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Mars has a moment: 3 missions to the red planet reignite debate – CTV Toronto



It’s the stuff of both cheesy sci-fi movies, and high-brow academic research…Is there (or was there) life on Mars?  A trio of Martian missions arriving at the red planet this month will likely reignite the debate.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) Amal orbiter has already arrived, and is orbiting Mars, as has the Chinese Tianwen-1 combination orbiter which is carrying a landing module as well.

NASA’s Perseverance rover is scheduled to land on the surface of Mars on Feb. 18.

All three missions are examining Mars to further our understanding of what is considered he only other possibly habitable planet in the solar system.

“Isn’t that one of the big questions..’ Is life unique to our planet?’ asks Don Hladiuk, a life member of the Royal Astronomical Society.  “This is one of the big questions, least to me, and to humanity: did life start elsewhere? And it’d be huge if we could show that life just didn’t start on our planet, it’s able to start in other worlds.”

Why 3 Mars missions all at once?

Why there are three missions to the fourth rock from the sun is more about timing than teamwork.  

“The Earth goes around the sun and Mars(also) goes around the sun on these gigantic orbits, and there are times when the planets are close together. And those are the opportune times to fire a rocket over there and get something in orbit or land something on the surfaceai,” said Phil Langill, University of Calgary professor,  and director of the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory  “It’s all about the timing and the orientation of the planets. When the time is right, then different countries, and more and more countries are getting involved.”

UAE Amal mission

The UAE’s Amal marks the Arab world’s first-ever foray into interplanetary research.  It will spend the next two years studying the martial atmosphere from orbit.  Scientists will be looking for answers to questions about how Mars changed from having a fairly earth-like environment to what it is now; a cold, dry, planet with a thin atmosphere.

“Everything that we’ve learned from past spacecraft orbiters and rovers, is that early on in Mars’s history, it was warm and wet, very similar to Earth,” said Cassandra Marion, science advisor at the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum “ Then at some point, and we’re not exactly sure exactly when that happened, or why it happened,  Mars started losing its magnetic field, it cooled down. And now, because of the very low pressure on the surface of the planet, liquid water is no longer stable.  so now it’s gone from its history of wet and warm to now dry, and  like a desert, a  dry and arid planet.”


China’s Tianwen-1 mission

China’s mission, named Tianwen-1,  will send a rover to the surface looking for  evidence of ice underground. This is considered one of the key questions which needs answering before sending manned missions to the red planet  as a manned Mars mission will be unable to transport all the required supplies meaning the crew will  need to harvest some of their own supplies, like water, from the Martian surface.

“These are stepping stones for future colonization,” said Hladiuk “By going interplanetary, by colonizing another world, like Mars, we give our species a better chance, rather than having all our eggs in one basket, We might have a colony and another world.”

Tianwen-1’s rover  will be landing on Mars in a the same location where NASA first touched down on Mars in 1976  – a wide open plain known as Utopia Planitia.

NASA Perseverance mission: “Seven minutes of Terror’

The normally stoic NASA engineers have dubbed the period between entry in the Martian atmosphere to landing “the seven minutes of terror.”

Mars mission

That’s because the one-way time it takes for radio signals to travel from Earth to Mars is about 10.5 minutes, which means the seven minutes it takes from entry to the Martian atmosphere to touching down on the planet will happen without any help from earth-based scientists and engineers.

Here’s what has to happen in that 7 minutes

Here on earth NASA scientists give the command for the  spacecraft to begin its entry, descent and landing procedure (EDL).  From this point on it’s ‘hands-off’ as the computerized systems take over, in a complex set of maneuvers.

Travelling almost 20,000 km/h,  the spacecraft hits the Martian atmosphere.  It has seven minutes to slow to zero and make a soft landing.  Within seconds of entering the atmosphere it will heat up to 1300 degrees Celsius.

The spacecraft’s heat shield will endure peak heating of 2,370 degrees Fahrenheit, 75 seconds after entering the atmosphere.

It helps if you think of Perseverance as the world’s most sophisticated self-driving vehicle. Using two separate systems – a range trigger, and  terrain relative navigation – its aim is to maneuver the lander to a safe spot amidst the boulders and craters on this section of  Mars.

The range trigger determines when Perseverance should trigger its 21.5 metre parachute . At around this point the heat shields will detach.

But Mars’ thin atmosphere and the high speed of the spacecraft means a parachute alone can’t slow the descent enough for a safe touchdown.

