York’s Phoenix team members feel the loss of colleague

Clinking glasses as they celebrated the triumphant touchdown on Mars of the Phoenix lander Sunday evening, York University Professor Jim Whiteway, from York’s Faculty of Science & Engineering, and his team missed the one person who should have been there, wrote the Toronto Star May 27. Diane Michelangeli, an atmospheric science professor at York, was the lead researcher behind the innovative Canadian-built meteorological station on the Phoenix, before she died of cancer last year – less than a month after the station was launched. Team members still feel the loss.

“We were thinking of Diane after the landing,” said Whiteway yesterday from the University of Arizona, where scientists had gathered to watch the lander touchdown with “surreal” accuracy. “We’re missing Diane dearly.”

Seeing the data gathered by the Phoenix lander would have been a career high for Michelangeli, whose planetary science experience made her perfect for the job of principal investigator on the $37-million weather station, led by Canadian researchers. Michelangeli died at 45 on Aug. 30 from metastatic cancer. She was forced to leave the project in 2006 after the disease spread to her brain. Whiteway was named as her replacement.

For the Phoenix team, the days and weeks to come will be anxious ones, as they prepare to examine the unprecedented temperature and atmospheric data that will give them a more accurate picture of the Martian climate. Whiteway was to get a first look at temperature and pressure data last night. But the real test will come on Thursday, when the lidar is fired up for the first time. “That’s what keeps me up at night,” he said.

The lidar (laser-based light detection and ranging) is perhaps the most innovative of the Canadian instruments aboard, which include standard instruments to measure temperature and wind. “With the lidar we have the ability now to probe and get fairly highly detailed information from the surface right up to about 20 kilometres,” said York Professor Emeritus Allan Carswell, whose Canadian company Optech is a leader in the cutting-edge lidar technology used by the team to measure dust and ice in the Martian atmosphere.

The lidar will shoot a laser beam into the atmosphere, scattering light as it encounters particles of dust and ice. How it scatters will tell researchers much about Mars’s atmosphere, literally shedding light on everything from its water cycle to how much sunlight is reflected off its surface. “It’s kind of like a laser pointer, in a sense,” said Peter Taylor, professor in York’s Department of Earth & Space Science & Engineering, Faculty of Science & Engineering, who brings knowledge from his years of studying blowing snow in the Canadian Arctic to the examination of airborne dust.

Whiteway said the Phoenix’s touchdown was “probably the most exciting day of my life” – the culmination of four years of groundbreaking work by a Canadian team who, with the exception of Michelangeli, had never worked on a project dealing with outer space before they were recruited.

They’re now responsible for the first piece of Canadian technology to land on another planet. It bears a tiny Maple Leaf flag as proof. “This is a big step for Canada,” said Carswell. “It is a historic day.”

The Canadians have also helped the mission significantly, Taylor said, by correcting their American counterparts. A plan by Phoenix team members to store Martian ice scrapings for hours before they were analyzed would have been flawed, says the Arctic scientist, had he and his colleagues not caught it.

For the next three months, Whiteway and the team will be living on Martian time. One of the idiosyncrasies of studying Mars is that the planet takes around 40 minutes longer than the Earth to complete one Mars day, called a sol. It means researchers gathered at the University of Arizona must adjust their work shifts just a little bit each day to match Martian time. Currently, they start working at 3pm and end at 3am – including Carswell, who is a sprightly 75.

“It’s kind of like working a Martian night shift,” explained Whiteway. “At some point we’ll be working 9 to 5, and then again we’ll be working night shifts. So we’ll be going around the clock a few times.”

Data from the lander is relayed to satellites orbiting the planet, then back to Earth. Whiteway says the most surprising thing about the project so far is how well the landing went. “It actually went more smoothly than when we rehearsed it,” he said, noting they had performed at least half a dozen run-throughs.

Scientists behind the Phoenix project hope it will tell us more than we’ve ever known about the planet in the solar system that astronomers say is most like Earth. The non-Canadian portions of the lander will involve probing the soil for traces of ice and other characteristics that will help determine if the Martian environment could be hospitable to life.

  • North Bay’s CKAT-AM Radio reported May 26 that there were high-fives all around at York University when the Phoenix lander touched down.
  • Members of York’s Phoenix team were out in force for CBC Radio May 26 after the landing: Cameron Dickenson, York research associate, spoke on the “Maritime Noon” program, while Peter Taylor spoke on “Ontario Today”. Jim Whiteway spoke later in the day, on “Here & Now”. Further CBC radio coverage included mentions in news reports across the country and throughout the day. Dickenson also spoke about the latest mission results on CBC-TV’s Newsworld.
  • CTV, Global Television and City-TV/CP24 also carried reports on the landing and mentioned York’s research team May 26 and included an interview with York alumnus and Chief Astronaut for the Canadian Space Agency Steve MacLean (BA ’77, PhD ’83).
  • The first pictures from the Mars Phoenix Lander showed the space probe in good condition after its 10-month journey, in which it travelled 640 million kilometres, wrote CBC News online May 27 in a story that included mention of York researchers’ participation in the project. They also showed the first glimpse of the valley floor NASA expects to be the site of water-rich permafrost.
  • Canadian scientists are playing a huge role in determining whether the planet Mars would eventually be able to sustain life, wrote Moncton, NB’s Times & Transcript May 27. The $37-million meteorological instrument package on the Phoenix lander – which, among other things, will measure temperature, pressure, wind velocity and clouds on the planet – is the Canadian Space Agency’s largest ever contribution to the exploration of Mars.

