September 23, 2016

Like the surface of the Moon – robotic exploration of extreme environments on Mount Etna

What do the Moon and Mount Etna have in common? An extreme surface as well as extreme conditions. Twenty-one scientists from the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) are using the harsh conditions on the volcano to test technologies for future Solar System exploration missions. In choosing Mount Etna, the scientists have selected a special scenario that meets the geological requirements of an actual Moon mission. "Critical core components of such a mission will be tested and validated," explains Armin Wedler, deputy spokesperson for the Helmholtz Association's 'Robotic Exploration of Extreme Environments' (ROBEX) Alliance and head of robotics activities on Mount Etna. "We are preparing for the large-scale ROBEX demonstration mission in 2017."

Preparation for the 2017 Moon analogue mission

In 2017, the final year of the ROBEX Alliance, demonstration missions will be conducted to show the progress made jointly by deep-sea and aerospace researchers. In particular, the complex interplay between various robotic systems both in the deep ocean near Spitsbergen and on a 'Moon-analogue landscape' will be explored. DLR's researchers are preparing for the latter on Mount Etna at an altitude of over 2600 metres for 10 days.

"We are testing the installation of an active seismic network on the lunar surface. This would make it possible to, for the first time, determine the internal structure of the Moon and the composition of its upper layers," explains Wedler. Previously unanswered questions regarding the existence and composition of a central core of the Moon could also be answered, as well as those regarding seismic activity.

Stationary and mobile

During the first days, Wedler and his team assembled the core components of the system: a container to store the system overnight, a mobile home on Mount Etna with permission from the local authorities and a control centre in Catania; stationary and mobile components were placed on the lava surface.

A combination consisting of a stationary system – the RODIN lander – together with several mobile elements – among them the 'Remote Unit' instrument box and the Lightweight Rover Unit (LRU) – has been developed, built and set up by researchers from the DLR Institute of Planetary Research, the DLR Institute of Space Systems and the DLR Robotics and Mechatronics Center. The wheeled and flying robots constitute the mobile components. "Using the flying robots, the area can be surveyed during the field test; with the wheeled robots, the instrument boxes containing the seismometers can be autonomously placed on the lava surface. Using hammer blows, seismic activity is generated artificially and there is natural seismic activity from the volcano," explains Martina Wilde, scientific coordinator at Helmholtz Association ROBEX. The communication link from the control centre in Catania to Mount Etna was established by researchers from DLR Space Operations and Astronaut Training (RB).

The stationary system should serve as a central part for energy supply and data exchange, the mobile systems ‭ ‬as units ‭ ‬to perform the actual scientific exploration in the deep sea or on the Moon. "Here on Mount Etna, a wind speed of force seven and sometimes eight already constitutes a challenge, for both the researchers and the systems. For example, the antenna used for radio communications with the control centre has had to be realigned several times." According to Wedler: "Protecting the environment and nature is a top priority in our tests. We are very grateful to the local authorities for supporting us in terms of the organisational aspects in advance and here at the Mount Etna UNESCO World Heritage Site."

DLR is collaborating with the local authorities – the Parco Dell'Etna and the Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia (INGV) – thereby obtaining the appropriate licences and permits to carry out the tests on Mount Etna. The company Funivia dell'Etna S.p.A. is providing the researchers with logistical support on site with use of its cable cars and road transport.

The ROBEX Alliance

The Helmholtz Association's 'Robotic Exploration of Extreme Environments' (ROBEX) Alliance brings together aerospace research and deep-sea research for the first time in the world. A total of 16 institutions from across Germany – coordinated by the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI) – are jointly developing technologies designed to improve the future exploration of highly inaccessible terrain with extreme environmental conditions, such as the deep ocean, Earth's polar regions, the Moon and other celestial bodies.

The overarching goal of the ROBEX Alliance is to provide these combined systems with innovative technologies for energy exchange and data transfer, in addition to making them as autonomous as possible.


Miriam Poetter

Corporate Communications, Oberpfaffenhofen, Augsburg, Weilheim
German Aerospace Center (DLR)
Corporate Communications
Münchener Straße 20, 82234 Weßling
Tel: +49 8153 28-2297

Armin Wedler

German Aerospace Center (DLR)
Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics
Mechatronic Systems
Münchener Straße 20, 82234 Oberpfaffenhofen-Weßling