Mars mission

“So then it releases the parachute and the top of the capsule. And then it’s basically a rover attached to a jetpack,” says Marion “They call it the descent, vehicle, but it’s basically a jetpack.  It fires these retro rockets towards the surface to slow it down more, and then as it’s coming in, at once it’s a certain distance from  the surface.  It’s basically on this hazard detecting autopilot so if it sees a  boulder, it can actually divert around it all by itself, and to land in a safe spot.

“Then,” Marion says, continuing, “it drops the rover down on these nylon cables, which is the crane part. And then once the rover touches the ground, it senses that and then the vehicle releases the rover and flies off so that it doesn’t crash into the rover. It’s pretty crazy.”

The ‘sky crane maneuver’ has been tested before. It was used to successfully land the Curiosity rover on Mars.

Lucky Peanuts

During the seven minutes of terror, NASA engineers will be chowing down on peanuts.   It’s a somewhat bizarre superstition considering mission control is considered a bastion of science and logic.

In 1964  during launch of the Ranger 7 mission, following six mission failures, one of  the engineers passed around peanuts giving the  crew something to manage their anxiety.  The mission was a success, and ever since peanuts have been part of the countdown checklist for mission control.

Mars mission

Perseverance’s Mission

Once it lands Perseverance will  take samples from the soil and set them aside.  A decade from now another rover will head to Mars to retrieve, and return them. They would be the first soil samples of another planet ever returned to earth. 

Childhood dream come true for Canadian scientist

Chris Herd, a professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at the University of Alberta, is one 15 Return Sample Scientists selected by NASA to coordinate the return of the Martian soil and test the samples once back on earth.  

“I was 13, when I said I want to be there when the samples come back from Mars. So that would be that would be literally a dream come true for me,” said Herd  “My whole role on the Mars  mission is to help the mission, decide where to stop and take samples and make sure we have documentation of all those samples that we do take. The potential is huge for discoveries that we just can’t even conceive of now.”

On-Board Drone-Helicopter

Named Ingenuity a 1.8 kilogram drone will be the first vehicle from earth to ever achieve powered flight over the surface of another planet.    For the techies, or drone pilots reading it is a quadcopter  with four blades over two rotors, which spin in opposing directions at approximately  2,400 rpm. That’s much faster than is needed for drones to fly on earth , and is a result of Mar’s much thinner atmosphere.

The solar powered drone “Ingenuity” is really a demo model, a proof of concept of sorts, in advance of a more comprehensive drone expected to arrive on a future mission.


Mars mission

Ingenuity is only scheduled to take a few short flights in the first month of the mission

After those flights it will attempt to fly higher to help guide the Perseverance rover. Like most earth-bound drones it has a high resolution camera, which will hopefully help Perseverance capture a few selfies as it cruises the surface of Mars. 

Water  – yes , but is there life on Mars?

David Bowie famously asked it in song. Perseverance may now answer  the question; “is there life on Mars?” or perhaps ‘was there once life on Mars?’.

Mars’ polar regions are covered in ice. There is evidence of water lurking beneath those ice caps, and beneath Martian soil.   Because water and life go hand in hand, scientists believe studying water on Mars will lead to a better understanding whether life ever existed on the red planet..

“This mission is going to land in a new spot, with new opportunities,” said Marion. “ It’s going to look at this ancient crater that used to be filled by a lake, there’s a river used to run into it,  we’ve got evidence from the morphology of the landscape, that it was once a river and a delta. And these are places on earth that you would look to, you know, these, these environments on Earth are teeming with life. And so if we’re going to find ancient life, perhaps this would be a good place to look.”

Don’t expect dinosaur  fossils

“They’re not looking for a fish or a fossil” says Langill.  “They’re looking for microbial evidence of a metabolic process that may have occurred in a cell millions of years ago. That’s the kind of detail there they are after”

Stepping stones for future colonization

Mapping Martian water is also key to humans travelling to the planet in future missions.  

“These are stepping stones for future colonization, As settlers when we came when our ancestors came to Canada, they couldn’t bring all the materials to survive in their towns or in their villages. They had to live off the land and that’s what we’re trying to learn from Mars is start to live off the land because when we go there, we will not be able to bring all the oxygen, or all the water. That’s why they need to find ice as well water ice as well,” said Hladiuk.

“The  Perseverance also has an experiment called ‘Moxie’. It’s trying to live off the land. So they’re going to pump in CO2 from the atmosphere, and strip out the oxygen because we need oxygen to breathe. So  they’re starting to take those stepping stones for surviving or starting the first colonize colonies on Mars.”

Like so many others around the world, Hladiuk will be tuned in.

