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Canada On Mars

An MER undergoing a workout last November at JPL in Pasadena

Toronto - Aug 01, 2003
Canadian engineers and scientists are playing an increasingly important role in the search for water and life on Mars. Two missions with Canadian-made components are now en route to the Red Planet, and more ambitious Canadian involvement may ensue in 2007 and 2009.

An international fleet of landers and orbiters has been dispatched to our neighbor planet, designed to uncover the mysterious past of this most Earth-like of worlds. Recognizing past Canadian expertise in a number of engineering and scientific disciplines, the international community has engaged Canada's cutting-edge research and design capabilities to participate in the exploration of the Red Planet. A world that conceals clues to the cosmic history of life and planetary climates, Mars possesses keys to questions in emerging scientific fields that cannot be found on Earth.

The two recently-launched NASA rovers, dubbed "Spirit" and "Opportunity", carry sophisticated cameras for the study and safe navigation of Mars' forbidding terrain. The rover's three navigation cameras use image sensors fashioned by the Bromont, Qużbec division of DALSA Corporation (Waterloo, Ontario).

Upon landing in early 2004, these optics will be central to the most sophisticated colour imaging systems ever sent to another world, and will enable NASA to guide the rover in its daily traverses.

Canada is also involved in the latest wave of exploration on the research front. The Japanese orbiter Nozomi, also to arrive in early 2004, carries the Thermal Plasma Analyzer (TPA), wholly designed and built in Canada. Professor Andrew Yau of the University of Calgary, TPA Principal Investigator, hopes that the analyzer's studies of the Martian atmosphere will provide clues to the presence of water in the distant past, and explain the planet's transformation into today's tantalizing desert world.

Capitalizing on this pedigree, Canadian space scientists and engineers have been able to compete with the best in the world. In 2007, NASA intends to launch the "Scout" mission to Mars. The design process of Scout was open to competitive bids by international teams, and NASA received 25 flight proposals. Of these, the US space agency selected four proposals for serious consideration, and two of the bids - MARVEL and Phoenix - include Canadian involvement.

The Canadian space program began with the study of Earth's atmosphere and magnetic environment, and the nation's excellence in this field continues to be recognized. At the head of a research consortium of several Canadian universities is Professor James Drummond of the University of Toronto, Principal Investigator in the Canadian component of the MARVEL mission. If selected, MARVEL will analyze the Martian atmosphere down to the smallest constituents, thus uncovering evidence of possible biological activity.

With established relationships in providing space hardware to NASA, Optech Incorporated (Toronto, Ontario) and its industrial partner MD Robotics (Brampton, Ontario) were invited to collaborate in the Phoenix Scout proposal.

Phoenix would land on the polar plains of Mars to examine newly-discovered water ice deposits for signs of life and clues to the planet's past. Principal Investigator and York University Professor Emeritus Allan Carswell's pioneering experience in developing laser remote-sensing enables Optech and MDR to contribute this Canadian-derived technology to Phoenix, allowing the lander to examine the layers of the Martian atmosphere.

Future Canadian participation in Mars missions could be greater still. NASA called upon the Canadian Space Agency to provide up to three essential components to the 2009 Mars Science Laboratory, perhaps NASA's most ambitious robotic mission ever. Two of these instruments would help fulfill the mission's lofty science goals, and one would be essential to the survival of the mission.

  • The Northern Centre for Advanced Technology (Sudbury, Ontario) has turned Canadian Shield mining acumen into the "Canadrill", a device capable of penetrating 2 metres into the Martian surface - deeper than any competing device. The Canadrill, which has already produced marketable spin-off technologies for Canadian mining, would be a lightweight "dry drill", revolutionizing drilling operations in space and promising to augment mining capabilities on Earth.

  • To ensure the drill's effective operation and its ability to reach designated targets, MD Robotics would provide a sample acquisition and processing apparatus. Building upon the principles learned in constructing the world-renowned Canadarm, the rover "arm" would operate reliably on the Martian surface for a year, enabling the examination of dozens of samples.

  • Before these instruments would operate on the surface, however, the rover would be guided to an extremely safe and precise landing by another device pioneered, designed and built by Canadians. As the recognized world leader in "LIDAR" technology, Optech Incorporated would provide a "laser radar" technology called LAPS to direct the lander to a safe location as it rapidly descends toward the Martian surface. This innovative device was developed in association with the Canadian Space Agency and would be built in collaboration with MD Robotics.

Yet these prospects are now in peril. The Mars Society of Canada, as part of a coalition of student and space advocacy groups recognizing Canada's wealth of expertise, has embarked on a campaign to inform the public of our nation's scientific and technological prowess, its economic benefits and its relevance to our understanding of the Earth. The 2003 federal budget contained none of the funds necessary to pursue the Canadian Space Agency's newly planned Mars involvement.

The Mars Society, in collaboration with the Canadian Space Society, the Carleton University Mechanical and Aerospace Society, and the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space, has therefore initiated a petition, urging the Canadian government to support the nation's burgeoning space research and technology sector.

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