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Meet some of the Canadians involved with NASA's latest mission to Mars – CTV News



As NASA’s latest Mars rover is set to make landfall on the red planet this week, several Canadians have been hard at work for years to help make it happen.

NASA’s Perseverance rover is scheduled to land on Mars on Thursday, where it will seek to identify signs of ancient life and collect soil samples in tiny vials, which could then be returned to Earth in future missions.

While hundreds of people from around the world are involved in making the mission a success, several Canadians are making key contributions to the project now, and more will be in the future.

Here are a few of the Canadians involved in the Mars 2020 rover mission:

Tim Haltigin, Canadian Space Agency

Haltigin is a senior mission scientist in planetary exploration at the Canadian Space Agency, meaning he is involved in all of Canada’s missions in the solar system.

For the Perseverance mission, Haltigin is a member of the international team that designed the science program to see how scientists are going to study the samples once they’re brought back to Earth.

The great thing about bringing samples back from elsewhere in the solar system is that effectively what we’re doing is that we’re turning the spacecraft into every laboratory on Earth and potentially expanding our science team to every scientist on Earth for the next 50 to 100 years,” Haltigin said in an interview with

“It’s tremendously exciting that we’re going to be able to study these samples to understand the history of Mars, to understand the environment when it was formed, and potentially even to look for signs of life.

Haltigin also managed the Canadian laser on board the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft that mapped the asteroid Bennu to identify the best place for it to land. The spacecraft successfully landed on the asteroid back in 2018 and in Oct. 2020 began it’s return flight to Earth, where it is expected to land in 2023.

Haltigin began working on the Mars 2020 mission about six years ago, and said his work should continue until around 2033.

“I’m really helping to build the overall program to understand how all the pieces fit together … and really ensuring that scientists around the world, including in Canada, will have access to those samples when they come back to Earth,” he said.

Kim Tait, Royal Ontario Museum

Tait is a geologist and senior curator at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.

On a day-to-day basis, she looks after different soil and rock samples. For this mission, she will be part of the team that looks after the samples of Martian soil once they arrive back on Earth in the 2030s.

“The Mars 2020 mission that lands tomorrow on Mars is actually the first step in a series of launches and missions to return the samples back to Earth,” Tait told in an interview.

While the mission is expected to answer several questions about Mars itself, Tait said the samples could also work to unravel some of the mysteries surrounding our own planet.

“The best chance for us to understand Earth is to go to Mars and learn about that really early rock record that we have lost on Earth,” she said. “Earth is such a dynamic planet that we have plate tectonics and volcanoes and water, which is really exciting for life, but for understanding that first billion years of the history of our planet, we have to go somewhere else.”

This will be Tait’s first time working with a Mars landing mission in an academic setting, but she was also a part of the OSIRIS-REx mission.

While Tait’s team will be among the first people to examine the samples once they return to Earth, she added that researchers will be using these samples for decades to come.

“Samples returned from the Apollo mission even 50 years later are still giving us information and scientific advancements that we’re learning about the Moon now,” she said. “I think having these materials back here on our planet not only will be for me to study, but for generations in the future as well.

Richard Leveille, McGill University

Leveille is an adjunct professor in McGill University’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences.

For the Mars 2020 mission, Leveille is a co-investigator with the team that will be controlling the SuperCam, one of the seven major tools on the Perseverence rover.

The SuperCam is able to examine rocks and soils using its camera, laser and spectrometres to seek out organic matter in the soil that could be related to past life on Mars.

“We tell the instrument to shoot at those targets, we get the information back and we start using that to interpret the geologic context that the rover is in,” Leveille told

“Once we have that information, we can direct the rover.”

Once the rover is positioned in a spot the team deems worth investigating, it can use a robotic arm and other instruments to further investigate the area and collect samples for analysis in the future.

“We have so much more capabilities with our instruments and laboratories here on Earth than we do with the rover,” Leveille said. “Even with the best rover you’ve got going around — which is Perseverance — we’re somewhat limited with what we can do on Mars.”

This will be Leveille’s second Mars mission, having also worked with the Curiosity rover as part of the team in control of the ChemCam.

 “(It) sounds like SuperCam and indeed it’s a similar instrument,” Leveille said. “SuperCam is the successor to ChemCam. It’s even better or more superior.”

