Scientists have successfully mapped the inside of a lava tube in Iceland using technology intended for research on the Moon and Mars.


You can actually visit the same lava tube described in this article. Find out how here.


Credit: NASA/Astrobotic/SETI Institute/Dubai Future Foundation/Lee et al. 2019

The SETI Institute, along with Astrobotic Technology Inc., recently tested tech at the Lofthellir Ice cave near Lake Mývatn in North Iceland.

The team was investigating the practical application of using drones to 3D map caves and lava tubes. The success of this experiment makes the prospect of learning about both the Mars and lunar surfaces even more exciting.

Image from Lofthellir Ice Cave Tour from Lake Myvatn

Space scientists have known for quite some time that caves and lava tubes exist on the Moon and Mars. Most of these cave’s openings are in volcanic terrain, created as a result of extreme temperatures or asteroid impacts.

The formation of these interplanetary caves and tunnels is not unlike the lava tubes found in Iceland.

The team, led by SETI scientist Pascal Lee, equipped a drone with LiDAR technology. LiDAR surveys an area using a pulsed laser. The information collected from this is used to make 3D models.

SETI and other space institutes are interested in the exploration of lava caves on the Moon and Mars because areas like this can provide shelter from harsh environments. They might also be places where water collects.

If water turns out to be present, caves may prove to be essential resources for future explorers. They could even provide fuel sources because the molecules that make water can be broken down to create rocket fuel.

Credit: NASA/Astrobotic/SETI Institute/Lee et al. 2019

In their tests, SETI was able to fly their drone into Lofthellir and accurately map it within minutes. This success will pave the way for future LiDAR drones which will not use propellers but instead rely on small thrusters due to the lower gravity levels on the Moon and Mars.


Want to see Mývatn for yourself? Find out how you can here.


Iceland has previously played a significant role in space exploration. The original Apollo mission trained in the Central Highlands of Iceland. The areas of Askja in the Dyngjufjöll were chosen because of the similarities in landscape to the moon.

Astronaut training outside Húsavík in the 1960s

Astronaut training in the 1960s in Iceland. Credit: Exploration Museum of Iceland

Last year NASA announced plans to return to the moon and place a space station in its orbit. There has not been a human-crewed mission to the lunar surface since 1973.

More recently NASA has utilised the unique landscapes of Iceland as the setting for simulations to prepare for crewed missions to Mars.

Credit: European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst Twitter

It’s believed a human trip to Mars would take over 300 days. Chances of getting there with the least fuel used depends on when the mission is launched.

Launch windows to minimize fuel use are infrequent. The next low energy launch window is expected in 2033, which seems to have ignited a completely new space race.

With all of this interest in the Moon and Mars, it seems Iceland will continue to play a significant role in human space exploration.


Can you tell the difference between photos of Iceland and photos of outer space? Test your knowledge with our Iceland Or Outer Space – Can YOU Tell The Difference? Quiz