Western’s Institute for Earth and Space Exploration (Western Space) is making good on its promise to launch the university into space and bring space down to Earth. Only this time, it’s a simulation and not the real thing – yet.
Gordon “Oz” Osinski, director of Western Space, is leading an expedition analogous to a space mission over the next two weeks in northern Labrador at the Mistastin Lake impact crater.
The first real test is getting there. It takes astronauts approximately three days to get to the Moon; it’s roughly the same amount of time it will take the field team, which includes Osinski, Canadian Space Agency (CSA) astronaut Joshua Kutryk and NASA astronaut Matthew Dominic, to travel north to Mistastin Lake, first by commercial flight and then by twin otter plane.
The distance, and resulting geological landscape, are the reason northern Labrador is the perfect stand-in for the Moon. Osinski will train the astronauts in sampling and collecting rocks, and hone their tool proficiency and expeditionary skills as they prepare for future lunar space missions.
“Training astronauts in Earth and planetary science – in particular geology and geophysics – is an essential part of preparing them for the human exploration of other planetary bodies like the Moon,” said Osinski. “With the near-term focus on the return of astronauts to the Moon, conducting geology field training at meteorite impact structures is mission critical.”
Another key member of the training team is Cassandra Marion, a former Western PhD student, now serving as science advisor at Canada Aviation and Space Museum. Marion will act as base camp manager for the expedition.
Over the past decade, Earth and planetary science training has become an increasingly important component of the training for NASA and CSA astronaut candidates. Originally focused on preparing astronauts for International Space Station operations over the past year – with the development of the Lunar Gateway and Artemis initiatives – Earth and planetary science has become even more important in preparing astronauts for lunar surface operations.
The Mistastin Lake impact crater has unique properties that offer “exceptional opportunities” for training astronauts like Kutryk and Dominic, Osinski said.
“Mistastin Lake is one of only two craters in the world with any substantial amount of anorthosite in their target rocks – while relatively uncommon on Earth, anorthosite is the bright white rock that makes up the bulk of the lunar highlands,” said Osinski. “This site also contains some of the best-preserved impact melt rocks on Earth, which are some of the highest priority samples that future astronauts to the Moon will want to find and sample.”
Tools of the trade
Much has changed in terms of the technology used for geological fieldwork since the Apollo Moon missions of the 1960s and 1970s.
“A huge new range of technologies are now available; however, many require intensive training and/or substantial time to acquire data in the field,” said Osinski. “The space community is still trying to figure out the ideal suite of tools and instruments astronauts should be equipped with for future lunar missions and this expedition will help us answer that question.”
At Mistastin Lake, an iPad-based app will be used in the field to geolocate all outcrops, take field photographs, annotate sketches, write notes and record voices.
Samples will be collected and tagged with radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips using the same system. Once the sample data and field notes have been synced to the cloud, they can be accessed by Osinski and the rest of the field team members to provide context for subsequent laboratory analysis.
“It’s incredible how far we’ve come, and the technology is only going to get better and more valuable,” said Osinski. “Missions like this one play a major role in getting us to where we need to be for our return to the Moon.”
During the expedition, the astronauts will also be introduced to other field instruments, like lasers for analyzing elemental composition of rocks in the field (laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy or LIBS) and scanning and modeling the landscape (lidar). They will also be using drones for collecting high-resolution aerial photographs.
While sampling rocks and tool proficiency are at the forefront of the mission, expeditionary skills are also a primary focus of the two-week expedition. The astronauts and the rest of the field team will also further develop their skills in communication, leadership (and followership), self-care and self-management, team care, teamwork and group living.
“A mission all falls apart if the team can’t work together and co-exist,” said Osinski. “Any successful space mission needs to be built on trust, care and exceptional team dynamics.”