Moon, its importance lies in being able to carry out equipment tests and create lunar regolith simulates,” he adds. Regolith is a loose covering of rock, some 4,000 years old, produced by a meteorite crashing into a surface. On the Moon, it forms a kind of carpet, packed with rocky deposits, which covers the whole surface of the Earth’s satellite.

Loredana Bessone asserts that while “currently, the Moon and Mars are geologically very stable and volcanic activity has been an important process for both,” in Lanzarote we encounter “one of the places on Earth where vegetation has not covered the surface, leaving very accessible moon and martian landscapes.” Making mistakes here is essential: “We’ll learn more, in order to avoid finding ourselves on the surface of the Moon faced with unforeseen situations,” underlines this astronaut instructor.

After two years of positive results, both Bessone and Martínez Frías hope that this course — which the Spanish astronaut Pedro Duque and the Italian, Luca Parmitano both participate in — will be repeated this year. So once again, Lanzarote will become Mars for a few days.

The opportunities provided by this volcanic isle and its martian landscape go beyond the fields of planetary science and astrobiology. That’s why the Lanzarote Island Government and the Geosciences Institute have reached an agreement which aims to turn part of the Geopark into a “Mars Area”. Aside from scientific and educational activities, its objective is to promote geo-tourism on the island. A way for everyone to visit Mars and the Moon, without having to leave the Earth’s atmosphere.

Lanzarote in science fiction movies

One Million Years B.C. – 1966 – Don Chaffey

4..3..2..1…morte — 1967 – Primo Zeglio

Fata Morgana – 1971 – Werner Herzog

The Mysterious Island of Captain Nemo – 1973 – Juan Antonio Bardem y Henri Colpi

Enemy Mine -1985 – Wolfgang Petersen

Stranded – 2002 – María Lidón

Clash of the Titans – 2010 – Louis Leterrier


Photo: ESA