Gravity studies could aid Mars missions


Last October, Spiros Pagiatakis (above) received $184,000 from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) to help establish Canada’s first space geodesy laboratory at York. Such a lab – currently in design and expected to begin operating by the end of the summer – could help Canada gain ground in a rapidly expanding new field.

Canada is a world leader in land-based gravity measurements, but lags in space-based studies. This new lab will change that, says Pagiatakis.

Geodesy is the mathematical study of the size and shape of the earth and its gravity field. It is crucial to the understanding of climate change, weather patterns and geophysical activity on the planet, including ocean circulation, glacial movement, tectonic plate shifts and volcanoes.

The field has expanded rapidly since 2000 when two low, earth-orbiting (LEO) satellites were launched. They have been transmitting massive amounts of data and stimulating a flurry of activity in geodesy.

Pagiatakis’ study of the Earth’s gravity field will likely lead to more accurate global positioning systems used in search and rescue and in agriculture, forestry and transportation planning, resource exploration and climate change.

Right: Mars Global Surveyor, launched by NASA

Space geodetic techniques can be equally applied to studies of the gravity field of Mars to help detect aquifers and other subsurface formations from spacecraft missions over the next few years. Studies in this area have already begun, says Pagiatakis.

CFI recently sent a certificate of congratulations to Pagiatakis, one of several York faculty members who have received CFI grants during the past year.

The total cost of the geodesy lab is $462,500, of which CFI covers 40 per cent. Another 40 per cent comes from the Ontario Innovation Trust and the remaining 20 per cent from private companies, such as equipment suppliers that are offering deep discounts, says Pagiatakis.