Making an impact on space exploration

Mar 9th, 2012

Kelly Foss

Making an impact on space exploration

The lunar rover delicately picks its way across the barren rock on the floor of the 35-million year old crater, a huge basin of fragmented rock shards and fused glass formed by the massive force of the meteor impact. This could be the moon. In fact, this is the enormous Mistastin Impact Crater in central Labrador.

Lunar orbiters have recently confirmed the discovery of ice in the permanently shadowed craters of the moon’s polar regions. Further studies of these craters are desired, but budget cuts call for fiscally prudent space exploration. This has raised the profile of Labrador’s earth-bound crater, and for Memorial University, it has created a unique opportunity.

About an hour and a half by floatplane from Happy Valley-Goose Bay, the Mistastin Crater was first discovered in the 1960’s and originally believed to be a volcanic formation. The crater appears as a huge ridge where, almost 35 million years ago, a meteorite’s collision disgorged an immense area of melted rock. Inside the ridge is the 16-kilometre-wide Mistastin Lake and near the centre of the lake sits a small island, formed when the rock rebounded as the crater was punched into the earth. The Mistastin Crater’s surrounding rock is unique from a geological perspective because it is 965 million years younger than the rocks found elsewhere in Labrador.

Recently, the Mistastin crater has been a stand-in for one of the Moon’s craters to test scenarios using rovers with and without astronauts. Dr. Paul Sylvester is a professor with Memorial’s Department of Earth Sciences who has spent several field seasons in Labrador exploring the site with the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and a number of American and Canadian university researchers. Dr. Sylvester explained that with its similar rock formations and feeling of isolation, exploring Mistastin is much like exploring the Moon.

“People who want to explore the moon are interested in the South-Pole Aitken crater,” he said. “If we were ever to have a moon base, it would probably be located in this area. So understanding how to explore this place and how it was formed is very important.”

The CSA has made a niche for itself engineering mechanical devices used in space missions. Dr. Sylvester says geologists like himself are often called in to help determine what rovers need to be able to do and which tools they should carry.

“The project we did at Mistastin this summer was to test scenarios using rovers independently of astronauts and also with astronauts to see how those scenarios would work,” he said. “The University of Toronto designed the Rover, but we helped determine what the rover does, what it’s capabilities are, how rugged it should be, what features it should have and how the missions should be carried out.”

Not only will exploring the Mistastin crater inform scientists about how to best explore the Moon’s craters, it may be able to answer questions about how craters are formed in the first place, and better describe the forces that meteorites exert in their formation.

“Earth science studies are often centered around oil and mineral exploration which may bring immediate benefits, but that will eventually come to an end,” said Dr. Sylvester. “Cratering is probably one of the most important geological processes and providing opportunities to expose students to it is very valuable. Memorial University must think broadly about our research and developing technology to support space research will be very important to our future. Even with the current global financial situation, the world will always have an interest in space. There is still a lot of very exciting science to be done and MUN can continue to play a role in that.”