Can’t go to the moon with NASA? Mistastin Crater in Canada is the next best thing.

Can't go to the moon with NASA?  Mistastin Crater in Canada is the next best thing.
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The Mystastin crater on Earth occupies a large amount of bright white rock over much of the moon’s surface.

Canadian astronaut Joshua Kutryk and NASA astronaut Matthew Dominique climb Discovery Hill in Mistystone Crater.
Canadian astronaut Joshua Kutryk and NASA astronaut Matthew Dominique climb Discovery Hill in Mistystone Crater. (Photo by Gordon Osinski/Photo by Gordon Osinski)


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

You’ve probably never heard of Mistastin Crater in northern Newfoundland and Labrador (and I imagine many Canadians would forgive you, huh?), but there are a few reasons why it’s right for the moon.

Like most of my dating life, the remote location of the crater 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 very similar to those found by astronauts on the moon.

These qualities make it a suitable training ground for potential astronauts on NASA’s Artemis A mission that plans to land astronauts on the moon in 2025. On Wednesday, NASA took a significant step toward returning to the moon and has been activated The uncrewed test flight, Artemis I, 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 was not even known to be 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 every astronaut who walked on the moon to come to Mistastin.”

Mistastin, known locally as Kamestastin, is located in the spiritual and traditional hunting grounds of the Mushuau Innu First Nation, and consent is required to visit them.

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The crater is actually “in the middle of nowhere,” says Cassandra Marion, a planetary geologist who has visited the area six times. There is no official airstrip, and visitors usually land in a small unpressurized cargo plane on the scrubland – unless there is a large boulder in the way. It is often rainy and windy. When there is no wind, there is a cartload of biting black flies.

Located in the Canadian Arctic, the rugged terrain is a mix of taiga and tundra. Black spruce and alder trees live at lower elevations, while moss is seen near river beds and at higher elevations. And then there are little tasty blueberries all over the tundra. If you don’t watch where you sit, Marion said, you could end up being a “purple idol.”

“She’s a cruel mistress in a way, but I’d go back,” Marion said. “This is one of the most beautiful places I have visited. You feel like you are alone there for kilometers.”

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 of the cliffs are accessible through cliffs or cliff faces that were exposed millions of years ago.

The Mystastin crater was formed by an asteroid crash about 36 million years ago, leaving a large 28-kilometer crater visible today. Large craters like these are called “complex craters” and are common on the moon’s surface, Osinski said.

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

“This crater in Labrador is not only a complex impact crater, it’s relatively well preserved,” Osinski said. “I’ve been up there many times and it’s still pretty neat when you go up to the edge and then literally look at this huge hole in the ground.”

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We know it’s not like being in the Mystastin crater exactly like the moon. Unlike the moon, we have wind, water and WiFi. In fact, modern Mistastin may not look like the moon at all, as it contains a lake (about half the size of the original impact crater), possibly the result of glaciers that dried up during the last Ice Age. But don’t let the lake fool you.

A great resemblance to our friend the moon is in its rocks. It is one of two craters on Earth that contain large amounts of rock called anorthosite. Another is the significantly eroded Manicouag impact structure in Quebec, which makes the younger, better-preserved Mistastin crater a prime location for research and astronaut training.

Although anorthosite is rare on Earth, it is common on the surface of the Moon. Maybe you’ve never uttered its name, but you’ve seen it every time you’ve looked at the moon: Rocks are the light-colored, highly reflective patches that appear widely on the moon’s surface, called lunar highs.

“One of the reasons we see so much around the moon is moon formation,” said Julie Stopar, a lunar geologist at the University Space Research Association’s Lunar and Planetary Institute.

Compared to our home planet, the moon’s surface is mostly sculpted through impact craters and volcanism.

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

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 made their way to the surface of the moon. A common mineral to float to the surface has been anorthite, the predominant component in the rock anorthosite.

Marion, who serves as a scientific advisor to the Canada Air and Space Museum, said the origin of anorthosite on Earth is more complex and not well understood. Research proposals anorthosite is also likely formed by segregation of lighter crystals in magma, but deep within our mantle. As the magma slowly cools and crystallizes, the less dense mineral crystals separate from the denser materials and solidify to form anorthosite. The rock came to the surface as a result of erosion and plate tectonic activity.

Then the fact that an asteroid accidentally cratered this rare anorthosite-rich area? Yes, this is nature’s luck.

The conflict brought high temperatures and pressures, which fractured, split and melted the rocks. Marion said the effects of a high-velocity impact are similar to a large impact on the Moon.

“The way the stars changed is similar to how they will change on the moon after the impact,” Marion said.

Marion notes that even if you can’t get to the crater itself, anorthosite is present in this region of Labrador.

Astronauts traveling to the moon will take photos of different types of rocks, such as molten rocks, and provide records to help researchers like Osinski return to Earth.

“They cannot return every stone they see. We want them to do a mental sorting like, ‘Okay, I have 100 stones in front of me and I can return two.’ [and] how you pick it up in real time, essentially,” Osinski said.

Stopar, if astronauts can bring back more lunar rocks, researchers can date the craters on the moon and create a better geological history of our neighbor and the debris that floated at the beginning of our solar system. He also said we could learn how much water was delivered to Earth and the Moon from comets and asteroids, and whether there were any challenges for life at that time.

“I’m very excited to see this kind of exploration happen,” said Stopar, a team member on NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission. “Scientifically, I know it’s going to be great because when we get samples from the moon, we just learn a lot about it. “Even today, we’re still learning tons about the Moon from samples brought back 50, 60 years ago.”

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