Chris Herd, University of Alberta

Chris Herd is a geologist at the University of Alberta and one of the world’s leading experts in the geology of Mars and Martian meteorites.

During the Perseverance rover mission, Herd is serving as a participating scientist and “expert in Returned Sample Science,” according to his biography on the University of Alberta website.

“My whole role on the mission it to help the mission decide when to stop and take samples and have documentation,” Herd told CTV News Calgary. “It’s a huge honour to me to be chosen to play this huge role in the mission.” 

Herd said his team will be working one full Mars day ahead of the rover while locating where to send it for sample collection.

“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.”

While the ultimate goal is to find evidence of ancient life on Mars, Herd said even the absence of any evidence would provide a noteworthy discovery.

“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.”

Mariek Schmidt, Brock University

Schmidt is an associate professor of Earth Sciences at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont. who will serve as a participating scientist with the Mars rover mission.

Schmidt will be primarily focused on using a tool called the Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL), which has an X-ray and camera capable of taking pictures of soil at a very close-up angle.

Using the PIXL, scientists are able to measure the chemical makeup of Mars’ rocks and soil.

“I’m one of hundreds of scientists on the mission and it’s a collective effort to try describe the geology,” Schmidt told Newstalk 610 last week. “One of the principle things we’re looking for is to see if we can find samples that might indicate evidence of past life.”

Given that this is Schmidt’s third Mars mission, she said from experience that the landing — known as the “seven minutes of terror” — is the most nerve-wracking part of the mission.

“There’s a lot of stress and there’s been so much work that builds up to that point, so there’s this relief when it actually lands,” she said.

Schmidtsaid her work begins almost immediately after the rover lands and is inspected for any damage stemming from the landing.

With files from CTV News Calgary

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Super-Earth discovered: Data will characterize planetary atmosphere models –



A super-Earth is discovered which can be used to test planetary atmosphere models
Moments of the virtual journey, with overlaid astronomical data. Credit: RenderArea

During the past 25 years astronomers have discovered a wide variety of exoplanets, made of rock, ice and gas, thanks to the construction of astronomical instruments designed specifically for planet searches. Also, using a combination of different observing techniques they have been able to determine a large number of masses, sizes, and hence densities of the planets, which helps them to estimate their internal composition and raises the number of planets which have been discovered outside the Solar System.

However, to study the atmospheres of the rocky , which would made it possible to characterize fully those exoplanets which are similar to Earth, is extremely difficult with currently available instruments. For that reason, the atmospheric models for rocky planets remain untested.

So it is interesting that the astronomers in the CARMENES (Calar Alto high- Resolution search for M dwarfs with Exoearths with Near-infrared and optical échelle Spectrographs), consortium in which the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias (IAC) is a partner, have recently published a study, led by Trifon Trifonov, an astronomer at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy at Heidelberg (Germany), about the discovery of a hot super-Earth in orbit around a nearby Gliese 486, only 26 light years from the Sun.

To do this the scientists used the combined techniques of transit photometry and radial velocity spectroscopy, and used, among others, observations with the instrument MuSCAT2 (Multicolour Simultaneous Camera for studying Atmospheres of Transiting exoplanets) on the 1.52m Carlos Sánchez Telescope at the Teide Observatory. The results of this study have been published in the journal Science.

This virtual journey to Gliese 486b begins with its position in the night sky. After focusing on the parent star Gliese 486b, the film depicts the measurements. Finally, we fly to the exoplanet Gliese 486b and explore its possible surface, which probably resembles Venus, with a hot and dry landscape interspersed with glowing lava flows. Credit: RenderArea

The planet they discovered, named Gliese 486b, has a mass 2.8 times that of the Earth, and is only 30% bigger. “Calculating its mean density from the measurements of its mass and radius we infer that its composition is similar to that of Venus or the Earth, which have metallic nuclei inside them,” explains Enric Pallé, an IAC researcher and a co-author of the article.

Gliese 486b orbits its on a circular path every 1.5 days, at a distance of 2.5 million kilometers. In spite of being so near to its star, the planet has probably conserved part of its original atmosphere (the star is much cooler than our Sun) so that it is a good candidate to observe in more detail with the next generation of space and ground telescopes.

