York scientists get their first data from the Phoenix lidar

A sophisticated, Canadian-built laser instrument aboard the NASA Phoenix lander has transmitted its first data from Mars to Earth – a huge milestone for Canadian scientists, led by York University space engineering Professor Jim Whiteway, the principal investigator for the Canadian team.

Left: Professor Jim Whiteway. Photo courtesy of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA)

Whiteway released the first measurements from Phoenix’s laser-based light-detection-and-ranging (lidar) during a NASA media briefing yesterday.

"The Canadian team is walking on moonbeams today," Whiteway said. "We can now add dust and cloud measurements to our reports, because the lidar is up and running."

The lidar, which measures dust, ground fog, and clouds by shooting rapid pulses of laser light into Mars’ atmosphere, took its first measurement on Sol 2, at approximately noon. (Martian days, which are longer than those on Earth, are called "Sols.")

Right: The Canadian lidar in action. Photo courtesy of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, CSA and the University of Arizona

Data showed dust lofted up to a height of 3.5 kilometres. The lidar is a critical component of the Canadian-built meteorological station aboard Phoenix, which is also measuring the weather on Mars, including temperature, wind and pressure data.

Weather at the Phoenix landing site on Sol 2 was sunny with moderate dust, with a high of -30 C and a low of -80 C. Whiteway’s team noted what appears to be a significant increase in dustiness compared to the lander’s first day on Mars.

The meteorological component of the mission is a collaboration led by York University, in partnership with the University of Alberta, Dalhousie University, the University of Aarhus (Denmark), the Finnish Meteorological Institute, MDA Space Missions and Optech Inc., with $37 million in funding from the Canadian Space Agency.

Phoenix briefings are streamed live on the NASA TV Web site.