Scientists are hoping a detailed investigation of the Tunnunik impact crater — a 45-kilometre-wide rock-covered depression on the High Arctic's Victoria Island — can help explain how the planetary-like landscape was formed.

"We know it's somewhere between 350 million years old and maybe 130 million years old," says Gordon Osinski, a planetary geologist with Western University and a leader of the expedition. "That's a huge chunk of time"  

The crater was first discovered in 2010 by geologists Keith Dewing and Brian Pratt.

Osinski says the desert-like landscape of impact craters like Tunnunik have been used to help scientists understand the geology of other planets such as Mars.

"This morning when it was windy and we couldn't see more than a couple of 100 metres we could have been anywhere in the solar system."

Location of Tunnunik crater

(Google Earth)

Osinski's team hopes to narrow down when and how the massive crater was formed by studying samples of rock left behind.

"We haven't found life on Mars" says Osinski. But he says impact events like the Tunnunik crater can point them in the right direction. Researchers will look for signs of hydrothermal activity, such as hot springs and steam vents.

"Some people believe that life on Mars started in such environments," says Osinski. "So if we can show where to look for these in impact craters on earth we can use that to try and hone in on where we will send the next Mars rover" to look for "habitable environments."

Astronaut joins expedition

Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen is getting in on the research. He joined the expedition to brush up on his field skills in this unforgiving environment.

"It is a real challenge. We don't know the kind of weather we will have. It's unpredictable. We don't know whether we have rescue available. This changes your mindset about how you explore," says Hansen.

He hopes to make it to space in the next decade, and says the practice of gathering data on the Tunnunik crater will help prepare him for real space missions.

"Let's say I was on Mars right now...you look in an area and you want to bring back the best representation of the landscape. So you have to pick the rocks that paint that picture for scientists back on earth. You don't have an unlimited amount of space or weight in your spacecraft so you have to be selective."

The team hopes results from the four-week investigation will start rolling out later this year and into 2016.