July 13, 2024

Brighton Journal

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Can’t you go to the moon with NASA? Mistastein crater in Canada is the next best thing.

Mistastin Crater on Earth contains large amounts of bright white rock over the majority of the Moon’s surface

Canadian astronaut Joshua Cottrick and NASA astronaut Matthew Dominic climb Discovery Hill on Mistastin Crater.
Canadian astronaut Joshua Cottrick and NASA astronaut Matthew Dominic climb Discovery Hill on Mistastin Crater. (Illustration by The Washington Post; Gordon Osinski; iStock)


Most of us will never go to the moon, but we do have the next best thing in our backyard: Canada. Among ice hockey, maple syrup, and offbeat literature, the country also boasts one of the best craters for studying the moon without jumping in a spacecraft.

You may not have heard of Mistastein crater in the northern part of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador (and I imagine many Canadians will forgive you, right?), but there are a few reasons why it fits in so well with the moon.

Like most of my dating life, the crater’s remote location is isolated from most humans and mimics loneliness on the moon; The structure is similar to what you find in many lunar craters; And the area contains rare rocks that are eerily similar to what astronauts found on the moon.

These qualities make it a suitable training ground for potential astronauts for 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 uncrewed test flight called Artemis I, which will not land on the surface but will remain in lunar orbit for up to 25 days to prove that the rocket and spacecraft can fly safely.

“It was not known that this crater in Labrador was a crater during the Apollo missions,” said Gordon Osinski, a planetary geologist at Western University in Canada, who guided astronauts around the crater. “I would like to see every astronaut who walks on the moon eventually come to Mistastin.”

Mistastin, known locally as Kamestastin, is located on the Mushuau Innu First Nation’s spiritual and traditional hunting grounds and requires approval from them to visit.

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The crater is essentially “in the middle of nowhere,” says planetary geologist Cassandra Marion, who has visited the site six times. There is no official runway, and visitors usually land in a small, unpressurized cargo plane on a bushy, gravel area—if there isn’t a large boulder in the way. It is often rainy and windy. When it’s not windy, there are a lot of gnawing black flies.

Located in the Canadian Arctic, the rugged terrain is a mixture of taiga and tundra. Black spruce and alder trees live at lower elevations, while mosses are seen near riverbeds and at higher elevations. Then there are the delicious little blueberries everywhere in the tundra. If you don’t watch where you’re sitting, Marion said, you might wake up with a “purple butt.”

“She’s a tough mistress, in a sense,” said Marion, “but I’ll be back.” “It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve been. You feel like you’re the only one there for kilometers at a time.”

In September, Marion and Usinsky took two astronauts to Mistastein crater to train in the geology, and to learn about rocks they might see on the Moon. Much of the rock is accessible through outcrops, or cliff faces, that appeared millions of years ago.

Mistastein crater was formed when an asteroid broke apart about 36 million years ago and left a 28-kilometer-wide hole in the Earth as seen today. Such large craters, like this one, are called “complex craters” and are common on the moon, Osinsky said.

Complex craters are shallow and flat, rather than a bowl-shaped depression like Arizona’s meteorite crater Where astronauts train, too. Like many complex lunar craters, Mitastin also has a mountain in the center called Central Peak.

“This crater in Labrador is not only a complex impact crater, it’s also relatively well preserved,” Osinski said. “I’ve been to it a few times and it’s still really neat when you walk up to the ledge and then you literally look into this huge hole in the ground.”

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We know that being in Mistastein Crater is not exactly like the moon. Unlike the Moon, we have wind, water, and Wi-Fi. In fact, modern-day Mistastin may not look like the Moon because it has a lake (spanning about half the impact size of the primary crater), likely the result of draining glaciers from the last Ice Age. But don’t let the lake fool you.

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

While anorthosite is rare on Earth, it is common on the Moon. You may never have pronounced its name, but you see it every time you look at the moon: the rock is the light-colored, highly reflective parts seen widely across the lunar surface called the lunar highlands.

“Part of the reason we see so much about the moon is the way the moon formed,” said Julie Stobar, a lunar geologist at the Universities Space Research Consortium’s Lunar and Planetary Institute.

Compared to our planet, the surface of the Moon was mainly carved by impact craters and volcanoes.

According to the popular formation theory, the Moon came together when a Mars-sized object collided with a young Earth near the beginning of the formation of our solar system about 4.6 billion years ago. Hot debris around the Earth coalesced into the moon, Stopar said, covering the young moon in an ocean of magma — “basically just lava, lava everywhere.”

In a simplified explanation, Stobar said that as the surface magma ocean cooled over time, different minerals and rocks began to crystallize. Dense material sinks, and lighter material floats to the top, essentially becoming the surface of the moon. The dominant mineral floating on the surface was anorthite, which is the dominant element in anorthosite rocks.

The origin story of anorthosite on Earth is more complex and not well understood, said Marion, who works as a science advisor at the Canadian Air and Space Museum. Research indicates Anorthosite is also likely to form due to detachment of lighter crystals in magma, but deeper in the mantle. As the magma cools and crystallizes slowly, the less dense mineral crystals separate from the denser material and solidify to form anorthosite. Rocks are brought to the surface by erosion and plate tectonic activity.

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So the fact that an asteroid just happened to crater in this rare anorthosite-rich region? Well, that’s the luck of nature.

The collusion caused higher temperatures and pressures, essentially fracturing, fragmenting, and melting the rock. Marion said the effects of the high-speed impact are similar to a major impact on the moon.

“How the rocks changed is similar to how they changed on the Moon after the impact,” Marion said.

Anorthosite is found across this area in Labrador, Marion points out, even if you can’t go into the crater itself.

Astronauts traveling to the moon will photograph different types of rock, such as melted rock, and provide observations to help researchers like Osinski on Earth.

“They can’t bring back every rock they see. We want them to do that mental sort of, ‘Okay, I’ve got 100 rocks in front of me and I can bring back two.'” [and] “How do you choose that in real time, basically,” Osinski said.

If astronauts can bring back more moon rocks, Stobar said, researchers can date craters on the moon and create a better geological history of our neighbor and floating debris at the beginning of our solar system. She said we could also learn how much water was delivered to the Earth and Moon from comets and asteroids and any challenges to life at the time.

“I’m really excited to see this kind of exploration happen,” said Stobar, who is a member of the NASA Orbiter Exploration Mission team. “Scientifically, I know it would be great because any time we get samples from the moon, we learn a lot about it. Even today, we’re still learning a lot about the moon from samples that were brought back 50 or 60 years ago now.”