York profs watch from Arizona as Mars probe lands safely

After a nine-month journey across 680 million kilometres of space, the US probe named Phoenix made a perfect three-point landing in the frigid northern polar region of Mars last night, wrote The Globe and Mail May 26.

Although Phoenix has already survived its two biggest challenges – the launch from Earth and the landing on Mars – Canadian scientists are still nervous about the condition of their weather instruments. “Some people refer to the three Ts – or terrors – of space flight: Take-off, touch-down and turn-on,” said Jim Whiteway, professor in York’s Faculty of Science & Engineering and lead scientist for the Canadian contribution to the US$420-million mission. “[It’s] mainly the ‘turn-on’ that we are worried about.”

The $37-million meteorological instrument package – which will measure temperature, pressure, wind and clouds – represents the Canadian Space Agency’s biggest investment yet in the exploration of Mars.

Whiteway said the data gathered by Canada’s weather station, which includes a laser device that can analyze dust and ice crystals in the atmosphere, could prove invaluable for scientists planning future missions to the fourth planet from the sun. “If there is going to be exploration with people, we will have to know well in advance the environment they are going to encounter,” he said.

  • Phoenix project leaders suspect they will find something similar to Earth’s permafrost a few inches down [in the Martian surface], as exploration rovers and orbiting spacecrafts have beamed back information that water probably existed there billions of years ago, wrote The Toronto Sun May 25.

“All signs have shown water is there, but we always wanted to know, where [does] that water go?” said Jim Whiteway, leader of the Phoenix’s Canadian team from York University. “If we find it under the surface, then the planet is much more habitable to humans than previously thought.”

Unlike previous rovers that probed the warmer regions of the planet, the Phoenix will investigate the Arctic region, where microbial molecules – a sign toward the potential for life – are better preserved. “We’re not going to be identifying life for this mission, rather compatibility for it,” Whiteway said from Phoenix’s control centre just outside the University of Arizona. “The first goal is to confirm ice is below the surface, then we can check for life and the habitability for future missions involving astronauts.”

Cameron Dickinson, a York research associate for Phoenix’s Canadian team, hopes the findings will demonstrate an exciting potential for future space exploration. “We can’t send astronauts up to Mars without water, and it’s very heavy to shoot up into space,” he told the Sun before leaving for Tucson. “You need water to live, so hopefully there will be some resources there when we arrive.”

Dickinson is not alone in his desire to learn more and, indeed, the obstacles for sending a human to Mars now are vast. Its distance from Earth is staggering. Allowing for a few months of on-planet work and analysis, an astronaut would need almost two years of supplies just to stay alive for the duration of the trip.

And an engineering system to lift back off from the planet is nowhere near completion. Propulsion mechanisms far more advanced than what is now available would be needed, or there could be no way of getting home.

“It’s one thing to lose a box of goodies up there that may have cost a few hundred million,” said Allan Carswell, professor emeritus at York, one of Canada’s pre-eminent space scientists and a member of the Phoenix team. “It’s another when you’re dealing with one or two or three astronauts.”

Most members of the Phoenix team concede funding, politics and commitment stand in the way of landing a man on Mars, but Whiteway said if all things fell in place, an astronaut could walk the planet’s crust in just 10 years. “It’s part of the human endeavour to explore,” he said. “What it comes down to is human ingenuity and perseverance – a dedicated level of momentum – to get it done.”

  • York alumnus Steve MacLean (BSc ’77, PhD ’83), chief astronaut for the Canadian Space Agency, said Canada got involved in the project because of its expertise operating in a frigid northern environment, wrote The Canadian Press May 25. “This is the first time that we have an instrument that we sponsored as a nation” on such a space mission, he said. “All the measurements that we did in the North over the last 15 years contribute to us being a major player on this mission.”

The weather station Canada built for the mission is able to provide regular readings of the temperature on Mars, atmospheric pressure, cloud height, humidity and wind speed.