Jim Whiteway, the lead Canadian scientist for the Phoenix project, told The Globe and Mail that the data gathered by Canada’s weather station could prove invaluable for scientists in planning future missions to the Red Planet. “If there is gong to be exploration with people, we will have to know well in advance [about] the environment they are going to encounter,” he said.

Higher education helps mitigate problems of teenage motherhood

Kinda Rodriguez was 16 when her daughter Shanielle was born, but she never questioned that she’d finish her education, wrote The StarPhoenix (Saskatoon, Sask.) May 24.

Now 23 and armed with a scholarship from Humewood House, a young parents’ resource centre, the Toronto resident is off to York University in the fall to pursue a double major in history and sociology.

Plan to move hospital will deprive Jane-Finch community

Rennie Terbogt, a medical management consultant who operates a foot-care clinic at Jane and Finch, is part of the Humber River Health Coalition, a group fighting to keep a full-service hospital at the intersection, because he feels the health care needs in that community are so great , wrote The Toronto Sun May 25.

“I am trying to help people who are less fortunate and I am trying to save taxpayers’ money and I am trying to bring about a project that would coincide with the development of a medical school at York University and make sure that the hospital is within walking distance of the students who are studying medicine,” he said.

York announced last year it would like to establish a new med school at its nearby Keele campus.

TTC eyes doors at subway tracks

Potentially lethal tumbles onto subway tracks could be a thing of the past if the Toronto Transit Commission opts to install safety doors on the edge of subway platforms, wrote the Toronto Star May 25.

The TTC is in the process of hiring a consultant to report within 18 months on costs and benefits of installing the safety devices – used on some other subway systems – in all 69 existing stations and the six new ones to be built for the extension to York region, through York University, slated for completion by 2015. But much depends on funds being available, said former TTC chair Howard Moscoe, noting safety doors were initially in the $1-billion Sheppard line but were scratched to save money.

Pasha Malla’s path to writing wound through childhood and York

The Withdrawal Method, is a debut collection of stories that 30-year-old York alumnus Pasha Malla (BA ’00) hopes “offers something a little bit different than what maybe people have read before.” His work ranges from the wistfulness of childhood to the horrors of cancer and is populated by horny chimps, chess-playing machines and Pablo Picasso, wrote the National Post May 27.

Sitting in a quiet corner of the Ontario Science Centre, Malla chronicles the route his life has taken thus far in an interview. Born in St. John’s, Nfld., Malla pinballed from the Rock to a trailer park outside Chatham, Ont., and, eventually, London, Ont.; with a side trek to England and a school term in Australia.

He attended York University for film production, where his career path veered from aspiring director (“I was really bad at it”) to screenwriting (“I was even worse”) and then film studies (“I was really terrible at that”). [He graduated from York’s Faculty of Arts with an honours BA in creative writing and made the dean’s list.] He taught elementary school for two years in Toronto before moving to Montreal to study creative writing at Concordia.

Former York president makes celebrity column

Lorna R. Marsden, former York president & vice-chancellor, will receive an honorary doctorate from Waterloo, Ont.’s Sir Wilfrid Laurier University on June 11, reported the Hamilton Spectator and The Canadian Press May 27.

Memo to the Osgoode Three

I feel for the Osgoode Three, the graduates and student from York’s Osgoode Hall Law School, who formed a writing collective to break into Canadian magazines, wrote columnist Kevin Baker in a tongue-in-cheek column for the National Post May 24. Thanks to YouTube, I saw their performance on TV Ontario’s “The Agenda” with Steve Paikin. They reminded me of myself when I was starting out. Not to suggest I was half as shaggable – I wish. But I made the same mistake.

The O-3 had an idea for Maclean’s. Noticing the newsmagazine liked having a go at Muslims – 22 articles in a two-and-a-half-year span depicted Muslims disreputably – they proposed a “counter-article.” Their pitch was rejected, whereupon they cried to Complaints Canada of a foul against their human rights.

The Osgoslings, to their credit, followed the first rule for freelancers: Read the publication. They studied Maclean’s closely. Apparently, though, they failed to grasp the reason a writer needs to know a magazine. A winning proposal fits in with articles previously published.

Can the Osgoode Three salvage a writing career? The trick for the Osgoodies will be to dress a counter-article in a fly-off-the-rack fright-line. “The Warm Muzzies: Many Muslims seem nice – can they really hate our freedoms?” “The Islamic Pandemic: You Can Survive It (but will you wish you hadn’t?).” If I were them, though, after I had an article accepted for publication and found out what I’d be paid for it, I would stick fast to practising law.

On air

  • Ute Lehrer, professor in York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies, spoke about Toronto architecture on TVO’s “The Agenda” May 26.
  • Kyle Killian, visiting psychology professor in York’s Faculty of Health, spoke about children’s reactions to news coverage of disasters in China and Burma, on CBC Newsworld May 16.