|Immersion into the Earth, |
the first shaft of Spluga della Preta
Rome might be very close for a Japanese manager on an international flight, but unthinkably far for a property-less nomad living in the Sahara desert. For humans, space on Earth expands not through the laws of physics, but according to social status and the availability of technology.
Returning to the Universe, even if our astronauts travel at 28,000 km/h, it will take them over six months to reach Mars. Their communications from the red planet will take up to 20 minutes to reach Earth, even travelling at the speed of light. They will have to wait a further 20 minutes for our reply, and in the event of an emergency, nobody will be able to reach Mars and rescue them in a matter of hours.
This sense of immense distance is really unusual in our modern world. But surprisingly, some humans can claim to have experienced something similar: through exploring remote caves under the surface of the Earth.
|Exploring the glacier cave "El Cenote" in the heart of Dolomities. |
The most recent and extreme explorations have reached depths of over 2000 metres below the surface (e.g. the Voronya cave in Abkhazia) and travel many tens of kilometres from the entrance. For example, in the Sneznaya cave, Russian cavers need about five days of progression to reach the camp at the bottom of the cave and around seven to come back to the Sun with all their equipment. Their explorations inside this cave can mean spending more than one month underground, with no communication to the outside world.
|Exploring the frozen depths of Dark Star cave |
in the Boysun Tau mountain range, Uzbekistan
So, where is the most distant place on Earth? I suspect most people would say “the Antipodes”. But this is not true, because the places that take the longest time to reach on Earth are the depths of caves. Inside caves, there are no fast means of transport and no one can help you in the event of an emergency: if an accident happens, the rescue team could take tens of hours or even days to reach you. Lost in these labyrinths, explorers feel a real sense of loneliness and isolation. You are thousands of miles further than in any other place you could be on the Earth’s surface.
That’s why the European Space Agency organized the CAVES course, which probably represents one of the most challenging experiences for an astronaut who may be sent on an interplanetary mission in the future. The exploration of the underground world is a great analogue of these long-distance, long-term space missions.
But just how far we can go? Maybe this is the question that both troubles and inspires astronauts and cavers alike.