A super-Earth is discovered which can be used to test planetary atmosphere models
The diagram provides an estimate of the interior compositions of selected exoplanets based on their masses and radii in Earth units. The red dot represents Gliese 486b, and the orange symbols represent planets around cool stars like Gliese 486. The gray dots show planets housed by hotter stars. The color curves indicate the theoretical mass radius relationships for pure water at 700 K (blue), for the mineral enstatite (orange), for Earth (green), and pure iron (red). By comparison, the diagram also highlights Venus and Earth. Credit: Trifonov et al./ MPIA Graphics Department.

For Trifonov, “the fact that this planet is so near the sun is exciting because it will be possible to study it in more detail using powerful telescopes such as the iminent James Webb Space Telescope and the ELT (Extremely Large Telescope) now being built.”

Gliese 486b takes the same length of time to spin on its axis as to orbit its host star, so that it always has the same side facing the star. Although Gliese 486 is much fainter and cooler than the Sun, the radiation is so intense that the surface of the planet heats up to at least 700K (some 430 degrees C). Because of this, the suface of Gliese 486b is probably more like the surface of Venus that that of the Earth, with a hot dry landscape, with burning rivers of lava. However, unlike Venus, Gliese 486b may have a thin atmosphere.

A super-Earth is discovered which can be used to test planetary atmosphere models
The graph illustrates the orbit of a transiting rocky exoplanet like Gliese 486b around its host star. During the transit, the planet eclipses the stellar disk. Simultaneously, a small portion of the starlight passes through the planet’s atmosphere. As Gliese 486b continues to orbit, parts of the illuminated hemisphere become visible as phases until the planet disappears behind the star. Credit: MPIA Graphics Department.

Calculations made with existing models of planetary atmospheres can be consistent with both hot surface and thin atmosphere scenarios because stellar irradiation tends to evaporate the atmosphere, while the planet’s gravity tends to hold it back. Determining the balance between the two contributions is difficult today.

“The discovery of Gliese 486b has been a stroke of luck. If it had been around a hundred degrees hotter all its surface would be lava, and its atmosphere would be vaporized rock,” explains José Antonio Caballero, a researcher at the Astrobiology Centre (CAB, CSIC-INTA) and co-author of the article. “On the other hand, if Gliese 486b had been around a hundred degrees cooler, it would not have been suitable for the follow-up observations.”

A super-Earth is discovered which can be used to test planetary atmosphere models
Artist’s impression of the atmosphere of Gliese 486b. Credit: RenderArea

Future planned observations by the CARMENES team will try to determine its orbital inclination, which makes it possible for Gliese 486b to cross the line of sight between us and the surface of the star, oculting some of its light, and producing what are known as transits.

They will also make spectroscopic measurements, using emission spectroscopy, when the areas of the hemisphere lit up by the star are visible as phases of the planet (analagous to the phases of our Moon), during the orbits of Gliese 486b, before it disappears behind the star. The spectrum observed will contain information about the conditions on the illuminated hot surface of the planet.

“We can’t wait until the new telescopes are available,” admits Trifonov. “The results we may obtain with them will help us to get a better understanding of the atmospheres of rocky planets, their extensión, their very high density, their composition, and their influence in distributing energy around the planets.

A super-Earth is discovered which can be used to test planetary atmosphere models
Artistic impression of the surface of the newly discovered hot super-Earth Gliese 486b. With a temperature of about 700 Kelvin (430 °C), Gliese 486b possibly has an atmosphere. Credit: RenderArea

The CARMENES project, whose consortium is made up by 11 research institutions in Spain and Germany, has the aim of monitoring a set of 350 red dwarf stars to seek planets like the Earth, using a spectrograph on the 3.5 m at the Calar Alto Observatory (Spain). The present study has also used spectroscopic measurements to infer the mass of Gliese 486b. Observations were made with the MAROON-X instrument on Gemini North (8.1m) in the USA, and archive data were taken from the Keck 10 m telescope (USA) and the 3.6m telescope of ESO, (Chile).

The photometric observations come from NASA’s TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) space observatory, (USA), whose data were basic for obtaining the radius of the planet, from the MuSCAT2 instrument on the 1.52m Carlos Sánchez Telescope at the Teide Observatory (Spain) and from the LCOGT (Las Cumbres Observational Global Telescope) in Chile, among others.

