Mars: The next frontier?

A manned mission to Mars is not idle chatter, suggested the Toronto Star Sept. 23. Make no mistake. NASA, the Russians, and very quickly, the Chinese, likely have the technological know-how to do this right now. ("Getting people up there is quite possible. Getting them back is the hard part," says York University Professor Peter Taylor, who worked on Phoenix, NASA’s robotic mission to Mars currently en route. "I wouldn’t want to be on the first trip.")

There are big questions to answer. "Are we alone in the universe?" says Brendan Quine, professor of space engineering at York University, the country’s primary research facility into Martian exploration. "These are profound questions that have far-reaching consequences." Quine is associated with a unit called Northern Light, a joint venture between the school and Thoth Technologies, a Canadian aerospace firm. They’re exploring privately funded space exploration (they hope to launch their own, private Martian probe in 2009, for a fraction of the cost of NASA’s $350 million Phoenix mission). One of Northern Light’s objectives is to search for life. (Phoenix, which for the first time ever will sample some of the planet’s icy ground, may beat them to it, though it’s not one of the mission’s stated goals.)

Key to this, of course, is water – something most believe the planet has in abundance in some form below its dusty ochre surface (the daytime temperature at the Martian equator is 20 degrees Celsius, but drops to -80 at night, so it’s likely ice). A thick band of hydrogen around the equator indicates water in some form. "We think there are very large reserves of water on Mars, actually," Quine says. "There are clear coastlines – multiple coastlines, actually. You can’t say they are until we test them, but they appear to be coastlines. In fact, we think that if we melted all the waters on Mars, we would flood the ocean basins to a depth of 500 metres. Then you’ve got a planet a lot like Earth." Not that this is possible, of course. "But maybe there are ways, without substantially damaging the ecosystem, to bring Mars alive again."

The thin Martian atmosphere is largely carbon dioxide. Left on its own, in a short 10,000 years, UV radiation would break it down to carbon monoxide. But it hasn’t. "That means something is artificially maintaining the carbon dioxide atmosphere." Such as? "Micro-biological life produces carbon dioxide," Quine says. "I suppose volcanoes do as well, but we haven’t seen much evidence of that." Which is why we need to get there. For Quine and many others, all the robotic probes are a dress rehearsal for the real thing. "Before we send people, we need to know what the environment’s like," he says.

  • In a companion story about Northern Light’s plans, Quine told the Star: "We went to the moon 30 years ago, and we don’t seem to have advanced much since. Maybe that’s why we need to try some new ways of funding and exploring." Among Northern Light’s fundraising schemes are naming rights. In a recent published document, they proposed some sponsorship opportunities: To name their landing site on Mars (donation: $3 million); return an audio signal from Mars ($2 million); name the cruise phase ($2 million); and "see your logo on Mars" ($1 million). "It’s how the rest of the world works," shrugs Quine, an affable Brit. "It would make sense if this worked this way too. Otherwise, we can’t all go, can we?"

Second man arrested in York University sex assaults

A second man charged in the sexual assaults on two women at York University has been remanded in custody until Monday, reported the Toronto Star Sept. 23. Justin David Connort, 25, appeared in Old City Hall bail court Saturday.

Wearing a white sweater, the slightly built Connort briefly glanced into the visitor’s gallery in a court appearance that lasted no more than 30 seconds. His lawyer had asked that Connort be remanded for a show-cause hearing scheduled for Sept. 24 at the 1000 Finch Ave. courthouse. Connort, who was arrested Friday, is charged with five counts of breaking and entering and two counts each of gang sexual assault, forcible confinement and sexual assault.

Police say two men roamed the hallways of Vanier Residence together in the early hours of Sept. 7. The pair allegedly entered six unlocked dorm rooms as students slept. Two 19-year-old women were raped and a third woman was attacked. The women were treated in hospital and released.

Daniel Katsnelson, 25, a Thornhill, Ont, man who graduated from York University last year, was arrested on Wednesday after turning himself in to police. Katsnelson faces 11 charges, including break and enter, sexual assault, gang sexual assault and forcible confinement.

News of the second arrest, disseminated by Canadian Press and CanWest News, was reported widely in newspapers and on radio and television reports in Toronto and across Canada Saturday and Sunday. In related coverage:

  • On Sept. 23, The Toronto Sun quoted York spokesman Alex Bilyk as saying there is no record of Connort having graduated from the University. "We’re pleased with the way the investigation is going and will continue to support it any way we can," Bilyk said. "We’re just going to continue to preach the safety message."
  • Global TV aired an interview with relieved parents of a first-year female student and females students on campus about the two arrests, on Sept. 22.
  • A CanWest News Service story Sept. 22 reported that Canadian universities are beefing up security measures after attacks that took place in September at Carleton University in Ottawa and York University in Toronto.
  • A letter from Carolyn Gibson, a King’s University College professor, published Sept. 24 in the Toronto Star Sept. 24, said: September is back-to-school month for students across the country, but it is also recognized as the month where Take Back the Night activities are organized to raise awareness of safety issues for women. Now, more than ever, we all need to care about the issues affecting our young women.

Campus locations prove prescient

In a letter published Sept. 24 in the Toronto Star, Peter Berg, a member of the board of governors, University of Ontario Institute of Technology, wrote: In a perfect world, where capital funding for schools is abundant, UOIT should have been built in the downtown core. However, this would have required a concerted effort by the province, the region, the city and the university. Given the monumental task of launching Ontario’s first new university in decades, as well as time constraints, this was not feasible. Four years after UOIT’s launch, the GTA is now facing a university enrolment crunch, and only York University and UOIT are blessed with enough space for expansion.

Stacked quintet gives fine performance

When you attend concerts at Kitchener’s Registry Theatre, you invariably hear something unique and fresh, began a review Sept. 24 in The Record (Kitchener, Cambridge and Waterloo). Such was the case on Saturday night, when the One Night Only: Live at the Registry concert series kicked off its fourth season with a fine performance by the Glenn Buhr Quintet, including saxophonist Sundar Viswanathan, currently a professor of jazz at York University.

On air

  • Ian Roberge, political science professor at York’s Glendon College, discussed the Ontario leaders debate in a piece aired on newscasts Sept. 21 on CBC Radio-Canada in Ottawa and Sudbury.