Mission to Red Planet carries York-built devices

Canada’s first mission to Mars is less than three weeks from its destination, with a package of instruments that will tell scientists about clouds, dust and weather on the Red Planet, wrote the Ottawa Citizen May 7. It’s not an all-Canadian mission, but Canada built about one-fifth of the scientific instruments packed aboard Mars Phoenix, NASA’s first probe to Mars in two years.

Canada has never been part of a successful Mars mission, though we sent one instrument on a Japanese probe that was damaged in space and missed its rendezvous with the planet. This time, the Canadian team, led by York University, estimates a 95-per-cent chance of landing softly on May 25. Already, Canadian space scientists are gravitating to Tucson, where the University of Arizona is headquarters for the scientific work on data from the mission.

Canada has built two parts of Mars Phoenix, says Peter Taylor, a space scientist in York University’s Faculty of Science & Engineering:

– One is called lidar‚ a radar-like device that shoots pencil-thin laser beams at the atmosphere to study the thin clouds and thicker dust. The shoebox-sized device will scan for dust devils – swirling squalls of dust. Fine red-brown dust is everywhere on Mars, and it can gum up machinery.

– The other is a mini-weather station. It won’t forecast much but it should give accurate readings of temperature, wind and air pressure day by day in the Martian Arctic.

Both instruments have an official 92-day mission, with hopes of lasting twice that long before winter kills them.

NASA is particularly eager to find organic molecules that would hint at past life on Mars. “Or even present life,” Taylor says. It’s not seen as the biggest possibility, but some Mars experts still say it’s there. “NASA is sort of downplaying the search-for-life aspect, but it crops up all the time.” The mission, he adds, “gives Canada a significant profile internationally.”

The main point in going lies in simply trying to understand another planet, said Canadian lead investigator Jim Whiteway, Canada Research Chair in Space Engineering & Atmospheric Science and a professor in York’s Space Engineering Program in the Faculty of Science & Engineering. “That’s first and foremost, but obviously there is an application, because there are plans for humans to explore Mars. And the first thing you need to know is the environment they’ll be working in,” he said.

Whiteway has spent a career studying Earth’s atmosphere. Now, he says, new opportunities are opening up for Canadian scientists. “Previously if you wanted to do planetary science, the first thing you’d think about was the move down to California.”

With six research scientists, their staffs and students all working on this project, Whiteway says, “it’s the beginning of a Canadian community” doing direct planetary exploration from Canada, during actual missions. “And as this one is going on, we’re planning our next project and designing new instruments.”

Other scientists on the project include Allan Carswell, professor emeritus in York’s Faculty of Science & Engineering (whose company, Optech, developed the prototype for the lidar) and Professor Cameron Dickinson of Dalhousie University. The entire mission will cost $386 million.

Motherhood comes naturally, mothering doesn’t

When I became a mother in 1998, “maternal feminism” was a concept just in its infancy, wrote columnist Dawn Henwood in The Chronicle Herald (Halifax) May 7. York University’s Association for Research on Mothering (ARM), a leading promoter of scholarship and activism in the field, was newly born. Had I only known, the feminist scholars who formed ARM were starting to create fresh vocabulary and theoretical constructs to help make sense of contemporary mothering. Such resources have been a long time coming, and the conversations they are sparking have the potential to rescue mothering from institutionalism and restore it as a verb.

ARM provides a healthy counterbalance to backward-looking organizations, like Focus on the Family, which pretend to support mothering but really prop up antediluvian ideals of motherhood. ARM’s activities don’t merely foster academic dialogue but also reach out into the community, encouraging mothers from all walks of life to reflect on and take full ownership of their role in society. As its Web site explains, ARM encourages mothers to “link ‘lived mothering’ to ‘examined motherhood’.”

To counteract the trivialization of motherhood, ARM holds community potlucks to give moms a chance to talk about how they mother and what mothering means to them. The gatherings are called Mother Outlaws, a title that can be, in the current mothering climate, only partly tongue-in-cheek. Those who question the meaning of motherhood engage in social deviance. Turning the spotlight on the difficult, conflict-ridden work of mothering means turning away from the shallow sentimentality that makes Mother’s Day one of the high points in the retail calendar. ARM’s work is thus profoundly counter-cultural – and work that urgently needs to be done.

New transit lines will drive house prices

The proposed expansion of the Toronto Transit Commission’s Spadina subway line through York University’s Keele campus to Vaughan will be a major catalyst to population growth, driving up resale values by as much as 20 per cent in neighbourhoods along the new corridor, wrote the Toronto Star May 7, citing a new study.

In the 27-page report released yesterday, the six-station expansion of the TTC’s Spadina line is the top choice to benefit from future transportation changes in the Greater Toronto Area.

“Accessibility is a critical determinant of residential land values and the improved access between urban centres and residential neighbourhoods greatly improves the value of homes,” says the study, The GTA Transportation Effect, which looks at how transportation changes affect housing values.

The TTC plans to build new stops, starting with an extension to York University and ending at Vaughan Corporate Centre by 2014.

On air

  • James Laxer, political science professor in York’s Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies, spoke about debate among candidates for the US presidency about the future of the "American empire", on CBC Radio May 6.
  • Osgoode graduates Naseem Mithoowani (LLB ’07), Khurrum Awan (LLB ’07) and Muneeza Sheikh (BA ’04, LLB ’07) spoke about their human rights complaint against Maclean’s magazine and writer Mark Steyn on TVO’s “The Agenda”, May 6.