Can’t go to the moon with NASA? Canada’s Mistastin Crater is the next best thing.

Can’t go to the moon with NASA? Canada’s Mistastin Crater is the next best thing.

Earth’s Mystastin Crater contains large amounts of bright white rock on most of the Moon’s surface

Canadian astronaut Joshua Kutrick and NASA astronaut Matthew Dominik climb Discovery Hill at Mistastin Crater.
Canadian astronaut Joshua Kutrick and NASA astronaut Matthew Dominik climb Discovery Hill at Mistastin Crater. (Photo by Gordon Osinski/Photo by Gordon Osinski)


Most of us will never go to the moon, but we have the next best thing in our backyard: Canada. Among the ice hockey, maple syrup and unusual civility, the country also boasts one of the best craters for exploring the moon without getting in a spaceship.

You may never have heard of Mistastin Crater in northern Newfoundland and Labrador (and I’m guessing many Canadians would forgive you, huh?), but there are a few reasons why it fits the moon well.

Like most of my dating life, the remote location of the crater is isolated from most people and mimics the loneliness felt on the moon; the structure is similar to what you would find on many lunar craters; and the area contains rare rocks that are eerily similar to what astronauts find on the moon.

These qualities make it a suitable training ground for potential astronauts on NASA’s Artemis mission that plans to land astronauts on the moon as early as 2025. On Wednesday, NASA took a significant step toward returning to the moon and launched an uncrewed test flight called Artemis I, which will not land on the surface but will remain in lunar orbit for up to 25 1/2 days to demonstrate that the rocket and spacecraft can fly safely.

“This crater in Labrador wasn’t even known as a crater during the Apollo missions,” said Gordon Osinski, a planetary geologist at Canada’s Western University who has guided astronauts around the crater. “I would love to see every astronaut who eventually steps on the moon come to Mistastin.”

Mistastin, known locally as Kamestastin, is located in the spiritual and traditional hunting grounds of the Mushuau Innu First Nation and requires their approval to visit.

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The crater is essentially in the “middle of nowhere,” said planetary geologist Cassandra Marion, who has been to the site six times. There is no official airstrip and visitors usually land in a small unpressurized cargo plane on a gravel area with bushes – if there is no large rock in the way. It is often rainy and windy. When it’s not windy it’s buggy with lots of biting black flies.

Located in the Canadian Arctic, the rugged terrain is a mix of taiga and tundra. Black spruce and alder trees live at lower elevations, while moss occurs near riverbeds and at higher elevations. And then everywhere in the tundra there are little tasty blueberries. If you’re not careful where you sit, Marion said, you could end up with a “purple butt.”

“She’s a cruel mistress in a way, but I’d go back,” said Marion. “It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. You feel like you’re the only one there for miles.”

In September, Marion and Osinski took two astronauts to Mistastine Crater for geology training and to identify rocks they might see on the moon. Many of the rocks are accessible through outcrops or rock walls that appeared millions of years ago.

The Mistastin Crater was formed when an asteroid crashed about 36 million years ago and left a significant 18-mile (28 km) indentation in the ground that is visible today. Osinski said such large craters, such as this one, are called “complex craters” and are common on the surface of the moon.

Complex craters are shallower and flatter, instead of a bowl-shaped depression like the one in Arizona Meteorite crater where the astronauts also train. Like many lunar complex craters, Mistastin also has a mountain in the middle called the central peak.

“This crater in Labrador is not only a complex impact crater, it’s relatively well preserved,” Osinski said. “I’ve been to it many times and it’s still very neat when you walk up to the edge and then you literally peek into this massive hole in the ground.”

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We know being in Mistastin Crater isn’t exactly like the moon Unlike the moon, we have wind, water and WiFi. In fact, modern-day Mistastin may appear unmoonlike because it contains a lake (covering about half the size of the original impact crater), possibly the result of drained glaciers from the last Ice Age. But don’t let the lake fool you.

A great resemblance to our lunar friend lies in its rocks. It is one of only two craters on Earth that contain large amounts of a rock called anorthosite. The other is the heavily eroded structure of the Maniquagan impact in Quebec, making the much younger, better-preserved Mistastin crater a preferred choice for research and astronaut training.

While anorthosite is rare on Earth, it is common on the lunar surface. You may never have uttered its name, but you’ve seen it every time you look up at the moon: The rock is the brightly colored, highly reflective parts widely visible on the moon’s surface called lunar mountains.

“Part of the reason we see so much around the Moon is simply the way the Moon formed,” said Julie Stopar, a lunar geologist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute at the Association for Space Research of Universities.

Compared to our home planet, the surface of the moon is mainly sculpted by impact craters and volcanism.

According to a popular formation theory, the moon came together when a Mars-sized body slammed into a young Earth near the beginning of our solar system’s formation about 4.6 billion years ago. Stoppar said hot debris from around Earth coalesced into the moon, covering the young moon in an ocean of magma — “basically just lava, lava everywhere.”

In a simplified explanation, Stopar said that as the surface magma ocean cooled over time, various minerals and rocks began to crystallize. The denser materials sank and the lighter ones floated to the top to essentially become the surface of the Moon. A common mineral that floats to the surface is anorthite, which is the predominant component in the anorthosite rock.

The story of the origin of anorthosite on Earth is more complex and less well understood, said Marion, who serves as a scientific advisor to the Canada Air and Space Museum. Research suggests anorthosite also probably formed due to segregation of lighter crystals in the magma, but deep in our mantle. As the magma slowly cools and crystallizes, the less dense mineral crystals separate from the denser materials and solidify to form anorthosite. The rock came to the surface through erosion and plate tectonic activity.

Then, the fact that an asteroid simply created a crater in this rare anorthosite-rich region? Well, that’s the luck of nature.

The collusion brought high temperatures and pressures that essentially fractured the rocks, breaking them apart and melting them. Marion said the effects of a high-velocity impact are similar to a large impact on the moon.

“How the rocks have changed is similar to how they would have changed on the moon after an impact,” Marion said.

Marion points out that anorthosite is present in this region of Labrador, even if you can’t go to the crater itself.

Astronauts traveling to the moon will photograph different types of rock, such as molten rock, and provide notes to help explorers like Osinski back on Earth.

“They can’t turn back every stone they see. We want them to do this mental sorting of “Okay, I’ve got 100 stones in front of me and I can put two back” [and] how you choose that in real time essentially,” Osinski said.

Stoppar said that if astronauts can bring back more moon rocks, then researchers can date craters on the moon and create a better geological history of our neighbor and floating debris early in our solar system. She said we can also learn how much water was delivered to Earth and the Moon by comets and asteroids and all the challenges to life at that time.

“I’m really excited to see this kind of research happen,” said Stopar, who is a member of NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission team. “Scientifically, I know it’s going to be great because every time we get samples from the moon, we just learn a lot more about it. Even today, we’re still learning tons about the Moon from the samples brought back 50, 60 years ago.”

#moon #NASA #Canadas #Mistastin #Crater

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