Mars mission a giant leap for York’s space scientists


Above: The Phoenix lander will settle on Mars’ north polar region in 2008. (Illustration courtesy of the Phoenix team, University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Lab.)

York University’s space scientists are so euphoric right now that their spirits might well be halfway to Mars. Over the long weekend, the announcement came that their Phoenix team has been selected for the US$325-million 2007 Mars Scout Mission by the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA).

The news, which rocketed around North America, was an especially hot topic in the Canadian media. All major newspapers and broadcasters carried the story (see York in the Media).

NASA’s announcement capped a period of high suspense for space researchers in Canada. Earlier in the summer, word was out that Phoenix and Marvel, another international research team that includes York Professor John McConnell of the Department of Earth & Atmospheric Science, were two of the four finalists for the mission, and scientists were waiting to hear which bids would be selected.

“We are all very excited and pleased. This is a wonderful recognition of Canada’s leading role in atmospheric science and the advancement of lidar technology,” said York Professor Emeritus Allan Carswell (right), space scientist and Chair of Optech, a high-tech company that manufactures laser-based light-detecting and ranging (lidar) systems. “Optech and York are prepared and ready to be part of the Phoenix Scout Mission.”

Marc Garneau, York honorary doctorate recipient and president of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), was equally enthusiastic. “Our congratulations go out to both Canadian teams,” he said. “NASA’s selection of the Phoenix team for the Mars 2007 Scout Mission is recognition of Canada’s world-renowned technology and leading space science expertise.” The CSA is contributing $20 million to the project.

Lorna R. Marsden, York’s president and vice-chancellor, described the announcement as a “remarkable achievement for York University and its team of pioneering space scientists, who are helping to forge new frontiers in space exploration. This win makes it clear that York’s space scientists are among the very best in the world.”

At a news conference at the Keele campus yesterday attended by major Toronto media, Marsden paid tribute to Carswell, who showed off a model demonstrating lidar technology, and Gordon Shepherd, director of York’s Centre for Research on Earth and Space Science (CRESS). “This achievement,” said Marsden, “was the result of 40 years of basic space research at York.”

Canada’s participation in the US-led team will include the development of a meteorological package, known as MET, by Optech and MD Robotics. This package, which includes Optech’s Mars lidar system, will measure the pressure and temperature of the atmosphere and provide details on dust and water clouds in the atmosphere.

York’s role in investigating the Martian atmosphere will be directed by Professors Diane Michelangeli (left) and Peter Taylor (right), both of the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Science in York’s Faculty of Pure and Applied Science.

As members of the Phoenix Canadian team (Phoenix researchers are also based in Germany and Switzerland, along with the US), they will develop computer models of the atmosphere and these models will be used for mission planning as well as data analysis, once the mission is in operation.

“Mars is known to have major dust storms,” said Michelangeli. “York’s computer models will bring valuable insights to increase our understanding of the Martian atmosphere, its temperature, winds, water and cloud formations.

Right: The Red Planet – Mars

“The more we learn, the better our ability to reduce the risk of problems for any future manned missions to the planet.”

The Phoenix mission will use a lander originally prepared for a NASA mission cancelled in 2001. This lander, due to touch down on Mars in May 2008, will provide a highly reliable means to soft-land on the planet, since it includes a capability for guided entry and hazard avoidance, using camera and lidar observations.

Canada’s lidar instrumentation expertise could contribute to the success of this landing capability.

Check out NASA’s Web site for more information on the mission, at

What is lidar?

Lidar is a term for light detecting and ranging – laser radar. As explained on the Optech Web site, it works a lot like ordinary radar, except that Optech systems send out narrow pulses or beams of light rather than broad radio waves.

A receiver system times, counts and processes the returning light. Laser radar depends on knowing the speed of light, approximately 0.3 metres per nanosecond. Using that, scientists can calculate how far a returning light photon has travelled to and from an object. For more information visit

Allan Carswell

Allan Carswell is a senior and internationally recognized leader in the field of lidar applications, in which he has been working since its very beginnings in the early 1960s. He founded Optech in 1974 to develop commercial systems based on lidar technology.

Carswell is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and the Canadian Aeronautics and Space Institute. He has held a variety of senior positions of responsibility, including president of the Canadian Association of Physicists, vice-president of the Canadian Academy of Science, and member of boards of directors of a number of industrial corporations and public institutions.