Planetary geologist and crater expert Gordon Osinski of Western University was travelling in a remote area when he heard the historic news.
Osinski was in the Northwest Territories and out of contact with cell phone service for numerous days. On his way back to more populated zones, he and his companions were navigating around wildfires when he received a flurry of messages as he came into 3G service.
When he checked social media, there it was: Osinski would be the first Canadian to be named to an Artemis moon mission’s geology team. Osinski in fact, would be assisting the first moon landing crew in half a century: Artemis 3, now slated to touchdown in the moon’s south pole in 2025 or 2026, assuming readiness of the relevant hardware and crew.
“We had to do an initial characterization of one of the potential Artemis landing sites,” said Osinski, a long-standing geologist at Western University who regularly trains astronauts, of the proposal that brought his team in the fold.
“A lot of our work went into a traverse plan for the astronauts and then putting together a plan for how we would approach sample analysis – and then this deployment of what they call the PE, the preliminary examination of samples after we get them back after the missions.”
During the Apollo missions, a group of geologists were working closely together in a room within reach of NASA’s famed Mission Control in Houston. The geologists would watch the astronauts in real time on the screen as the crew executed a pre-planned traverse. As new information would arise, the geologists would vary information where possible back to Mission Control, where the relevant person would inform the crew as timelines allowed.
The conditions were of course challenging. The geologists did not really have direct contact with the crew for necessary operational reasons. The crew was working with very limited technology at the time. Most of their work was done from paper maps, as well as little guidebooks that were attached to the astronaut suits.
How that picture will differ today is not yet known, Osinski said. The geologists, like the crew, will undergo several months of training as everyone figures out which traverse plan is best for the selected landing site. (It is not known yet exactly where the Artemis 3 astronauts will touch down, but there is a shortlist available.) But like on Earth, the geologists will be working from a geomorphological map to choose landforms for the astronauts to visit.
“It’s a pretty small area for this first mission. I’ve often mapped areas many kilometers wide, but this one only goes out maybe 10 kilometers from the potential landing site. That scale was not a huge amount of variation in the nature of the regolith, for example,” he said.
Impact craters form most targets, but Osinski said that the issue is finding a reasonable amount for the astronauts to investigate on the map. He joked that a first pass might have the geologists identify something like two dozen potential places to go. “Then there’s the reality check. There’s a certain time allotted for walking, for characterizing a sample, picking a sample and then you have to take into account the terrain as well.”
The team will be led by principal investigator Brett Denevi of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland and will “determine the mission’s geological science objectives and design the geology surface campaign that the Artemis astronauts will carry out on the moon,” the NASA statement said.
The team will have to meet key agency science priorities for the program, including:
- Understanding planetary processes
- Understanding the character and origin of lunar polar volatiles
- Interpreting the impact history of the Earth-Moon system
- Revealing the record of the ancient sun and our astronomical environment
- Observing the universe and the local space environment from a unique location
- Conducting experimental science in the lunar environment
- Investigating and mitigating exploration risks
One key question will be navigation. The astronauts are working at the south pole, which is difficult to get in contact with directly from Earth. Whether there will be relay satellites and whether there will be navigational equipment available is something that is still being figured out. The key responsibilities of the geology team will be working in the science back room to answer questions, then afterwards to piece together the astronaut data and write a report.
Nevertheless, the opportunity for Canada is great. Osinski said his presence will allow for training of younger and diverse geologists that will work directly with him, creating valuable experience for future generations of scientists in Canada.
Canada is already a large contributor to the Artemis missions. The company MDA, with funding from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), will supply the Canadarm 3 robotic arm to NASA’s planned Gateway space station at the moon.
The CSA has other programs in place for moon exploration, most famously the LEAP (Lunar Exploration Accelerator Program) that aims to send small payloads to the surface of the moon. Additionally, the agency plans a mini lunar rover — Osinski happens to be the principal investigator of the science on the Canadensys-built machine.
Canada typically supplies robotic hardware to NASA in exchange for astronaut seats and science in crewed programs. The robotics that Canada provides to the International Space Station, for example, account for 2.3 percent of the coalition’s work. Roughly speaking, this allows for an astronaut flight roughly every five or six years based on current flight rates.
In the case of Artemis, longtime astronaut Jeremy Hansen will finally get his first flight aboard Artemis 2 (only two CSA astronauts have flown at all since he joined in 2009, and in the case of the 2012-13 opportunity he was too new to the training to be eligible). This is not a landing mission, however; it is a mission that will be testing all the key hardware with humans on board for the first time. Hansen will join three NASA astronauts in going around the moon and coming back to Earth on a 10 day-mission slated to lift off no earlier than November 2024.
Additionally, Osinski has more than a decade’s worth of experience working directly with Canadian astronauts on geology field trips. The CSA, like NASA, and other space agencies, prizes remote expeditions for its astronauts to give them training in how to work in difficult and isolated environments before they embark on a space mission. Most of the current CSA astronaut group has gone on at least one expedition. Jeremy Hansen has taken on the most, while David Saint-Jacques and Joshua Kutryk have also gone along.
In fact, Hansen is about to embark on another expedition. Osinski, Hansen and NASA astronaut Christina Koch from Artemis 2 will all be doing geological training at Mistastin Crater in Labrador in September. Osinski, in fact, was taking this interview hours before flying out to that area to do a survey ahead of bringing in the astronauts.