Dan Hladiuk

“I’ve got my  peanuts. I’ll have my Mars 2020 shirt on,  my EDL socks, I’ll be all geared up.  I’ll have one computer looking at NASA Deep Space Network to make sure signals are coming in. “ said Hladiuk “Watching a live entry is fantastic. It is.  I get excited just thinking about it.”

Hladiuk also recommends people take time Thursday night to go outside and look at Mars in the sky.  It will be sitting about four degrees above the crescent moon.  To determine four degrees hold your hand out at arms length and extend three fingers.  That’s usually about five degrees of the sky, so it will be just beneath your topmost finger. 

For Langill, the Mars landing also presents another opportunity; a chance to reignite the imagination of a new generation of space enthusiasts.

“From the human perspective, it seems like there’s an awful long time when nothing happens and you kind of forget about space exploration, and then something like this comes along and people get really re-energized and the topic comes back to life, and it’s almost like we we never left.”

Where to watch

Perseverance is scheduled to land on Mars shortly before 2 p.m. MST on Thursday, Feb. 18.   NASA hopes the world tunes in for the landing  and is broadcasting the live feed  starting Thursday at 12:15 p.m. MT.  it is available on NASA’s public TV channel, its website, and  app, as well as YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitch, and Daily Motion.

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Cochrane company making Virtual Reality for astronauts – CTV Toronto



Stardust Technologies is on a mission to take virtual reality where it’s never been before.

The Cochrane-based tech company is researching how simulating Earth-bound activities can help improve astronauts’ mental health while on board the International Space Station (ISS) — and eventually during long-distance space travel.

“It’s a very important thing that astronauts feel like they are on Earth,” said the company’s chief technology office, Jawad El Houssine.

“VR technology will be very, very useful for this.”

Testing VR zero gravity

The team is the first to use Facebook’s Oculus Quest VR headset in this way and is collaborating with the Canadian Space Agency and the National Research Council of Canada to test out how to make it work outside of Earth — since the technology was first created to work with this planet’s gravity.

Shy of going to space themselves to research this, Stardust has been conducting test flights in Ottawa, using an airplane that can mimic gravity in space, on the moon and on Mars.

“We succeeded to make the Oculus Quest work 100 per cent in zero gravity,” Jawad said, after conducting only a couple test flights so far.

Simulating Earth… in space

This is part of what the company calls ‘Project EDEN,’ with the goal being to create a fully-simulated Earth experience in space — using a combination of virtual reality, artificial intelligence and a haptic feedback suit that can simulate sensations like wind, rain and touch.

The company’s CEO, Jason Michaud, said the project is intended to help astronauts with feelings of homesickness, loneliness, isolation, and stress. He compares it to feelings many people on Earth have been experiencing during the pandemic.

“Our EDEN project is going to be targeted at doing simulations where you’ll be able to play, let’s say golf in microgravity, for the astronauts,” Michaud said.

“If you like, you could play hockey, do some meditation with other people on Earth that could be, potentially, with the astronauts while they’re on the International Space Station.”

(Out-of-this) world of possibilities

Michaud has high ambitions for the project. He sees it being used on the moon, when NASA builds its lunar base planned for 2024 — and even on an eventual human mission to Mars.

The need for engaging entertainment on long voyages is not a new concept for humanity, said El Houssine, thinking all the way back to the 15th century, when Spaniards would play games and sing songs on their voyage to the New World.

It stands to reason that people will need more advanced and immersive entertainment as we travel through space, he said. And so the work continues to make sure ‘Project EDEN’ will be ready for work on the ISS and future space voyages.

“We are hoping to be able to (have an astronaut) test that next year on the International Space Station directly,” said Michaud.

Though many more microgravity test flights are needed to get to that point, he said.

‘I believe you can achieve anything’

As for researching the technology’s ability to help with mental health, particularly isolation, Michaud said he is planning to send El Houssine on his own journey to test the technology alone — in Antarctica.

Reflecting on the progress of ‘Project EDEN’ and his company — which also services the mining and medicine industries — Michaud credits it to his upbringing in northern Ontario.

He hopes to inspire young people in the region with the possibilities of technology — and hopes more entrepreneurs arise in the region.

“As long as you have the drive for it and the community to support you, I believe you can achieve anything.”

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COVID-19 outbreak that infected 133, killed 31 at New West care home has ended, Fraser Health says – CTV News Vancouver



One of B.C.’s largest care home outbreaks of COVID-19 is now officially over.

The outbreak at Royal City Manor, a long-term care home in New Westminster, began on Jan. 3 and quickly grew to include dozens of residents and staff members.

