How to see the moon or Mars, from the comfort of Earth

bobmcdonald-190.jpgBy Bob McDonald, Quirks & Quarks

The old song says, "Let me see what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars..." Well, a new field guide to the planets enables you to experience those other worlds right here on planet Earth. If you've always wanted to visit the moon or Mars, but haven't quite found the means, then this is for you.

The Open University of the UK has updated its list of the best locations on this planet to experience what it's like on other worlds, and many of those sites are in Canada.

The Concepts for Activities in the Field for Exploration (CAFÉ), or Catalogue of Planetary Analogues, is a list of 30 sites around the world where the geology, or unusual land features, resemble those found on the moon or Mars. These provide immediate study sites for scientists planning missions to those worlds, where they can get a sense of alien landscapes and use them as testing grounds for robots or human missions that may eventually go there.

Visitors to Sudbury, Ont., are often told how the Apollo astronauts came there in the 1960s to train for their missions to the moon. In fact, the entire nickel belt is a huge impact crater, 100 kilometres across, that is similar to those that form the face of the Man in the Moon. These craters were forged during the early days of our solar system, when large objects were flying through space, colliding with all the planets and moons, giving their surfaces a pockmarked look.

Most of the craters on Earth have been smoothed over by weather over the ages, but the rocks and minerals around Sudbury tell the story of what happens to the crust of a planet when it's hit really hard by an object from space.

On Devon Island in Nunavut, there is already a simulated Mars Habitat at Haughton Crater, where researchers explore the terrain, often while wearing model spacesuits and driving multi-wheeled rovers.

Many of these sites are so accessible that you can include them in your vacation plans. Next time you're driving through British Columbia, stop at Pavilion Lake, nestled between mountain peaks in Marble Canyon. The Canadian Space Agency has been conducting research at the bottom of the lake, which is covered in microbialites -- living formations thought to be similar to the first life forms on Earth. Their structure provides clues to the types of formations to look for on Mars, to determine whether life happened there as well.

If you are touring the big Island of Hawaii and make it the top of Mauna Loa, you are actually on top of the world's largest volcano. When measured from its base on the ocean floor, the mountain peak rises 17 km (56,000 ft), taller than Mt. Everest. It also has a similar shape to the largest volcano in the solar system, Olympus Mons on Mars. Hawaii is riddled with long lava tubes that extend far inside the mountain, possibly providing warm shelters for underground springs and microbial life. (Maybe similar caves wind their way inside Martian volcanoes.)

The beauty of these otherworldly locations - which range from far-flung places such as Antarctica, Russia, through the deserts of Australia to more accessible spots, such as Yellowstone Park - is that with a little imagination, you can picture yourself on another planet, especially when the sun is low on the horizon and the sky is a strange colour. (Day-time skies on Mars are pink, not blue.)
We tend to forget that Earth is only one of a family of planets that are all related. We also know that this planet undergoes changes, some slow, like shifting continents or ice ages, some fast, like the daily weather. Other planets go through changes as well, which makes them natural laboratories to help us figure out how worlds evolve over time and how this planet is responding to this global influence known as humanity.