The lidar system comes from Alan Carswell, York professor emeritus, who ran a laboratory and then spun off a company called Optech to develop a larger role for Canada in the space program. MacLean says Carswell has emerged as a central figure in the Mars mission and is at the Phoenix mission control centre overseeing the operation.

  • NASA said the Phoenix Mars Lander, which has a Canadian-built weather station aboard, touched down safely Sunday on the Red Planet after travelling 10 months and 640 million kilometres, wrote CBC News online May 25.
  • Former Malaspina University-College instructor and author Russell McNeill will have his eyes locked skyward Sunday (May 25), wrote BC’s Nanaimo News Bulletin May 24.

That’s when NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander is scheduled to land near the Martian North Pole. Aboard is Optech lidar technology, laser radar equipment McNeill helped develop and build in the early 1970s.

“I worked with the original first version of that technology when I was a graduate student at York University in Toronto in the early 1970s,” he said. “It’s pretty exciting to see something I worked on 35 years ago be commercialized and be used to explore Mars.”

McNeill calls himself and his PhD supervisor Allan Carswell, the principal investigator in the Phoenix project, the two grandparents of the technology. Carswell said McNeill has had an important role in allowing Canadian involvement in the mission. “Although the large, truck-mounted system Russ developed is a far cry from the tiny lidar on the way to Mars, his early studies formed the beginning of the long series of lidar developments that have led to the Canadian involvement in the Phoenix mission.”

  • The Sunday landing will be watched closely by scientists at Canadian firm MacDonald Dettwieler and Associates, wrote CanWest New Service’s Global TV May 24. MDA along with York University are responsible for the design of the $30-million miniature weather station onboard the Mars Phoenix. Using laser light, it will allow scientists to analyze clouds, dust and mist. At the same time, the lander will use a robotic arm, designed by an MDA subsidiary, to dig deep into Martian soil.
  • The main Canadian contribution is designed by York University with MDA as prime contractor, and it’s a miniature weather station, the first Canadian equipment to reach another planet, wrote the Calgary Herald May 24. It cost about $30 million.
  • Whiteway also spoke about the Phoenix mission on City-TV May 25. Steve MacLean, chief astronaut at the Canadian Space Agency, also spoke about the Phoenix mission on CTV News May 25.
  • News of York University’s participation in the Phoenix mission was also mentioned in news reports on CTV, Global TV, City-TV and CFRB Radio.

Timing and pricing could hamper BCE deal even if it wins at Supreme Court

Timing and pricing issues create uncertainty for the takeover of BCE Inc. even if the company succeeds in overturning a ruling that allows a lawsuit by disgruntled bondholders, observers said Friday, wrote The Canadian Press May 23.

The telecom giant is hoping to go to the Supreme Court to challenge a Quebec Court of Appeal ruling that cast doubt this week on its $52-billion takeover by a consortium led by the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan. But observers say the biggest challenge the deal faces isn’t whether the court will choose to hear the case, or even whether it will rule in BCE’s favour.

“The more critical issue is not whether it’s going to hear it or not, it’s whether it’s going to hear it and render its decision within the deadline,” said Theo Peridis, professor of strategic management at the Schulich School of Business at York University.

The deal faces a June 30 deadline after which the equity partners can walk away without paying a break fee, which could be as high as $1 billion, and a November deadline after which the lenders are off the hook.

“After that, the banks that are lending all this money are off the hook. Then all of a sudden the whole deal could unravel,” Peridis said. “The reality is, when they made that offer it was the spring of 2007 – we didn’t have the collapse and the meltdown of the financial markets with the subprime,” he added. “The world is a very different place.”

With a side of brilliant minds

A photo taken at the annual Royal Canadian Institute for the Advancement of Science Fundraising Gala and published May 24 in the National Post featured Joshua Liu, York University student and founder of SMARTS (Student Mentorship Association Regarding Technology and Science).