As of March 3, the outbreak was responsible for 133 cases of the coronavirus. A total of 102 residents were infected, and 31 died, according to data from the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.

On Sunday night, Fraser Health announced in a news release that the outbreak had been declared over.

“With the implementation of comprehensive strategies to prevent and respond to COVID-19 in care facilities, there are no longer any COVID-19 cases at this location,” the health authority said in its release.

The end of the Royal City Manor outbreak means there are no longer any active outbreaks involving more than 100 cases of COVID-19 in long-term care facilities in B.C.

The largest ongoing outbreak in a long-term care home in the province is now the one at Acropolis Manor in Prince Rupert, where 57 people had tested positive and 14 residents had died, as of the latest BCCDC update.

Health officials have attributed the decline in the number and severity of outbreaks in care homes in the province in recent months to the proliferation of COVID-19 vaccines in the system. As of mid-February, some 91 per cent of residents in long-term care had received at least one dose of a vaccine.  

Outbreaks in hospitals, meanwhile, have not noticeably declined in frequency in 2021.

On Saturday, an outbreak was declared at Kelowna General Hospital, where a separate, unrelated outbreak was already ongoing in a different unit. 

On Sunday, Interior Health announced that the earlier outbreak, in unit 4B, had ended. A total of seven people – six patients and one staff member – tested positive for COVID-19 in association with that outbreak. Two of the patients died.

“I would like to thank the team at KGH for their efforts in containing this outbreak and preventing further spread throughout the hospital,” said Interior Health president and CEO Susan Brown in a news release Sunday.

“We send our condolences to the families of the two patients who passed away and will work equally as hard to contain the second outbreak declared on March 6,” Brown added. 

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Ontario universities eye opening up campuses this fall –



Ontario universities are eyeing on-campus classes and activities this fall — or possibly even sooner — as the province’s vaccination rollout ramps up.

“We expect to return to face-to-face instruction, and more of the on-campus experiences we all love, this coming September,” Western University President Alan Shepard said in a written release. “We know this question has been top of mind for our current students and for new students considering Western.”

And, he added, “as vaccines become more readily available over the spring and summer and as the Western community continues to remain vigilant both on and off campus, we’re increasingly confident of these plans.”

The province-wide lockdown last March sent post-secondary students home from campus, with almost all — except for those requiring hands-on labs for things like health studies — learning remotely this school year. While residences opened to first-year students last September, they did so at a much lower capacity than normal.

Schools now say they hope to have a clearer picture to give their students before the end of the winter term, at the end of April.

The University of Guelph is planning for a “safe gradual return to face-to-face learning for the fall 2021 semester” — or even earlier.

“We anticipate that this spring we will begin welcoming increased numbers of faculty and staff back to our campuses and facilities, following strict health and safety protocols and public health guidelines,” said Interim President Charlotte Yates in a written release to faculty and staff.

“This gradual return will help us ensure we can provide a safe environment for everyone.”

At Waterloo University, Media Relations Manager Rebecca Elming said it is looking to get back to normal as soon as it is safe, though specifics are still in the works.

“We have been and will continue to work with health officials and all levels of government to make the transition back to in-person campus operations safe for students, staff and faculty,” she said.

Queen’s University is “cautiously optimistic” that by the winter term — which starts in January 2022 — campus life will be back to what it was pre-pandemic.

However, for September, it is considering a hybrid model.

“We will still be living with COVID-19 in the fall, so flexible options may still be required as appropriate,” but “as part of society’s hope to be back to some degree of normalcy by fall, we are planning that many small classes, labs, and tutorials will be offered in-person, with appropriate safety protocols in place,” said Mark Green, provost and academic vice-principal, in a written release, acknowledging “this past year has been challenging.”

However, “if restrictions remain in place throughout the fall, such as physical distancing measures and class size limitations, we expect most large classes may need to be delivered remotely.”

Ryerson University says it is “actively planning for a number of scenarios in advance of the 2021-22 academic year, but no final decision has been made” as yet.

“We will not ask anyone to come to campus until government and public health agencies have told us that it’s safe to open and that the safety and well-being of our community can be assured,” the school said in a statement.



“This will likely mean a gradual return — prioritizing areas that would most benefit from in-person interaction. Our goal is to inform our community 90 days prior to the beginning of the fall semester to give time for students to plan to attend campus and for faculty to plan course delivery.”

The University of Toronto said it is “looking forward, with optimism, to fall 2021 when people can once more gather on our campuses, as permitted by public health guidelines … By September, we aim to support students, faculty, staff and librarians to return to campus, while also preserving some of the best innovations of the past year in terms of technology and flexible work arrangements.”

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