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Arctic Crater Preps New Astronaut for Space

Canadian Astronaut Jeremy Hansen
Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen simulated tasks of a space mission underground. (Image credit: ESA-V.CROBU)

On the day NASA's New Horizons mission flew past Pluto, astronaut Jeremy Hansen was busy exploring a new world of his own.

He called Discovery News last week from a 28-kilometer (17-mile) wide crater that was only discovered in 2010 -- one that is high up in the Canadian Arctic, in a harsh spot that could be like the moon or Mars.

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While the air is breathable and help is only a plane ride away, the techniques Hansen and his team are using are supposed to prepare geologists (and astronauts) to move across the solar system. Leading the team was Gordon Osinski, a planetary geologist at the University of Western Ontario. [9 Coolest Mock Space Missions]

"He's looking at shatter cones, which are formations in rock that are formed under really high pressure. They're found in only two kinds of places on our planet: inside meteor craters and nuclear test sites," said Hansen, who is with the Canadian Space Agency.

In craters, they occur after a celestial visitor smashes into the ground at high speed and cause the ground to buckle and sometimes melt. Over thousands of years, craters on Earth get eroded by wind and rain. But on the moon, the only erosion comes from micrometeorites and the occasional big slam. Martian craters also get eroded, but the atmosphere is thinner and the dust different; this could change the erosion time.

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Could these shatter cones exist on other planets? Hansen says geologists don't know for sure, but they suspect they would (they are easier to spot up close). But just in case, Hansen is learning how to train his eyes to spot them.

Jeremy Hansen at the Tunnunik impact crater in the Arctic. (Image credit: Jeremy Hansen/Canadian Space Agency)

Going to the moon could happen after his career is finished, the 39-year-old astronaut acknowledges. But during his first spaceflight on the International Space Station, he will at least know how to spot and classify big craters from the air. And his training will go into the list of experiences that form the manuals for future generations of astronauts.

"I've seen how to do this on Earth, but in a spacesuit it will be different," he said. "Your mobility is significantly reduced, and on top of that, it's physically exhausting to move around in a spacesuit."

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Besides getting ready for space, Hansen has been doing other types of isolation training. In April, he and three other astronauts sealed themselves in the Johnson Space Center's Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) for a week to do a pretend mini-space station mission. While younger astronaut recruits did smaller simulations before, this was the first "high-fidelity" simulation to date, Hansen said. The other astronauts were Mike Hopkins (NASA), Jeanette Epps (NASA) and Satoshi Furukawa (Japan)

"Mike and Satoshi have both flown in space, so to spend time with them in that environment doing the things they did in space, I learned a ton with them," Hansen said.

This article was provided by Discovery News.

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Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell is a contributing writer for Space.com who is one of the few Canadian journalists to report regularly on space exploration. She is the author or co-author of several books on space exploration. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota in Space Studies, and an M.Sc. from the same department. She also holds a bachelor of journalism degree from Carleton University in Canada, where she began her space-writing career in 2004. Besides writing, Elizabeth teaches communications at the university and community college level, and for government training schools. To see her latest projects, follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @howellspace.