Can't go to the moon?  This crater in Canada is the next best thing.

Can’t go to the moon? This 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 Kutryk and NASA Astronaut Matthew Dominick climb Discovery Hill on Mistastin Crater.
Canadian Astronaut Joshua Kutryk and NASA Astronaut Matthew Dominick climb Discovery Hill on Mistastin Crater. (Washington Post illustration; Gordon Osinski; iStock)


Most of us will never go to the moon, but we have the best thing in our backyard: Canada. Between ice hockey, maple syrup and uncommon politeness, the country also has one of the best craters to study the moon without jumping in a spaceship.

You may never have heard of the Mistastin crater in the northern part of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador (and I imagine many Canadians would forgive you, huh?), but there are several reasons for which it corresponds well to the moon.

Much like most of my love life, the remote location of the crater is isolated from most humans 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 look suspiciously like what astronauts find on the moon.

These qualities make it a suitable training ground for potential NASA Artemis astronauts. mission, which plans to land astronauts on the moon as early as 2025. On Wednesday, NASA took an important step towards returning to the moon and launched an uncrewed test flight called Artemis I, which will not land at the surface but will remain in lunar orbit for up to 25½ days to demonstrate that the rocket and spacecraft can fly safely.

“This crater in Labrador wasn’t even known to be 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 all the astronauts who end up walking on the moon come to Mistastin.”

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

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The crater is essentially in the “middle of nowhere”, said planetary geologist Cassandra Marion, who has visited the site six times. There is no official runway strip, and visitors usually land in a small, unpressurized cargo plane on an area of ​​shrubby gravel – if there isn’t a large rock in the way. It is often rainy and windy. When there is no wind it is 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 alders live at lower elevations, while moss appears near riverbeds and at higher elevations. And then there are delicious little blueberries all over the tundra. If you don’t watch where you sit, Marion said you might wake up with “purple buttocks.”

“She’s a cruel mistress, in a way, but I would go back,” Marion said. “It’s one of the nicest places I’ve been to. You feel like you’re the only ones there for miles at a time.

In September, Marion and Osinski took two astronauts to Mistastin Crater for geology training and to identify rocks they might see on the moon. Many rocks are accessible by outcrops or cliffs that emerged millions of years ago.

Mistastin Crater was formed when an asteroid crashed about 36 million years ago and left a massive 28 kilometer breach in the ground that is seen today. Osinski said such large craters, like this one, are called “complex craters” and are common on the moon’s surface.

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

“This Labrador crater is not just a complex impact crater, it’s relatively well preserved,” Osinski said. “Been there several times and it’s always great when you walk up to the rim and literally look down into this huge hole in the ground.”

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We know that being at Mistastin Crater is not exactly like the moon. Unlike the moon, we have wind, water and WiFi. In fact, today’s Mistastin may appear to be nothing like the moon because it contains a lake (covering about half the size of the initial impact crater), likely the result of glacial drying up. of the last ice age. But don’t let the lake fool you.

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

Although anorthosite is rare on Earth, it is common on the lunar surface. You may never have spoken its name, but you’ve seen it every time you look at the moon: the rock is made up of the bright, highly reflective parts seen widely on the moon’s surface called the lunar highlands.

“Part of the reason we see so much around the moon is simply the way the moon formed,” said Julie Stopar, lunar geologist at the Lunar and Planetary Research Association’s Institute. space of universities.

Compared to our home planet, the moon’s surface has been sculpted primarily by impact craters and volcanism.

According to a popular formation theory, the moon came together when a Mars-sized body crashed into a young Earth early in the formation of our solar system about 4.6 billion years ago. years. Stopar said hot debris around Earth coalesced into the moon, covering the young moon in an ocean of magma – “essentially just lava, lava everywhere”.

In a simplified explanation, Stopar said that as the ocean of surface magma cooled over time, different minerals and rocks began to crystallize. Denser material sank and lighter material floated upward to essentially become the surface of the moon. A common mineral to float to the surface was anorthite, which is the predominant component of anorthosite rock.

Anorthosite’s origin story on Earth is more complicated and less well understood, said Marion, who is a science adviser at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum. Research suggests that anorthosite is also likely formed due to the separation of lighter crystals within the magma, but deep within our mantle. As the magma cooled and slowly crystallized, the less dense mineral crystals separated from the denser materials and solidified to form anorthosite. The rock emerged to the surface through erosion and plate tectonic activity.

Then, the fact that an asteroid just created a crater in this rare zone rich in anorthosite? Well, it’s nature’s luck.

The collusion resulted in high temperatures and pressure, which essentially fractured the rocks, shattering them and melting them. Marion said the effects of the high-velocity impact are similar to a strong impact on the moon.

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

Marion points out that anorthosite is present throughout this area of ​​Labrador, even if you can’t get to the crater itself.

Astronauts who travel to the Moon will photograph various types of rock, such as molten rock, and provide notes to help researchers like Osinski return to Earth.

“They can’t bring back every rock they see. We want them to do this mental sorting 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.

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

“I’m really excited to see this kind of exploration happening,” said Stopar, who is a member of NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission team. “Scientifically, I know it will be great because every time we get samples from the moon, we’ll learn a lot more about it. Even today, we’re still learning a lot about the moon from the samples that have been brought 50, 60 years ago now.

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