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'Space centre' coming to the north to train astronauts, inspire youth in STEM

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Cochrane-based Stardust Technologies is developing what they hope will be a world-renowned space centre in northern Ontario, dedicated to training astronauts for space travel, inspiring youth to pursue careers in the sciences and attracting more tech companies to the region.

Dubbed the Stardust Space Centre, CEO Jason Michaud said the goal is to create a facility that brings international experts together with a common goal of improving astronauts' experiences as they venture into the cosmos.

"If we want to make space accessible for everyone, it starts with breaking the borders and just all collaborating as one big family and setting all of our differences aside," said Michaud, who has been experimenting with virtual reality technology as a way to improve astronauts' mental health during space missions.

"If humanity wants to thrive up there, we need empathy ... otherwise, we're not going to survive in space."

Stardust is partnering with unannounced government agencies, as well as aerospace companies and universities in Canada and abroad, to make the space centre possible.

Michaud invited around 20 collaborators and local officials to view the site of the planned facility Saturday, complete with a celebratory miniature rocket launch, snowshoeing and a tour of the community during its winter carnival weekend.

Training for space travel

Michaud said the Stardust Space Centre will span more than 115 acres and include several inflatable domes.

Some domes will house training facilities to perform weeks or even months of isolation simulations that attempt to mimic the sensation of being on a space mission, perhaps on a short jaunt to the International Space Station—or even voyage to Mars.

Those Earth-bound simulations are called 'analog missions' and a journalist and filmmaker who participates in those missions as an 'analog astronaut' around the world told CTV there is exciting potential for this type of facility.

"One of the things that we're lacking is spaces where we can emulate the isolation conditions that we are actually going to be facing in those spacecrafts," said P.J. Marcelino, who worked with Stardust on a recent analog mission focusing on mental health during long-range space travel.

"There's a real potential to attract actual astronauts to train in this kind of station, for what they're going to be facing in the next coming years."

Marcelino said the Stardust Space Centre will allow for year-round missions in a climate that would be similar to what astronauts may face on Earth's nearest neighbour planet.

Inspiring the next generation

Michaud said other domes in the facility will house the Stardust Institute of Technology, which will give youth a chance to learn skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in their own communities.

The University of Waterloo, Western University and University of Technology Sydney in Australia are among the academic partners that will help train local youth—plus local First Nations and Indigenous agencies will work with the centre to give Indigenous youth the chance to get into STEM.

"It's really about creating this future, where they can grow and learn and collaborate ... we really just want to inspire them," said Michaud.

"To show these kids that there are different opportunities ... and just show them that they can remain in the north and have these great experiences."

That's a mentality that fuelled Stardust's collaboration with Concordia University's student-run Space Concordia group in Montreal.

Two students who attended the announcement said they are working on the largest rocket launch in the country since the late 1990s and are working with Stardust on the project. They said exposing youth to the possibilities of careers in STEM is a passion of theirs that they hope to bring to northern Ontario.

"It's always great getting Canadians more and more involved with space, especially since we've clearly have a talent for it," said Concordia rocket science student Oleg Khalimonov.

"We're planning on doing a lot of outreach events with (Stardust) to do with rockets."

University partners brought model rockets and interactive robotics to Cochrane for a 'Rockets on Ice' event on Sunday, as an outreach initiative to get the community excited for the launch of the space centre sometime this year.

Attracting the innovators of tomorrow

Michaud's other plan for his space centre is to house the Stardust Innovation Hub, an incubator for entrepreneurs to launch a STEM-related business, attract investment from existing companies and encourage innovation in the industry.

The goal is to develop a robust STEM industry in the north. Cochrane Mayor Denis Clement expressed his excitement for the economic potential the hub and the space centre as a whole can bring to the area.

The plan is to have some of the space centre's operations active by the summer — and Michaud said he wants this to foster a stronger international community of space professionals.

"We need to collaborate with a lot of people to make stuff happen," Michaud said.

"We've got to stop thinking in our small mindset that we're in competition, we're not. We can all benefit each other and thrive together as humans."

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