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An Alberta scientist will have a hand in the biggest Mars mission ever – CTV Edmonton



The Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover is set to land on the Red Planet, Feb. 18. The goal of this mission is to search for signs of life.

“What we get to do with our Rover is go to an area that’s much older, has sedimentary rocks and evidence of an environment where there may have been ancient life,” Dr. Chris Herd, a Canadian scientist at the University of Alberta, said.

Perseverance is equipped with enhanced capabilities, instruments and tests that will be the most advanced and ambitious rover to ever be sent to Mars.

According to Herd, Earth is roughly 470 million kilometres away from Mars. When the spacecraft launched, Mars was at its closest point. The spacecraft then spends six months catching up to the planet.


According to Dr. Cassandra Marion, science advisor at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, the landing will be accomplished by a sky crane manoeuvre, also known as the “seven minutes of terror.”

“It takes seven to 12 minutes to send the radio signal from Mars to Earth. It also takes seven minutes from when the space craft enters the atmosphere to when it hits the ground,” Marion explained.


This is a NASA-led mission with an international effort that includes Canadian participation.

Herd is one of the world’s top leading experts on Mars meteorites and one of 15 return sample scientists selected to participate in the mission.

“My whole role on the mission it to help the mission decide when to stop and take samples and have documentation.”

He recalled he wanted to be involved in collecting samples from Mars and describes the possibility now of that coming to fruition as a dream come true.

“It’s a huge honour to me to be chosen to play this huge role in the mission.” 


In the months following the February landing, the Ingenuity helicopter will be conducting test flights, according to Marion.

Ingenuity was designed specifically to fly in a much thinner atmosphere.

Marion said Mars has about one per cent of the density of the Earth’s atmosphere.

“If it’s successful, it will pave the way for flying into those hard-to-reach areas for future rovers,” she said.


The other demonstration is called MOXIE. Marion told CTV News Edmonton the goal of MOXIE is to take Mars’ carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere and turn it into oxygen.

“Oxygen is really important for future human missions,” Marion added.

“We need oxygen for astronauts to breathe, but also oxygen is a huge component in rocket fuel. So if we ever want to send humans to Mars [and] we want to get them back, we’re going to need fuel on the spot.”

According to Marion, in addition to water and chemical signatures on Mars, there are signs that life could have been present on Mars in a warmer, wetter past.

“We would be ecstatic if we found actual life. And we’ll only really know for sure when we have samples back on Earth,” she said.

However, Herd added that if nothing is detected in the samples, that’s a significant discovery in itself.

“It tells us there were environments that were habitable but not inhabited on Mars,” he said.

“That really highlights something about the uniqueness of the life on Earth as a consequence.”


According to Marion, Mars is only at its closest point to Earth once every 26 months. That’s why multiple missions are planned within mere weeks of each other.

“Mars, next to the moon, is our nearest neighbour and is also kind of like our sister planet. The planet that is most like Earth,” she said.

Herd told CTV News the team will be working one Mars day ahead of the rover when planning where to send it to retrieve samples next.

“We are going to have all the images, the mineral data and chemical information and all that documentation with each and every sample that we collect,” Herd said.

“That is the thing that will make those samples so much more scientifically valuable than any other sample from Mars.”

Perseverance has 23 cameras onboard. Images of the landing will be of the highest quality we’ve ever seen, according to Herd.

“It’s going to look like what it would look like if somebody stepped out of a spacecraft that just touches down.”


Marion explained all the information from this mission will be crucial in determining if people can be put on the surface of another planet.

“There are a series of things that we still need to figure out to be successful at having long-term human missions to Mars,” she said.

“We’re going to get there.”

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Monday fireball a small comet fragment say U of A scientists – EverythingGP



The glowing fireball lit up the sky early Monday morning (photo courtesy of Graham Knutson)

By Canadian Press

Comet Fragment

Feb 25, 2021 4:02 PM

The mystery of what caused a giant fireball that lit up the sky over much of Alberta earlier this week has been solved.

Scientists at the University of Alberta say calculations using two observation sites show it was a small piece of a comet that burned up in the atmosphere.

Hundreds of people from Calgary to Fort McMurray and Medicine Hat to Grande Prairie reported seeing the bright flash in the sky at about 6:30 a.m on Monday.

Patrick Hill of the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences says the chunk burned up immediately after giving what he describes as a “spectacular flash.”

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Sudbury native aiding NASA rover's hunt for life on Mars – The Sudbury Star



Raymond Francis hopes to become a Canadian Space Agency astronaut

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The NASA rover mission scouring Mars for ancient life has a connection to Sudbury.

Raymond Francis, who graduated from Western University in 2014 with a PhD in computer engineering and planetary science, is an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Francis, whose aspirations include becoming a Canadian Space Agency astronaut — maybe even one of the first on the red planet — is part of the team helping guide the rover Perseverance through Mars’s Jezero crater, which scientists say was a lake 3.5 billion years ago.

It is the first time a Mars rover will be collecting rock and soil, which will be stored until they can be returned to Earth.

“If ever there was life on Mars, this is the time it may well have arisen,” Francis said. “We would be elated if we found signs of ancient life on Mars. No one is expecting current life, but we explicitly have a goal of finding signs of life.”


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Jezero, which means lake in Slavic languages, is named after a settlement.

“The lake was there for a long time, because the river flowing into had enough time to build up a delta, the kind you find at the mouth of the Mississippi or the Nile,” Francis said.

Sudbury native Raymond Francis, who graduated from Western in 2014 with a PhD in computer engineering and planetary science, and will be helping guide the rover Perseverance during its time on Mars.
Sudbury native Raymond Francis, who graduated from Western in 2014 with a PhD in computer engineering and planetary science, and will be helping guide the rover Perseverance during its time on Mars. SunMedia

“Deltas are also a good place to preserve signs of life, because they are constantly setting down new sediment. If there are living things in that lake, they can get buried in the sediment and preserved.”

