Can’t go to the moon with NASA? Canada’s Mistastin Crater is the next best thing.
Earth’s Mistastin crater contains large amounts of the bright white rock on most of the lunar surface
Like most of my dating, the crater’s remote location is isolated from most people and mimics the loneliness felt on the moon; the structure is similar to what you would find for many lunar craters; and the area contains rare rocks that are eerily similar to what astronauts find on the moon.
Those qualities make it a suitable training ground for potential astronauts from NASA’s Artemis mission, which plans to land astronauts on the moon as early as 2025. On Wednesday, NASA took an important step toward returning to the moon and launched an unmanned test flight called Artemis I, which will not land on the surface but will remain in lunar orbit for up to 25 ½ 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 led astronauts around the crater. “I would like every astronaut who eventually walks on the moon to come to Mistastin.”
Known locally as Kamestastin, Mistastin is on the spiritual and traditional hunting grounds of the Mushuau Innu First Nation and requires permission from them to visit.
The crater is essentially in the “middle of nowhere,” said planetary geologist Cassandra Marion, who has visited the site six times. There is no formal runway strip and visitors usually land in a small unpressurized cargo plane on a scrubby gravel area – if there isn’t a large boulder in the way. It is often rainy and windy. If there’s no wind, it’s a 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 live at lower elevations, while moss appears near riverbeds and at higher elevations. And then there are little delicious blueberries all over the tundra. If you don’t watch where you sit, Marion said you might get up with a “purple ass.”
“She’s a cruel mistress in a way, but I’d like to go back,” said Marion. “It is one of the most beautiful places I have been. You feel like you are the only one for miles.”
In September, Marion and Osinski took two astronauts to Mistastin crater for geologic training and to identify rocks they might see on the moon. Many of the rocks are accessible through outcrops or rock walls created millions of years ago.
The Mistastin crater was created when an asteroid crashed about 36 million years ago, leaving a 28-kilometer deep dent in the ground as we see it today. Osinski said large craters like this are called “complex craters” and are common on the moon’s surface.
Complex craters are shallower and flatter, rather than a bowl-shaped depression like Arizona’s Meteor crater where astronauts train. Like many complex craters on the moon, Mistastin also has a mountain at its center called a central peak.
“This crater in Labrador is not only a complex impact crater, it’s also relatively well preserved,” Osinski said. “I’ve been there many times and it’s still really neat when you walk uphill to the edge and then just literally look into this huge hole in the ground.”
We know that being in the Mistastin crater is not precisely like the moon. Unlike the moon, we have wind, water and Wi-Fi. In fact, modern Mistastin may not resemble the moon because it contains a lake (about half the size of the original crater impact), likely due to drained glaciers from the last ice age. But don’t let the lake fool you.
A great similarity to our lunar friend lies in the rocks. It is one of only two craters on Earth to contain large amounts of a rock called anorthosite. The other is the significantly eroded Manicouagan impact structure in Quebec, which made the much younger, better-preserved Mistastin crater the preferred choice for astronaut research and training.
While anorthosite is rare on Earth, it is common on the lunar surface. You may never have heard the name, but you’ve seen it every time you look at the moon: The rock is the light-colored, highly reflective areas seen widely across the lunar surface, called the lunar highlands.
“Part of the reason we see so much around the moon is just the way the moon formed,” said Julie Stopar, a lunar geologist at the Universities Space Research Association’s Lunar and Planetary Institute.
Compared to our home planet, the Moon’s surface is primarily sculpted by impact craters and volcanism.
According to a popular formation theory, the moon came together when a Mars-sized body collided with a young Earth about 4.6 billion years ago near the beginning of our solar system’s formation. Stopar said hot debris around Earth coalesced into the moon and covered the young moon with a magma ocean — “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. Denser materials sank and lighter materials floated to the top to essentially become the moon’s surface. A common mineral that floated to the surface was anorthite, the predominant component in anorthosite rock.
The origin story of anorthosite on Earth is more complicated and not as well understood, said Marion, who serves as a science consultant at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum. Research suggests the anorthosite is also probably formed as a result of the separation of lighter crystals in magma, but deep in our mantle. As the magma slowly cools and crystallizes, the less dense mineral crystals separate from denser materials and solidify to form anorthosite. The rock came to the surface through erosion and plate tectonics.
Then, the fact that an asteroid just happened to create a crater in this rare anorthosite-rich region? Well, that’s the luck of nature.
The collusion brought high temperatures and pressures, essentially causing the rocks to fracture, disintegrate and melt. Marion said the effects of the 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 after an impact on the moon,” Marion said.
Marion points out that anorthosite is present in this region of Labrador even if you can’t get to the crater itself.
Astronauts traveling to the moon will photograph different rock types, such as melting rocks, and take notes to help researchers like Osinski back on Earth.
“They can’t bring back every stone they see. We want them to do that mental sorting of, ‘Okay, I’ve got 100 bricks in front of me and I can bring back two’ [and] how do you essentially dial that in real time,” Osinski said.
Stopar said if the astronauts can bring back more moon rocks, researchers can date craters on the moon and create a better geologic history of our neighbor and floating debris at the beginning of our solar system. She said we can also learn how much water was delivered to the Earth and moon by comets and asteroids, and what challenges life was facing at the time.
“I’m really excited about seeing this kind of exploration,” said Stopar, who is a team member on NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission. “Scientifically speaking, I know it’s going to be great because every time we get samples from the moon, we learn so much more about it. Even today, we’re still learning tons about the moon from the samples that are now 50, 60 years ago. brought.
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