Swiss underground laboratory stands in as Moon base

19 August 2021

A group of six students recently spent nine days living in the Grimsel underground research laboratory in Switzerland in a simulated mission to the Moon. During the mission, the "astronauts" taking part in the Asclepios I project undertook several scientific experiments, the results of which could be applied to future actual space missions.

An "astronaut" enters the mission's Moon base within the Grimsel underground laboratory (Image: Valentin Flauraud/Keystone)

The mission was carried out and organised by students - most of them from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne, EPFL) - under the umbrella of the student organisation Space@yourService. This non-profit organisation aims to promote space sciences to students and the general public, with a focus on astrophysics, space technologies and astronautics. The organisation is collaborating with the Swiss Space Center, the EPFL Space Center and the EPFL Laboratory of Astrophysics.

The Asclepios project is a programme of analogue missions designed by students for students, under the mentorship of trained professionals. This interdisciplinary project unites students and scientists from all around the world to achieve a common goal: successfully perform 'do-it-yourself' space missions. It seeks to simulate short-term space missions on another celestial body, such as the Moon or Mars, thus paving the way to the future space exploration of our solar system.

Asclepios missions are described as "human-sized analogue space missions" which are open only to students with the goal of arousing their interest in future space endeavours as astronauts, space engineers or members of mission control. The project's main objective is education, which is carried out in collaboration with project partners in terms of workshops and analogue mission training, and by the EPFL Space center as part of semester projects. In addition, the platform allows numerous laboratories across the world to test prototypes and the development of experiments useful for the exploration of the Moon or Mars, making scientific research the second goal of Asclepios.

The students in the first Asclepios mission - carried out 12-20 July - were supported by various companies and organisations, including Switzerland's national radioactive waste disposal cooperative Nagra. It made part of its Grimsel rock laboratory available to the students and supported the construction of the lunar base and the implementation of the mission.

Tunnel network

The Grimsel laboratory - located 450 metres beneath the Juchlistock mountain in the Swiss Alps - was established in 1984 as a centre for underground research and development supporting a wide range of research projects on the geological disposal of high-level radioactive waste. It provides an environment which is analogous to that of a nuclear waste repository site. At the site - mainly composed of a network of underground tunnels, about one kilometre in total length - experiments have been conducted to test the long-term behaviour of engineered barriers, to develop and test tools to confirm the suitability of potential geological host rocks and to test the models used to predict its performance as a long-term barrier to radionuclide release.

There are tunnel systems on the moon that were created millions of years ago by the escape of lava. A future base on the moon could be built in such a tunnel system. "For this reason, the tunnel system at the Grimsel rock laboratory was perfect for simulating a mission to the moon," said Sebasthian Ogalde, a Chilean student who took part in the mission.

The team was composed of the six members of the astronaut crew, plus two back-ups. The crew performed an analogue space mission in all its components: training and preparation; maintaining and performing repairs to their base if needed; conducting scientific experiments; and communicating with the ground team of the mission control centre, as would a regular astronaut crew.

Asclepios collaborates with many laboratories, companies and scientists who put their systems in its base,where the astronauts conduct their experiments in-situ. These experiments cover three main areas: operations (testing protocols and experiments to assess adequacy of procedures established in laboratories); human aspects (collecting psychological and physiological data to see how body and mind may affect space missions); and product testing (testing systems and products designed to be used in a space mission).

"In most of our experiments, interdisciplinary scientists from all over the world work together, as in the Asclepios project," said Ingo Blechschmidt, head of the Nagra rock laboratory. "The ability to work together in teams like this is extremely important in today's science. It was a lot of fun to support these young and super committed scientists in the planning and implementation of this unique project."

Researched and written by World Nuclear News