But even if they don’t find life, the research into Mars’s environment, history and evolution would be incredibly valuable, he said.

“Any lake like this on Earth 3.5 billion years ago was probably full of microbes,” Francis said. “If this one on Mars was not, it tells us something about the difference between these two planets, regardless of life.”

While noisy and chaotic, Perseverance’s landing last Thursday — NASA shared video online — “worked out almost perfectly,” he said.

“People have put a lot of their life into this for the last decade and a lot of things had to go right for that landing to succeed …,” Francis said. “(At) each critical juncture, you could see people getting more hopeful.”

Now that Perseverance has landed, Francis’s work begins.

As science engineering liaison, he helps co-ordinate discussions of what the science team wants to do.

“They might be what observations to make, which experiments to run, where to drive the rover to make our next studies,” he said.


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The rover is “greatly improved” from its predecessor, Curiosity.

“It looks a lot like Curiosity rover, but it is not,” Francis said. “We have greatly improved capabilities and our autonomous driving system is much improved. We’ll be able to drive farther and faster.”

Francis also be part of operating its artificial intelligence system.

“I’m am going to have a role in deploying that software and making sure it gives us good science data,” he said.

Francis also runs a “supercam,” or laser geochemical spectrometer, he said.

Their work is being done on “Mars time,” where a day last 24 hours and 38 minutes and scientists will give up regular sleep cycles to use every second.

“The rover works best during the day on Mars, so we can spend less energy on heating because the sun is up and we can easily take pictures,” he said.

Rock and other samples collected by the rover will be retrieved, he said, likely in two missions in the early 2030s: one to land, pick up samples and lift them into orbit; another to carry them from Mars to Earth.

In earlier interviews, Francis said Sudbury and Science North helped shape his interest in science and space.

Francis told Tilbury District High School students in southern Ontario a few years ago about an encounter that changed his life.

“Probably the first time that happened to me was when I was … [in] first grade,” Francis said. “I grew up in Sudbury and there was a place there called Science North, a public science centre. And they had Bob Thirsk – a Canadian astronaut … and he came by with an American astronaut who had already flown. And they gave this presentation about ‘look, this is what it’s like to operate a space shuttle.’”


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“I still have the little poster he signed,” Francis added.

Thirsk would later become the first Canadian to fly at length in the International Space Station, in 2009.

Earlier this year, he told Quirks & Quarks, a science show on CBC Radio, that living in Sudbury in some ways helped prepare him for this Mars mission.

“You’re from Sudbury, which is a big mining town,” Quirks & Quarks asked. “And after building a career in robotics and space science, you’ve been led back to rocks. They’re just rocks on another world.”

“That’s right,” Francis replied. “And honestly, during my PhD studies in how to teach computers to look at rocks, I spent some time up in Sudbury looking at those. The mines in Sudbury are the results of an ancient impact crater that’s not quite as old as Jezero, but the impact geology is a very good analogue for the types of large scale impact sites we find in craters on Mars.

“So going home to Sudbury was actually a very useful thing for getting prepared for these kinds of studies on Mars.

Twitter: @SudburyStar


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Prairie fireball was comet fragment burning up in Earth's atmosphere –



The fireball that lit up the sky across the Prairies on Monday morning was a small piece of a comet that burned up in the atmosphere, researchers at the University of Alberta say.

“Using two observation sites, we were able to calculate both its trajectory and velocity, which tell us about the origin of the meteor and reveal that it was a piece of a comet,” Patrick Hill, post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, said in a news release Thursday.

“This chunk was largely made of dust and ice, burning up immediately without leaving anything to find on the ground — but instead giving us a spectacular flash.”

The flash, captured by dozens of doorbell cameras and dashcams, occurred at 6:23 a.m. local time as the debris streaked through the sky to a final point on its trajectory 120 kilometres north of Edmonton, the researchers said.

The flash was visible throughout Alberta and parts of Saskatchewan due to the unusually high altitude of the fireball, they said.

WATCH | Fireball flashes across the Prairie sky:

A fireball buzzed over the Prairies on Monday, temporarily piercing the dark of the early morning sky with a flash of blinding blue light. 0:48

The chunk, likely only tens of centimetres across in size, was travelling at more than 220,000 km/h when it entered the atmosphere, they said.

“This incredible speed and the orbit of the fireball tell us that the object came at us from way out at the edge of the solar system — telling us it was a comet, rather than a relatively slower rock coming from the asteroid belt,” Chris Herd, curator of the University of Alberta Meteorite Collection and science professor, said in the release.

“Comets are made up of dust and ice and are weaker than rocky objects, and hitting our atmosphere would have been like hitting a brick wall for something travelling at this speed,” Herd said.

‘This is an incredible mystery to have solved’

While rocky objects usually burn up between 15 to 20 kilometres above the ground, Monday’s fireball occurred at an altitude of 46 kilometres allowing the flash to be seen across a wide area.

“All meteoroids — objects that become meteors once they enter Earth’s atmosphere — enter at the same altitude and then start to burn up with friction,” Hill said.

“Sturdier, rocky meteoroids can sometimes survive to make it to the ground, but because this was going so fast and was made of weaker material, it flashed out much higher in the atmosphere and was visible from much farther away.”

The research team calculated the trajectory of the fireball by using dark-sky images captured at the Hesje Observatory at the Augustana Miquelon Lake Research Station and at Lakeland College’s observation station in Vermilion, Alta., the release said. 

“This is an incredible mystery to have solved,” Herd said. “We’re thrilled that we caught it on two of our cameras, which could give everyone who saw this amazing fireball a solution.”

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