I live in a small city called Sudbury in Northern Ontario, Canada. How that came about is a bit of tale in itself, but not the subject of this post. Needless to say it’s often seen as an eccentric choice by many when they hear about it. (“You’re moving to where?” Said the immigration officer at Pearson Airport in Toronto.)
Sudbury is what a lot of people would call a “working town.” The main industry here and the reason the town exists is mining. In the past they mined gold and diamonds, but the real mineral power houses have always been nickel and copper–produced here for well over a century. On the west side of town stands a giant Canadian Nickel as testament to the wealth hard-rock mining has brought to the area and many areas and streets around town are named after mining and mining companies. Even Edison got in on the act and moved to Sudbury as a prospector in 1901, discovering the key Falconbridge ore deposit.
The legacy of such endeavors isn’t always pleasant though and in the 50s and 60s pollution from the mines and smelters had destroyed the environment to such a level the area looked like a desert of black rock and shale. I’m pleased to say that a major land reclamation program along with extensive tree planting has paid off and now the city is much greener, showing only a few of the scars of that time. Over 3,300 hectares of land have been rehabilitated and Sudbury was honored at the 2002 Earth Summit for it’s continued regreening initiatives.
The city itself sits in the center of a vast impact crater known as the Sudbury Basin. This was formed by the impact around 1.8 million years ago of an asteroid or comet around 10-15km in diameter. The impact sent large amounts of debris into the air and was undoubtedly a world-wide event. Even after all this time you can still see impact features such as shattercones dotted around the rocky landscape.
This is where the space connection begins. In the 1960s, NASA sent Apollo astronauts to Sudbury for training. According to the popular myth the blasted surface of the area was the closest they could get to the desolate lunar surface. But the truth is they were here to learn and understand impact features such as breccia and the aforementioned shattercones, which aso feature prominently on the lunar surface also. They also used the area to test the famous lunar rover that would feature in several of the excursions to the moon.
That’s not the only NASA connection with the city though. In the 1970s NASA was researching anomalies in the Earth’s gravitational field. A number of observation stations were set up around the world, including one here in Sudbury. There’s still a plaque commemorating it and a short hiking trail will get you there. Recently we visited the area and took pictures of the plaque and concrete base of the observation station. NASA also built a small observatory near the town to aid their satellite tracking program. This has now been taken over by the local astronomy club and is the host location for numerous star parties.
Plaque commemorating NASA’s GEOS-B observation post in Sudbury
Sudbury’s connection with space doesn’t end there either. Located 2100m underground at the old Creighton mine site lies the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory. This giant underground detector started operation in 1999 and consists of 1,000 tonnes of heavy water (Deuterium Oxide) contained inside a six-meter vessel with detectors designed to catch the slightest glimpse of neutrinos passing through it.
Prior to the establishment of the SNO, only around a third of the neutrinos predicted to be emitted by the sun had been detected. The observatory confirmed that oscillations between the three different types of neutrinos took place, leading to the low detected value. The observatory represented by its head, Arthur B. McDonald, received a Nobel Prize in 2015 for the discovery of Neutrino Oscillation. Although the initial program has now ended the facility continues with other related research. In 2002, Robert Sawyer set the first of his award-winning Neanderthal Parallax stories at the SNO.
With the recent growth of interest in space flight and the private space development movement headlined by SpaceX. It seems only natural to look at how we can start to make use of space-borne resources. Plans for mining on the moon and asteroids are now frequently discussed in the news. With its long experience in hard-rock mining, Canada is poised to extend its operations to these new fields and is actively promoting its services and technology. NORCAT (Nothern Center for Advance Technology) has been in operation in Sudbury since the mid-90s and provides support, lab and shop space to local innovation companies, many of which are now setting their sights firmly off-world.
Several local companies have been collaborating with NASA and the Canadian Space Agency in developing next-generation lunar rovers and mining robots capable of leading the charge to access these new resources. Others are using their knowledge of mining to develop drills that can be used to mine ice or minerals. in low and zero gravity environments.
So there you go. After a long history of connection with space and NASA, space mining research is bringing Sudbury bang up to date. It’s a pity that sometimes the city doesn’t make as much of these achievements as it might. Yes, it’s still “just” a working town, but one that’s mining to the stars… and beyond!
What space connections does your town have? Let me know in the comments below.