Gordon Osinski looks to the heavens and finds better ways to explore the Earth.
The Western University researcher studies how planets form and evolve, and the technology of extraterrestrial exploration. He has a particular interest in impact craters – the circular formations created by asteroids and comets crashing in to planets and moons.
Impact craters are the most common geological feature of the Moon and Mars. Here on Earth, it happens that such impacts have created some of richest mining areas on our planet. A massive collision creates sufficient heat and geological movement to create rich repositories of iron, uranium, diamonds, and other valuable materials.
The Sudbury mining district, for example, formed nearly 2 billion years ago when an asteroid more than 10 kilometres in diameter slammed into what is now Northern Ontario, generating rich ore in the process. In 2007, the region was valued at more than $10 billion – the richest mining area in North America. The nickel, copper and platinum mined there account for half of all Ontario’s mining activity.
Osinski’s research into the possibilities of extraterrestrial life and the techniques and technologies for exploring alien worlds speak to concerns that are not just down-to-Earth, but down-in-the-Earth.
“We begin by using Earth as a reference,” he says. “There are many commonalities in the techniques and technologies applied in extraterrestrial exploration, and the exploration of remote and extreme locations on Earth like polar regions and deep underground mines.”
Osisnski works with MDA Corporation (creator of the Canadarm) the Canadian Space Agency and NASA to study impact craters on Earth. His interest lies both in what these craters suggest about conditions on the Moon, Mars or planets further afield, and also in how Earth’s inhabitants can best benefit from the results.
Mining companies and equipment manufacturers continually work to develop new and innovative approaches for mining vehicles. Tools developed for planetary exploration – robotics, vision systems, remote equipment operation and autonomous machinery – also naturally suit the extreme environments where resources are extracted from the ground.
While Osinski might one day help us find life on other planets, his work also contributes here at home to one of the most important sectors of the Canadian economy.
**Major funders for this research include Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Canadian Space Agency, and MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd.