Why astronauts are flocking to the Spanish island of Lanzarote

Kneeling on the edge of a deep crater, astronaut Alexander Gerst uses a chisel to collect a sample of volcanic rock which he carefully puts inside a white plastic bag. Gerst is not on the Moon, even if it looks like it.

Los Volcanes Natural Park
The unique landscape of Los Volcanes Natural Park is the result of the last volcanic eruption on the island of Lanzarote. Photo by Jan Brennenstuhl / Unsplash

He is in the middle of Los Volcanes Natural Park on the island of Lanzarote in Spain’s Canary Islands, off the northwest coast of Africa.

With its blackened lava fields, craters and volcanic tubes, Lanzarote’s geology can be uncannily similar to that of the Moon and Mars – so much so that the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA have for years been sending astronauts to the island to train.

“This place has lavas that are very, very similar to the ones that we find on the Moon,” Gerst, a 46-year-old German astronaut with the ESA, told AFP.

He said the island was “a unique training ground”.

Gerst, who has completed two missions on the International Space Station, is one of about a dozen astronauts who have taken part in the ESA’s Pangaea training course in Lanzarote over the past decade.

Named after the ancient supercontinent, Pangaea seeks to give astronauts as well as space engineers and geologists the skills needed for expeditions to other planets.

Trainees learn how to identify rock samples and collect them, do on-the-spot DNA analysis of microorganisms, and communicate their findings back to mission control.

“Here, they are put into the field to experience the exploration of a terrain, which is something they will have to do on the Moon,” said Francesco Sauro, the technical director of the course.

Six-year eruption

Gerst said the Pangaea training course, which he has just completed, helps prepare astronauts to work in a remote setting on their own.

“If we run into a problem, we have to solve it ourselves,” he said.

He completed the Pangaea training along with Stephanie Wilson, one of NASA’s most senior astronauts. Both are possible candidates for NASA’s next crewed Moon missions.

Named for the goddess who was Apollo’s twin sister in ancient Greek mythology, NASA’s Artemis programme aims to return astronauts to the Moon’s surface as early as 2025, though many experts believe that time frame might slip.

Twelve astronauts walked on the Moon during six Apollo missions from 1969 to 1972, the only spaceflights yet to place humans on the lunar surface.

NASA and the ESA also regularly use Lanzarote’s landscape of twisted mounds of solidified lava to test Mars Rovers – remote controlled vehicles designed to travel on the surface of the Red Planet.

Lanzarote’s unique geography stems from a volcanic eruption that began in 1730 and lasted six years, spewing ash and lava over large swathes of land.

Considered one of the greatest volcanic cataclysms in recorded history, the eruption devastated over 200 square kilometres (77 square miles) of terrain – about a quarter of the island which is currently home to around 156,000 people.

‘See far away’

While there are other volcanic areas such as Hawaii that could also be used for astronaut training, Lanzarote has the advantage that it has little vegetation due to its desert-like climate.

“You have a lot of different types of volcanic rocks in Lanzarote. And they are exposed. You don’t have trees,” said Pangaea project leader Loredana Bessone.

“You can see far away, as if you were on the Moon,” she told AFP.

The Canary Islands is making a big contribution to space exploration in another way too. The island of La Palma is home to one of the world’s largest optical telescopes.

Located on a peak, the Great Canary Telescope is able to spot some of the faintest, most distant objects in the Universe.

La Palma was selected as the site for the telescope because of its cloud-free skies and relatively low light pollution.

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What’s the law on camping in Spain?

Spain is full of beautiful spots in nature, but is it possible to camp anywhere you want? What are the rules for wild camping, the potential loopholes and the fines to avoid?

What's the law on camping in Spain?

Camping is a popular pastime in Spain and there are many great dedicated campsites dotted all over the country.

But with so many natural and national parks, mountain ranges, forests and rivers, many people want to make the most of them and wild camp overnight.

So, is wild camping permitted in Spain?

Unfortunately, the short answer is that wild camping in any area in Spain is generally forbidden.

The reasons for restricting camping in natural areas ranging from health and safety to security and respecting the environment.

The general rule is that you must find an appropriate campsite to stay the night.

READ ALSO: Can you camp or sleep over at any beaches in Spain?

What about camping in a campervan or caravan instead of a tent?

Wild camping, even in a campervan, is not allowed, however, you are allowed to sleep in your own vehicle overnight, according to article 93 of the General Road Traffic Regulations and Manual 08/V-74. This means that you can actually park your campervan somewhere and sleep in it, as long as you don’t appear to be camping.

Practically it means that you can’t set up awnings, chairs and tables or barbecues outside your caravan and must look as though you are simply parked.

Be aware that parking by the coast is forbidden. General Traffic Regulations state that they “prohibit parking and circulation, as well as camping and camping sites, 20 meters from the beach in an urban area or 100 meters in a rural area, counted from the seashore”.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Spain’s campervan and motorhome rules

Are there any exceptions? What if I camp without a tent?

Vivac in Spanish or bivvying, as it’s referred to in English, is the practice of sleeping outside in the wild without a tent or a campervan. This is a bit of a grey area when it comes to camping law in Spain and you may be able to get away with it in certain rural areas where you can’t be seen. 

Are there any other situations I might get away with wild camping?

Wild camping is strictly prohibited in national and natural parks, on beaches, or by the coast, but there are similar grey areas when it comes to free camping on private land.

Technically you can camp in someone’s garden or field if you get permission from the owner. Remember, they may ask for a small fee for doing so.

Wild camping may be more accepted in some rural areas such as in the Pyrenees, but remember it’s still illegal so you can be fined if you’re caught.

What are the fines for camping illegally?

If you are found to be wild camping, you can be slapped with some hefty fines. According to the Coastal Law, you can be fined from €40 for each metre square of space you occupy if you’re caught camping near the coast.

You can also be fined between €50 and €150 for not parking properly near the coast.

Like most rules in Spain though, each region has its own when it comes to how much you can be fined. Here’s what you might have to pay for wild camping in nature in certain regions.

Madrid: €60.10 up to €601.01.

San Sebastián municipality: From €50 to €3,000.

Asturias: From €60.10 to €601.01. 

Murcia: Anywhere up to a maximum of €1000.

Valencia: Between €751 and €1500 for camping on the beach during high season. 

Catalonia: A minimum of €60.10, but if you’re found camping in natural areas, such as the Delta del Ebro, this can rise to €6000, the highest camping penalty in Spain. 

Extremadura: From €30 to €150.

Granada provice: €100. 

Be aware that the fines could be higher for wild camping in natural or protected areas.

General camping rules 

Campfires or bonfires are strictly prohibited in wild and natural areas, particularly due to the risk of forest fires, which caused devastation across many regions of Spain in the summer of 2022. Starting a fire is considered a criminal offence and you may get a lot more than just a fine if it gets out of hand. 

Remember to take all rubbish away with you and leave the place exactly as you found it and to bury all human waste away from water sources.