Explore further

Super-Earths discovered orbiting nearby red dwarf

More information:
T. Trifonov el al. A nearby transiting rocky exoplanet that is suitable for atmospheric investigation. Science (2021). … 1126/science.abd7645

Super-Earth discovered: Data will characterize planetary atmosphere models (2021, March 4)
retrieved 4 March 2021

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The first drone on Mars shows what the right collaborations make possible – World Economic Forum



  • 2-way dialogue and strong collaboration between the public and private sectors must happen early and continuously in the development process.
  • Work between NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and Qualcomm Technologies Inc., led to Ingenuity, a small helicopter drone that landed on Mars on February 18th, 2021 and is the first autonomous aerial platform operated outside Earth’s atmosphere.
  • The collaboration between JPL and Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. helped shorten the innovation cycle by 15 years.

Since July, a small helicopter drone named Ingenuity had been hitched to the underbelly of the Perseverance rover as it made its way to Mars. The drone’s arrival this February marked the first time an autonomous aerial platform is operated outside Earth’s atmosphere.

The drone was also the first to be used in space science exploration – and other firsts will likely follow. Ingenuity’s planned experiential flights on Mars will aim to prove the effectiveness of aerial exploration for future interplanetary missions to scout areas once considered out of sight and reach.

The project – like any other scientific advancement – leverages decades of scientific expertise. But the drone, based on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Flight platform, also leverages private sector knowledge and guidance. This advancement would not have been possible unless the two core collaborators – NASA and Qualcomm Technologies – had not connected at the right time and in the right way.

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The challenge

To fully understand the scientific achievement Ingenuity represents, it’s necessary to detail the challenges that Mars exploration presents. First, Mars’ atmosphere is 99% less dense than Earth’s, which means achieving lift is very difficult. Second, because of the time it takes for communication signals to pass between Earth and Mars – anywhere from 3 to 22 minutes – remote controlled flight is not possible.

To enable this mission in the face of these challenges, Ingenuity required high computational performance at extremely low power for autonomous navigation via computer vision, intelligent decision making, and a small, lightweight design. Such a project required not just NASA’s expertise in space science exploration, but also required knowledge of cutting-edge technologies. These technologies included flight navigation based on computationally-complex flight algorithms and a rich array of computer vision enablement technologies for drone location determination and object avoidance, something only a private sector company could provide.

The World Economic Forum was the first to draw the world’s attention to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the current period of unprecedented change driven by rapid technological advances. Policies, norms and regulations have not been able to keep up with the pace of innovation, creating a growing need to fill this gap.

The Forum established the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Network in 2017 to ensure that new and emerging technologies will help—not harm—humanity in the future. Headquartered in San Francisco, the network launched centres in China, India and Japan in 2018 and is rapidly establishing locally-run Affiliate Centres in many countries around the world.

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The global network is working closely with partners from government, business, academia and civil society to co-design and pilot agile frameworks for governing new and emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI), autonomous vehicles, blockchain, data policy, digital trade, drones, internet of things (IoT), precision medicine and environmental innovations.

Learn more about the groundbreaking work that the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Network is doing to prepare us for the future.

Want to help us shape the Fourth Industrial Revolution? Contact us to find out how you can become a member or partner.

The collaboration

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) approached Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. (QTI) in 2015 as the Qualcomm Snapdragon Flight platform was being developed. The Flight Platform was designed to enable drone manufacturers to build drone platforms quickly and efficiently.

These specifications fit with JPL’s needs: a commercial-based platform with the correct size and power constraints that could manage flight, control, and the ability to take and store images that would ultimately prove the utility of drones on another planet for the betterment of space science.

Through this process, it became evident that the autonomous capabilities Qualcomm was commercializing for next generation automotive experiences were in lockstep with the mission requirements JPL was seeking for aerial space exploration and that QTI could understand its program objectives. As a result, QTI was brought on as a consult to act as a sounding board while JPL was integrating a solution.

Several factors led to the successful partnership, revealing elements any collaborators in the public and private sector could put into place. They include:

  • Starting early. Such early and continuous connections were key. Leveraging commercial technology must be strategic. During this critical early period, core technologies are developed, standards are created, and rollout plans are shaped. When the right experts can connect early in the process, the right technologies can be applied to the right mission needs.
  • Open communication. Bringing two partners together isn’t guaranteed to lead to innovation. Open communication is required. In this case, the collaboration included a two-way exchange of ideas and education of the two very different worlds – the public and private sector – each with its unique way of solving complex mission problems.