Man held in York student’s stabbing

A Toronto man accused of attempting to murder a York University student on Danforth Avenue was remanded in custody until Wednesday at College Park courts, wrote The Toronto Sun May 24. Samad Dabiri, 47, an Iranian immigrant who has been in Canada 11 years and has been declared a “significant risk” to the public by a psychiatrist, appeared briefly in court yesterday.

The charge relates to the random stabbing Tuesday of Nicole MacDonald, who was saved by a passersby on the street after being wounded.

  • The incident was also discussed on CFRB Radio’s Bill Carroll show May 22.

If we stop worrying about losing, we’ll win

Recently, I heard an interview on CBC radio with a law professor from York University in Toronto, wrote columnist Ted Kuntz in BC’s Tri-City News (Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam, Port Moody, Anmore and Belcarra) May 23. This professor was involved in a project to address those “wrongfully convicted.” In the interview, the professor told of admonishing his students who came to him boasting they had “won their first case.” His response was, “I don’t want to hear you say you won. What I want to hear is that justice was served.”

Bird cull not in the cards for Leslie Spit

“I think we have to support our scientists,” said Gerri Lynn O’Connor, chair of the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, after all but two authority members voted in favour of a project by Gail Fraser, professor in York University’s Faculty of Environmental Studies, to study whether the disruption that bird population control technicians cause in approaching the nests of Cormorants is significantly reduced if done at night. The story about Fraser’s project was published in The Globe and Mail May 24.

Variable-rate mortgages prove to be prudent pick

“A lot of Canadians like the psychology and the security that comes from a fixed-rate mortgage that is predictable and constant for the next five to 10 years,” says Moshe Milevsky, professor of finance at the Schulich School of Business at York University, Toronto, who has studied the fixed-rate versus variable-rate conundrum extensively. This latest article on the York professor’s advice was published in Victoria, BC’s Times Colonist May 24.

“They like the comfort of knowing exactly what their salary is, exactly what their expenses are, exactly what their mortgage is. For those people the fixed rate is the way to go. But if you are willing to take a little bit of a chance, and you can tolerate the fluctuations, then the odds favour the open variable-rate mortgage.”

Seeking a new place in the sun

The potential for “green-collar” jobs comes as traditional positions in the automotive and forestry sectors are fading, wrote the Toronto Star May 24 in a story about struggling auto parts manufacturer Woodbine Tool & Die’s change to producing green technology parts for Ottawa-based Menova Energy Inc.

Mark Winfield, a professor in York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies, commended Menova and Woodbine Tool & Die for their partnership but called it a “one-off” initiative that doesn’t reflect the bigger picture in Ontario.

He said the province, unlike many jurisdictions in Europe and the United States, lacks a broader green industrial strategy.

“It’s great that individual companies are doing this, but the potential and need is much larger than this announcement,” said Winfield. “What we need to see is a more explicit strategy on the part of the province to facilitate this kind of transition.”

If the province doesn’t move quickly, added Winfield, it will lose out to other jurisdictions such as New York State, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Dublin a causeway to literary giants

Why is Ireland blessed with such a rich literary tradition?, asked the Toronto Star May 24, in an article about Dublin, Ireland. “I suspect it has to do with the bardic tradition of the Celts carried over into another language – the Welsh are better known for song, and the Scots for piping, but the love of poetic language is common in all three,” says Robert J. Drummond, dean of York’s Faculty of Arts. “But it’s probably also common in other places, too.”

On air

  • Marc Lesage , professor of sociology at York’s Glendon campus, spoke about reaction to Quebec’s Bouchard-Taylor Commission report on regligious symbols on the Quebec Legislature building, on CBC Radio Canada’s “Au delà de la 401” and Radio Canada International May 22.
  • Gordon Shepherd, professor emeritus of space science in York’s Faculty of Science & Engineering, spoke about Canada’s 50 years in space on Global TV’s CH Morning Live May 23.