York research heads for Mars aboard NASA’s Phoenix Mission

Meteorological instrumentation developed by a team led by York University space scientists will play a key role in NASA’s Phoenix Mission to Mars, scheduled to launch on Saturday, Aug. 4.

York University leads the Canadian science team responsible for the design and construction of the lander’s sophisticated weather station, which will gather critical data about the weather and climate on Mars. This meteorological information package (MET) will provide a comprehensive picture of Martian weather at the landing site. It was constructed with $37 million in funding from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

Right: An illustration of the Phoenix Lander, created by artist Corby Waste of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Image courtesy NASA JPL.

The Phoenix Mission is slated to land on Mars in May 2008. It will investigate a site in the far north of the planet to answer questions about that part of Mars, and to help resolve broader questions concerning water and conditions that could support life.

"Information gathered by our instrumentation on the formation and movement of clouds, fog, and dust plumes will add valuable new insights into the climate of Mars and the planet’s potential for supporting life," says lead scientist Jim Whiteway, professor of space engineering at York University.

The MET package consists of temperature sensors, a wind sensor and a pressure sensor, as well as a sophisticated laser-based light-detecting-and-ranging (lidar) system. The lidar uses laser light pulses to precisely measure distances and diagnose components of the atmosphere, including concentrations of fog, dust and clouds.

Richard Hornsey, associate dean of York’s School of Engineering, says the Phoenix Mission is an exciting combination of space science and space engineering. "It reflects the unique expertise in these fields at York at both the research and undergraduate levels," he says.

The MET package was developed in partnership with the University of Alberta, Dalhousie University, Optech and the Geological Survey of Canada, with international collaboration from The Finnish Meteorological Institute. MDA Space Missions is the prime contractor for the meteorological station, in partnership with Optech, which manufactured the lidar. Denmark’s Aarhus University constructed part of the wind sensor.

The members of York’s Phoenix team are:

Allan Carswell, professor emeritus in the Department of Physics & Astronomy, Faculty of Science & Engineering, is one of Canada’s pre-eminent space scientists and an internationally-recognized leader in the field of lidar systems. In 1974, he founded Optech to develop commercial systems based on lidar technology. The lidar technology pioneered by Carswell will measure dust, clouds and fog in the Martian atmosphere.

Diane Michelangeli, professor of atmospheric science in the Department of Earth & Space Science & Engineering, Faculty of Science & Engineering, is studying processes involving clouds, water vapour, dust and fog in the Martian atmosphere.

Peter Taylor, professor of atmospheric science and applied mathematics in the Department of Earth & Space Science & Engineering, Faculty of Science & Engineering, studies wind and blowing snow in the Canadian Arctic, making him an ideal scientist for research into the Martian sub-polar climate. He and his team completed wind tunnel testing of the temperature sensors that will be used on the Mars lander, and conducted research into issues related to dust concentrations in the lower atmosphere of Mars and sublimation of exposed ice surfaces.

Jim Whiteway, professor of space engineering and York’s Canada Research Chair in Space Engineering and Atmospheric Science, is a noted expert in the use of lidar technology to study cloud processes. He is the team’s principal investigator and he led the design, testing and implementation of the lidar system.

For more information on Canada’s role in the Phoenix Mission, visit: www.space.gc.ca/asc/eng/exploration/phoenix.asp.