    This two-way engagement enabled QTI and JPL to take an empathetic view that unified their collective thinking toward a common goal. Early open discussions and brainstorming sessions revealed how commercial technology could best address mission specifications. By focusing on the needs of the mission, the teams could guide one another through in-person visits early on. Later, a cadence of collaboration via teleconference and email was created to help answer questions as they arose.

  • Continuous partnership. Qualcomm now continues to collaborate on this project while Perseverance and Ingenuity make their first explorations on Mars. This proves another key aspect of a successful partnership. Engagement cannot be ‘one and done’ – it must be continual, ensuring that the key collaborators can keep problem solving through different phases of development.

The way forward

Conventional wisdom suggests that public sector and private sector ecosystems are vastly different in structure, composition, language and priorities. Common ground can be found, however, because many of the problems each ecosystem tries to solve for its constituents are often remarkably similar.

“Engagement cannot be ‘one and done’ – it must be continual, ensuring that the key collaborators can keep problem solving through different phases of development.”

—Kim Koro, Senior Vice President, Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. and President, Qualcomm Government Technologies

Still, the opportunity for public and private partnerships isn’t just to find short-term solutions that benefit both parties. As the public sector cannot match the scale at which the private industry invests in developing new capabilities, the public sector needs to find ways tap into that momentum and dynamic expertise, enabling government to move at the speed of innovation.

Governments that continually work with industry do not limit themselves to waiting for technology when it is productized and available commercially on the shelf (COTS). As this partnership with Qualcomm and JPL shows, by utilizing an early engagement point with the commercial industry, governments can dramatically shift the cycle of change and innovation. In this case, the cycle shrank from almost 20 to just 5 years.

The more the public and private sector learn how to leverage their strengths, the better technology will address existing and anticipated needs. Ingenuity provides a perfect reminder of collaborative power – a pioneering technology that’s the unique product of great minds coming together.

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SpaceX launches 60 new Starlink satellites, while Starship moves closer to being able to launch up to 400 at a time – Yahoo Movies Canada



SpaceX has launched another batch of its Starlink satellites – the usual complement of 60 of the low Earth orbit spacecraft, which will join the more than 1,000 already making up the existing constellation. This is the fifth launch of Starlink satellites for SpaceX this year, and the 20th overall.

Earlier this year, SpaceX opened up Starlink access to anyone in a current or planned service area via a pre-order reservation system with a refundable up-front deposit. The company aims to continue launches like this one apace throughout 2021 in order to get the constellation to the point where it can serve customers over a much larger portion of the globe. SpaceX COO and President Gwynne Shotwell has previously said that the company expects it should have coverage over much of the globe at a constellation size of around 1,200 satellites, but the company has plans to launch more than 30,000 to fully build out its network capacity and speed.

While SpaceX is making good progress on Starlink with its Falcon 9 launcher, it’s also looking ahead to Starship as a key driver of the constellation’s growth. Starship, SpaceX’s next-generation launch vehicle currently under development in South Texas, will be able to deliver 400 Starlink satellites at a time to orbit, and it’s also being designed with full reusability and fast turnaround in mind.

The ability to launch more than six times as many satellites per mission would help SpaceX a lot in terms of the speed with which they can deploy the Starlink network, as well as the overall cost of the endeavor – assuming their cost projections about Starlink’s general affordability are even close to accurate once it becomes a high-volume production rocket. That’s definitely still at least a few years off, but SpaceX did mark a milestone on Wednesday that bodes well for its chances of making that happen.

The company’s latest Starship prototype performed its most successful test launch to date on Wednesday, taking off from SpaceX’s Boca Chica, Texas development site and flying to around 32,000 feet before executing a ‘flop’ maneuver and then reorienting itself for a soft vertical landing. The test rocket also blew up after sitting on the pad for just under 10 minutes, but despite that spectacular ending, the test proved out a lot of the basic engineering work that SpaceX needs to make Starship a reality.

Starlink is a huge, multi-year effort, so even if Starship is still a few years away from high-volume production and flight, it should still have a significant impact on the project overall. And Starlink, once operational and fully deployed, will require regular maintenance – individual satellites in the network are only really designed to be operational for ups to five years max, with regular replacements required to keep things running smoothly.

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