York University is going to Mars

Canadian Universities Forum (discussion group)

Subject: York University is going to Mars
Now is the time to check out the Red Planet

In three more years, the Phoenix lander mission will place, among other experiments, a York-designed weather station on the surface of the Red Planet. York is the lead university for the Canadian component of the mission, which is a partnership between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) as well as other groups.

Several members of the mission´s science team were on hand for a press conference on Oct. 27, announcing a final $6 million in funding from the CSA towards the meteorological station (MET). The MET will be built by Brampton-based aerospace company MDA using specifications from York space science professors.

The MET will have instruments to characterize the environment of the landing site including temperature, wind and pressure sensors. A device called a LIDAR (LIght Detection And Ranging) will also be onboard the MET. A LIDAR works in a manner similar to radar, but emits narrow pulses of laser light at a target as opposed to radio waves. The shorter wavelength of laser light allows measurements to be made for smaller objects (such as dust or cloud particles). The Martian atmosphere in the region of the landing site will be probed by the LIDAR from up to 20 km above ground level.

Toronto-based Optech, founded and now chaired by York professor emeritus Allan Carswell, is involved in its development for this mission.

The Canadian science team is led by professors in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric science, as well as from the Department of Space Science and Engineering at York. It was through Carswell that York was brought into the fold. The principal investigator for the team is professor Diane Michelangeli, who has experience studying clouds, water vapour, dust and fog on Earth and has previously done Mars-related work. Professor Peter Taylor studies wind and blowing snow in the Canadian arctic, making his expertise especially adaptable to this interplanetary mission. Space engineering professor Jim Whiteway is leading the design, testing and implementation of the LIDAR to be used on Mars and is an expert in the field of studying cloud processes using LIDAR.

One of the scientific goals of the $450 million Phoenix mission is to study climate patterns at northern latitudes. The lander will arrive at the polar-region landing site in the spring, when a significant mass of ice there will sublimate (become gaseous).
Water can then be studied in both the liquid and gas phases. The MET will be most valuable in this area.

"There are a lot of questions about where this water ice ends up . . . Observing these clouds and dust storms with the Phoenix LIDAR will provide exciting new insight into the climate of Mars," said professor Taylor.

Another goal of the mission is to perform analyses on Mars relevant to the search for life. It has been shown that microbial colonies can lie dormant for millions of years in harsh conditions like those present on Mars. By examining the soil from subsurface permafrost regions, it is hoped that an indication can be given regarding the site´s suitability to sustain life within the past 100,000 years.

The lander will begin its 10-month long journey in Aug. 2007, following a successful descent to the Martian surface in May 2008 and it will operate for three to five months. This will be the first time Canada will be in involved in a Martian lander.
The knowledge gained from the Phoenix mission may prove to be invaluable in the eventual human exploration of Mars. Until then, the closest that humans can hope to get to Mars is when it is near its "opposition" with the Earth; the point during the Martian orbit when Mars is opposite the sun with the Earth directly in between, making a straight line. This also happens to be the time that Mars is closest to our planet, meaning that it visually is at its brightest and largest as viewed through a telescope.

While Mars was slightly closer during the well-publicized opposition in 2003, Mars will this time rise higher in the sky, creating favourable conditions for viewing detail on the surface. The astronomical observatory at York held special public viewing nights during the final week of October to coincide with this close approach, but most of "Mars Week" was clouded out. Mars will, however, remain prominent through mid-November. Although oppositions occur about every two years, Mars will not actually be this close again until 2018, so be certain to visit the observatory on a clear Wednesday evening soon.

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