Phoenix landing on Mars a success

As far as landings go, this one was picture perfect.

Canadian technology touched down on Mars for the first time in history on Sunday evening, aboard NASA’s Phoenix lander, with York University researchers leading the Canadian science team.

Phoenix landed on Mars just before 8pm EDT. Its cargo includes a Canadian-built meteorological station which will gather crucial information about the climate on Mars and provide a comprehensive picture of the atmosphere at the landing site 1,200 km from the planet’s northern pole. This is the first time such data will be collected.

Scientists from York University led the design and construction of the meteorological equipment, in collaboration with the University of Alberta, Dalhousie University, the University of Aarhus in Denmark, the Finnish Meteorological Institute, and the Canadian firms of MDA Space Missions and Optech Inc., with $37 million in funding from the Canadian Space Agency.

The meteorological station consists of temperature, wind and pressure sensors, as well as a laser based-light-detecting-and-ranging (lidar) system. The lidar will shoot pulses of laser light into the Martian sky, precisely measuring components of the atmosphere, such as dust, ground fog and clouds, from the surface up to a range of 20 km.

York researchers will receive a daily Martian weather report for the duration of the mission – approximately 92 days, or 90 Martian sols.

"We’re very excited to be deploying Canadian technology on Mars for the first time," says Jim Whiteway, professor of space engineering at York and the principal investigator for the Canadian team. “Our instrumentation will observe clouds and dust and this will provide new insight into the climate of Mars and the planet’s potential for supporting life.”

Left: An artist’s impression of how the Phoenix lander will look following its landing on Mars. The lander is shown with its solar panels and scientific equipment deployed

Phoenix, a joint project of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories and the University of Arizona, is the first scout mission to study the Martian ice cap. Alongside gathering of atmospheric data, the lander will attempt to dig to an ice-rich layer believed to lie very close to the planet’s surface, allowing scientists to gather evidence about climate cycles and investigate whether the environment there has been favourable for microbial life.

The Phoenix was launched aboard a Delta II rocket in August 2007.

The members of York’s Phoenix team are: 

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

Allan Carswell, professor emeritus, Department of Physics & Astronomy, Faculty of Science & Engineering. Carswell 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 Inc., to develop commercial systems based on lidar technology. The lidar technology pioneered by Carswell will measure dust, clouds and fog in the Martian atmosphere.

Peter Taylor, professor of atmospheric science and applied mathematics, Department of Earth & Space Science & Engineering, Faculty of Science & Engineering. Taylor 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 they will conduct research into issues related to dust concentrations in the lower atmosphere of Mars and sublimation of exposed ice surfaces.

Cameron Dickinson, research associate, Department of Earth & Space Science & Engineering, Faculty of Science & Engineering, is studying the scattering of laser light with airborne Martian dust. Dickinson will be heavily involved in the operations of the meteorological instruments, including creation of the daily commands that will be uploaded to the lander, and managing the data that is sent back to Earth twice each day. He will also assist the science team at large, organizing and scheduling the experiments for all six instruments each day.

In memoriam – Diane Michelangeli (1962 to 2007)

Diane Michelangeli was a planetary scientist at York University and principal investigator for the Phoenix mission. As a specialist in microscopic measurements of clouds and their particles, she developed some of the most advanced computer models of the clouds and dust on Mars. Her work – so vital to understanding the atmospheric processes taking place near the landing site – made her a natural choice to lead the Canadian science contribution to the Phoenix mission. She died of cancer on August 30, 2007.

The Canadian Space Agency, NASA and the Discovery Channel will all carry online updates on the mission.