It takes gumption to go knee-deep in mud to save a stranded rover. Or to climb up precarious slopes in search of the perfect rock. Oh, and did we mention the location is best accessible by air, with no towns nearby?
Take these challenging conditions, which Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen faced in the Arctic this month, and then imagine doing this on the moon. Or an asteroid. Or Mars. Scary, isn’t it? But that’s what he’s thinking of and training for as he does geology work a few times a year.
“It’s important; it provides an opportunity in a somewhat uncomfortable, risky situation when we’re doing real science,” Hansen told Universe Today of his time in Haughton Crater in Canada’s north. In fact, it’s so important to Hansen that he’s gone on similar geology trips with this Western University group three times.
Geology is now part of the package with basic astronaut training. NASA is hoping to get to the moon or an asteroid in the (relatively) near future, and there have been Congressional questions about the agency’s plans for Mars exploration. No one has firm answers yet. The astronauts, still, are preparing themselves as best as they can if the opportunity arises.
There would be vast differences between Earth exploration and heading to another location, however. Some examples:
- Water and supplies. The team Hansen joined had nine people and 29 checked bags for an expedition that lasted just over a week. They could also get water on site at a spot not too far from their camp, reducing the load of that heavy but important substance. NASA’s long-range planning, meanwhile, envisions scenarios such as a month on the moon, Hansen said. Supplies would be an interesting and heavy challenge in that situation. “The next time we’ll go back, what we’ll really be looking to do is travel much greater distances over a longer period of time,” he said. “We’ll be living in a rover for a month, covering 100 kilometers [62 miles] or more, looking for these important outcrops that tell us the story.”
- Geology. The Earth is an erosive force on geology: wind, rain, glaciation, water, volcanic activity and more alters the landscape. “Sometimes the rocks look very similar” even when they are different, Hansen pointed out. Other places may have different erosion processes (think micrometeroids), making the rocks look strange to Earth-trained eyes.
- Location. The landscape itself could be challenging for collecting samples. The moon, for example, has “stuff strewn everywhere and pounded into sand”, Hansen said, meaning that astronauts might have to travel much further to see something besides regolith or moon soil. Where Hansen was in the Arctic, by contrast, the group could get to more than a dozen different outcrops in a day of walking.
- Gravity. The moon has a sixth of the Earth’s gravity. Mars is at about 38% Earth gravity. This means that the machines would need to be designed to work in that environment. For astronauts, it’s riskier to go up slopes or do heavy work in those conditions because their center of gravity is unfamiliar. As this Apollo 17 clip shows, astronauts sometimes fell over on the moon when doing something as simple as picking up as sample bag.
Hansen’s work in Haughton Crater did turn up some similarities to work at off-Earth locations, though. His crew had to work in a compressed time situation, learning how to find representative rocks from a 14-mile (23-kilometer) wide crater. That’s the same challenge you’d find during a moon or asteroid or Mars expedition.
“We explored not the entire crater — it’s a lot of ground to cover — but we explored some key areas,” Hansen said. “What’s important for someone like me, at my stage of geologist eyes, is to see the key aspects of the crater, those being what types of rocks that are formed and where do they end up in the crater.”
When a big rock slams into the Earth, it excavates material that is normally inaccessible to a surface visitor. Hansen was encouraged to seek the oldest or genesis rocks when on his expedition because, as in other locations, they provide clues about how the solar system was formed. The hard evidence firms up our theories on what happened.
It’s not only work in the field that is important, but work in the lab. In past years with Gordon Osinski‘s group at Western, Hansen has gone back to the university to talk with those looking at the rock samples. He asks if the samples were representative, easy to analyze. His goal is to do better with each expedition.
“It’s kind of like learning a fourth lagnguage,” said Hansen, who as a Canadian Space Agency astronaut is expected to speak English, French and Russian at a minimum.
“It’s one of those things — you can cram it all in, but you don’t retain a lot unless you use it repeatedly and continue to practice it. My elegant solution is I spend one, maybe two weeks total a year, working on this. It’s a good use of my time. I keep bringing it back, keep reviewing it and keep going a little further.”
Hansen has a busy summer ahead of him. He’s taking off soon for CF-18 training with the Royal Canadian Air Force, where he got his career start. (Funny enough, in his past career he used to survey the Arctic from the air during Canadian sovereignty operations.)
In September, Hansen is spending about a week underground in Sardinia, Italy as part of the European Space Agency’s ongoing CAVES expedition series. Besides geology, this also provides training in unfamiliar and dangerous environments.
Hansen has not been assigned to a flight yet, but continues to work in the International Space Station operations branch in Houston and to represent the Astronaut Office in operational meetings. Also in training is his colleague David Saint-Jacques. Both astronauts were selected in 2009.
The next Canadian spaceflight is expected to happen around 2018, but could be earlier depending on ongoing negotiations by the Canadian Space Agency.