The interplanetary search for water

It’s a bit like dowsing for water, only instead of the traditional rod and pendulum, scientists from York University, NASA and the Canadian Space Agency will use a 70-kilogram instrument that is roughly the size of a briefcase – and the dowsing will be done on Mars. The search for water on the red planet is important because if scientists find it, there will probably be evidence of life close by.

Right: A rendition of the Phoenix Lander as it approaches a touch down on the surface of Mars. Graphic by NASA JPL, Corby Waste.

Yesterday, York University scientists and industry representatives welcomed the announcement by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) of a final contribution of $6 million to build a fully-integrated weather station for NASA’s 2007 Phoenix Mission to Mars. The announcement was made during a news conference at York’s Keele campus featuring key members of the team responsible for the Canadian component for the NASA mission, including York space scientists, scientists from the high-tech firms MDA and Optech, and enthusiastic York students.

York University is the Canadian science lead for the next mission to the red planet. When the Phoenix mission lands on Mars in May 2008, it will study the Martian climate, the planet’s geological history of water and the potential of the soil to support life on the planet. Scientists from York have contributed to the development of a meteorological station, known as MET, which will contain a laser-based light-detecting and ranging (lidar) system that will detect dust and clouds in the Martian atmosphere. The weater station will be built by MDA of Brampton, Ont., with lidar expertise provided by Optech and with scientific input from York.

Left: The news conference gets underway in the foyer of the Computer Science & Engineering Building

“For the first time in history, Canada’s scientific expertise and instrumentation will be deployed on the surface of Mars,” said Lorna R. Marsden, York’s president and vice-chancellor. “We are very proud of the contribution that York scientists are making to this groundbreaking NASA mission. York is truly at the forefront of space studies and research in the country.”

Peter Taylor, professor and program director in the Department of Earth & Space Science & Engineering  in York’s Faculty of Science and Engineering, was elated by the announcement. “Am I excited about this project? Yes definitely,” said Taylor. “When Alan Carswell, a professor emeritus in our department, was invited to participate in the Phoenix mission, he brought York into Phoenix project and it is very exciting because this is Canada’s first mission to Mars, working with our NASA partners.”

Right: Professor Peter Taylor provides an overview of York’s role and the science behind the Phoenix mission

Taylor, together with Professor Diane Michelangeli, principal investigator of the Phoenix team at York, and York Professor Jim Whiteway, a noted expert in the use of lidar systems, will be working with Carswell, professor emeritus in York’s Department of Physics and Astronomy. Carswell is one of Canada’s leading scientists and a global leader in lidar systems and is the founder of Optech, a developer of commercial systems based on lidar technology.

“It is good to be able to apply the expertise developed in Canada to a space mission,” said Taylor. “This is an interesting extension of the work we do here at York. Canada is at the leading edge of space research because of York, MDA and Optech’s expertise in lidar technology.

“We hope that everything works smoothly. The central theme of the mission is to follow the water. The idea is that life on Earth tends to revolve around water and if there was life once long ago on Mars, then the place to look for life is in the planet’s water. The area that we are going to, which is 70 degrees north, does not have liquid water but it has a lot of ice. If you look at an ice core taken from the Arctic, it contains bubbles of highly saline water with organisms living in that water, so the potential is certainly there to find life in the ice sample on Mars.

“Landing close to the icy Martian north polar cap in spring will also let us study a remarkable feature of the Martian climate,” added Taylor. “Each spring a significant mass of water ice evaporates from the polar cap forming seasonal ice clouds. There are lots of questions about where this water ice ends up and how stable the current Martian ice cap is. Observing these clouds and dust storms with the Phoenix lidar will provide exciting new insight into the climate of Mars.”

The Canadian Space Agency is contributing a total of $19.5 million for the design and construction of the lander’s fully-integrated meteorological instrument package, the MET. “Canada has an exciting role in the international Mars expedition and our scientific and industrial space expertise gains recognition by contributing to this key experiment,” said Vicky Hipkin, CSA program scientist for planetary exploration. “MET will assist in the Phoenix mission’s study of water. Discoveries about the severe weather on Mars are very important to our understanding of the planet.”

Gillian Wu, dean of the Faculty of Science & Engineering, said, “This is a tremendous opportunity for all of us at York, for Optech, the Canadian Space Agency, NASA and MDA. What this partnership brings is a recognition to Canada of its space research. It brings recognition to our world-class scientists at York, Optech and MDA. New graduate students and engineering students will reap the benefits of the data collected by Phoenix. The Phoenix mission brings Canada to Mars and what a wonderful accomplishment it is.”

Taylor concluded by noting that space research is a team activity and that Phoenix is providing an excellent opportunity for York researchers to actively collaborate with others from the US, Germany, Britain, Denmark and Finland.

“Improving our understanding of complex weather patterns on Mars is important to future exploration – and perhaps one day to manned missions to the red planet,” said Taylor.