Canada's North provides training opportunity for Canadian Astronauts

Un astronaute de la mission Apollo 15 utilise une pioche pour briser des fragments de roche lunaire.

An Apollo 15 astronaut uses a hammer to break chips off Moon rocks. Credit: NASA

Missions to Mars, the Moon or asteroids – all have been cited as possible future destinations for space exploration, but how can astronauts prepare today for the challenges of tomorrow?

By doing field work in remote or "desolate" environments on Earth, astronauts can train for the kind of rigours that will await them on planetary bodies.

During the Apollo missions one of the chief duties of the astronauts was the study of lunar geology. Lunar samples were selected and taken back to Earth. Likewise, astronauts today can take field expeditions to analogue locations such as the Arctic to study unique geological formations.

David Saint-Jacques
Glaciology expedition

Glaciology expedition. Source: Gwenn Flowers, Simon Fraser University

Kaskawulsh Glacier, Yukon

From July 25 to August 2, 2015, Canadian Space Agency (CSA) astronaut David Saint-Jacques will take part in a training expedition in the Kaskawulsh Glacier in Yukon to learn methods and techniques for conducting geological fieldwork that could be applied to future missions to Mars or other planets. During the two-week excursion, Saint-Jacques will assist the Simon Frasier University Glaciology Group, led by Gwenn Flowers, in the study of the interaction of glaciers and freshwater bodies. The aim of the study is to help researchers develop better prediction models used to make projections of glaciers response to climate. Saint-Jacques will also get the opportunity to act as expedition medical officer and enhance his expeditionary skills.

This research program, which was established in 2006, is relevant to planetary exploration since ice exists elsewhere in the solar system, notably on Mars in the form of the polar caps and in the icy satellite of other planets. It has also trained over 20 students and research assistants in the field.

Jeremy Hansen
Devon Island is located in Nunavut, in Canada's High Arctic.

Victoria Island (or Kitlineq) is an island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago and straddles the boundary between Nunavut and the Northwest Territories.

Victoria Island, Northwest Territories

In the summer of 2012, CSA astronaut Jeremy Hansen joined Dr. Gordon Osinski and his research team from Western University's Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration (CPSX) on Victoria Island for a geology field expedition. They then visited a meteorite impact structure located near Collinson Inlet to confirm its origin and conduct reconnaissance geological studies.

They will travel again to the island from July 3 to 20, 2015 to investigate the Tunnunik meteorite impact structure. Hansen will be instructed and participate in the reconnaissance study of the Victoria Island geology as well as the rocks affected by the impact. He will also be introduced to instruments that either are currently used on planetary exploration missions (similar to Canada’s Alpha-Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) instrument on the Mars Science Laboratory), or may fly in the future.

As part of CSA’s Science and Operational Applications Research (SOAR) program, the team will also develop new tools and techniques using RADARSAT-2 imagery to improve geological mapping, land use management and assist resource exploration in the Canadian Arctic.

Follow @astro_jeremy, @drcrater and @westernuCPSX for tweets and photos from the field!

Did you know? Meteorite impact structures are one of the most common geological landforms in the solar system. On Earth, however, impact craters are continually being erased by plate tectonics, volcanism, and erosion. Despite this, approximately 180 impact craters have been documented to date, of which around 30 are in Canada. (Information provided by Dr. Osinski)

Clearwater Lake, Quebec

Clearwater Lakes, Northern Quebec.

Clearwater Lakes, Northern Quebec. Image and map provided by Dr. Osinski.

From August 18 to September 3, 2014, David Saint-Jacques participated in a training expedition in the Arctic to learn methods and techniques for conducting geological fieldwork that could be applied to future missions to the Moon or an asteroid. During the two-week excursion, Saint-Jacques assisted Dr. Osinski and his research team in studying impact cratering processes that can be applied to sites beyond our planet by studying different islands located on the site.

The team studied the Western Clearwater Lake, one of a pair of annular impact crater lakes located in Northern Quebec, Canada. It was the first time since the 1970s that people visited this area to study the impact crater geology.

While the geology structure of the eastern lake is mostly submerged, the western lake presents several areas of interest that have a variety of geologic features and impact related rocks accessible within the limited distances suitable for a rover mission. The team spent the first eight days of the expedition on Kamiskutanikaw Island before moving to Lepage Island. This is where they were joined by a team from the NASA Ames Research Center's Field Investigations to Enable Solar System Science and Exploration (FINESSE) project. A Canadian geobiologist, Darlene Lim, is the deputy principal investigator of the FINESSE team at Ames and the SETI Institute.

Jeremy Hansen sets out for geology field training on Devon Island

In this video, CSA Astronaut Jeremy Hansen explains why astronauts perform geology field training in remote areas and describes his expedition to Devon Island. Hansen was in this High Arctic region July 16-25, 2013, accompanying Western University's Dr. Osinski and his team from the Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration as they studied an impact crater.

Devon Island, Nunavut

In the summer of 2013, Jeremy Hansen joined Dr. Osinski on similar geology field expedition to the Haughton impact crater on Devon Island. Located in Baffin Bay of Nunavut, Canada, Devon Island is an extremely remote and uninhabited island that features one of the world's best exposed and preserved impact craters on Earth. The team only had a minimum of supplies and support, dropped off by airplane and isolated from civilization as they relied upon each other to fulfill their mission objectives.

Cratère Haughton, île Devon, Nunavut. Photo : Gordon Osinski

Haughton Crater, Devon Island, Nunavut. (Credit: Dr. Gordon Osinski)