HomeScienceOuter SpaceIceland tells tourists it's like an alien planet. A NASA scientist...

Iceland tells tourists it’s like an alien planet. A NASA scientist agrees

Iceland is like Mars – if the Red Planet had hot tubs. That’s the brazen idea behind a new pitch from the Icelandic tourism board, which says people don’t need a spaceship to see otherworldly sights like red rocks, black sands and subglacial volcanoes. In addition, they note that there is a lot of oxygen in Iceland.

To get the message across, they launched a promotional video and a space billboard with the slogan “Iceland. Better than space.”

Space tourism has been grab headlines for years now. But people can find a similar experience in Iceland — at a fraction of the cost and without the baggage of a large carbon footprint, Sigríður Dögg Guðmundsdóttir, head of Visit Iceland, tells NPR.

NASA agrees: The agency has repeatedly used Iceland as a moon stand-in, and is doing so again as it prepares astronauts for new off-world missions.

“Iceland is a great analog for both the moon and Mars,” NASA’s says Kelly Youngwho researches the exploration of planetary surfaces and who has done geological fieldwork in Iceland.

Iceland vs space

“From experiencing the Northern Lights in Reykjavik and relaxing in a geothermal spa to dining in a tomato greenhouse, there are new experiences of joy and wonder waiting to be discovered,” says Guðmundsdóttir.

She adds, “Your enjoyment of these experiences would be greatly diminished by wearing a space suit.”

/ Visit Iceland


Visit Iceland

Iceland launched a space billboard into the stratosphere in an effort to remind space tourists — and everyone else — to explore the beauty of Earth.

Of course, space allows humans to escape the Earth’s gravity. Overrated, says Guðmundsdóttir.

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“For starters, gravity gives you water,” she notes. “Without gravity, there are no geothermal pools to relax in. Geothermal pools, on the other hand, give you the feeling of weightlessness.”

Iceland launched a space billboard

The country recently launched a space billboard as part of its new tourism push. A weather balloon carried an electronic tablet into the stratosphere, carrying an advertisement and a camera to capture an image of the “Better Than Space” message against the curve of the Earth as a backdrop.

In case you’re wondering, it’s not in orbit.

“We’re not big on space junk and would never put anything on a trajectory around the Earth for the sake of marketing,” says Guðmundsdóttir. “That would be irresponsible.”

“Using a weather balloon means we didn’t use fuel to launch the space billboard,” she says, adding that the balloon took off from part of the country, deflated at a predetermined altitude and was recovered near the Lake Mývatn in the northeast. .

NASA and Hollywood have used Iceland’s alien landscapes

Iceland’s unique features have long made it a destination for scientists, who come to study everything from single-celled organisms that live in extreme conditions to geological processes that play out on an epic scale.

Before NASA sent its first astronauts to the moon in the 1960s, sent them to Icelandwhere the island’s volcanic craters and rocky landscapes allow them to practice on the lunar surface.

“An astronaut reported after returning from his trip to the lunar surface that Iceland was the most lunar-like of the field locations he visited during training,” Young tells NPR.

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Glaciers and volcanoes often interact in Iceland - a relationship that is rare elsewhere on Earth.  This satellite image from NASA shows a glacier in Iceland's Vatnajökull National Park, with volcanic ash embedded in it.

/ NASA Earth Observatory


NASA Earth Observatory

Glaciers and volcanoes often interact in Iceland – a relationship that is rare elsewhere on Earth. This satellite image from NASA shows a glacier in Iceland’s Vatnajökull National Park, with volcanic ash embedded in it.

In July, Young was part of a NASA contingent that visited the same sites as the Apollo crews. Two astronauts performed Artemis spacewalk simulations, she says, with a view to more training for the upcoming lunar mission there.

Iceland’s unique features allow astronauts to practice navigating in a lunar environment, says Young. They can also test how tools and equipment can interact with the moon’s regolith — the mix of soil and rocks on the lunar surface.

Those features have also helped Iceland evoke other worlds in movies and TV, notes Guðmundsdóttir.

“Iceland often represents space in movies, because of its otherworldly nature,” she says, citing titles ranging from Star Wars’ Villain One and The power awakens until Star Trek Into Darkness. In front of interstellar, it portrayed two different planets. The country loves a running list from its star.

Tourism slumped during the worst days of the pandemic

Global tourism took a huge hit in the first two years of the pandemic. But Iceland has continued to promote its holiday appeal — and it seems to be enjoying the pent-up demand.

“This year we expect about 90% of the pre-pandemic visitor numbers,” says Guðmundsdóttir. “This is not the case for all countries,” she adds, pointing out that the UN World Tourism Organization puts the world tourism average at 57% of its pre-COVID level.

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Tourism is an essential part of the Icelandic economy, she says: while it accounted for 8% of the national GDP between 2016 and 2019, its share fell to 3.6% in 2020 and 4.2% in 2021.

There is one final area where Guðmundsdóttir sees an advantage for her country. While both space and Iceland offer vast expanses of beauty, space offers little cultural exchange. After all, she says, “the real value of travel is in the interactions you create with other people.”

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