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Not yet over the moon: Here’s what’s on the horizon for Canadian space exploration




When Nathalie Nguyen-Quoc Ouellette was young, she didn’t see many stars in the bright skies over Montreal. But she would pore over the colourful, otherworldly images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope and dream of becoming an astrophysicist.

“I really fell in love with space and astronomy,” she said. “There’s so much left to discover.”

Today, the deputy director of the Trottier Institute for Research on Exoplanets at the Universite de Montreal moonlights as the outreach scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope, a role that sees her connecting its science team with the general public and kids she hopes to inspire.


It’s a “truly fantastic” moment for space exploration, said Ouellette.

From the stunning early images produced by the powerful new telescope to the early success of the Artemis moon mission, the world’s fascination with space is going into hyperdrive.

And Canada is playing no small part in some of the headline projects that made aspiring scientists starry-eyed again in 2022, with major milestones yet to come.

But even as Canadian space experts wax poetic about the current landscape, they’re waiting to see if an influx in federal investment will continue despite domestic economic pressures.

For the team behind the James Webb telescope — named after the NASA administrator who led the Apollo program — it’s been a “very, very busy year,” Ouellette said.

The telescope, which sent its first dazzling images back to Earth in July, includes two Canadian components, and Canadian researchers are among those busy parsing its findings.

“In just a few short hours of collecting data it was already blowing previous missions out of the water,” Ouellette said.

She noted that a University of Toronto team discovered some of the oldest-ever globular clusters, or groups of millions of stars held together by gravity. And sometime in the first few months of 2023, researchers at the Universite de Montreal are expected to deliver the first analysis of the TRAPPIST-1 system, the home of seven Earth-like planets.

NASA’s Artemis mission, which is planning the first human exploration of the moon since the ’60s, also saw major milestones this year.

The Artemis I flight, which saw the Orion spacecraft slip into a temporary lunar orbit, returned to Earth on Sunday after a successful launch Nov. 16.

Next year, the Canadian Space Agency will announce which Canadian astronaut is joining the crew of Artemis II, which is expected to launch in 2024.

That move will make Canada the second country in the world to have a human go into deep space — or the region of space beyond the dark side of our Moon — said Gordon Osinski, a professor at Western University in London, Ont.

“I still don’t know how Canada pulled it off,” he said, calling it an “incredible coup” that a Canadian astronaut will be on board.

“Some of the images from Artemis I have just blown me away,” he said. “As someone who wasn’t alive during Apollo, seeing these images in real time is amazing. And so I think that’s going to be very inspirational, that mission.”

Canadarm3, the successor to two previous robotic arms engineered in Canada, is expected to launch in 2027, and its design by Canadian company MDA is already underway. It is expected to dock at the Artemis mission’s lunar gateway, an outpost that will orbit the moon.

Meanwhile, Osinski has been named the principal investigator for Canada’s first-ever rover mission, which is expected to land on the south pole of the moon as early as 2026. The design of the rover by Canadensys Aerospace Corporation will get underway in earnest next year, he said.

“People have been talking about this for a long time,” said Osinski. “For the past 10 or 15 years, we’ve been doing study after study. We’ve been paid to think about doing this and develop concepts for it. But we’re actually doing it, which is really amazing.”

Canadian Space Agency President Lisa Campbell said this has been “a really exciting time” for the national space program.

“It’s like a dream factory and an innovation machine,” she said.

Campbell cited myriad ways that Canada is involved with international projects in the public and private sectors that are focused on exploring the moon and beyond. But she also emphasized that Canadian efforts in space do not just go toward exploring its outer reaches, but also have applications at home.

The agency, Natural Resources Canada and Environment and Climate Change Canada were promised $169 million in this year’s federal budget to deliver and operate a new wildfire monitoring satellite, which is expected to launch in 2028.

Canada is also part of an atmosphere observation project with NASA that will collect data to anticipate extreme weather events on Earth.

And in 2022, the agency launched a deep space health care challenge, a competition to develop diagnostic and detection technologies that can be used both on crewed deep-space missions and in remote communities in Canada.

“The challenges of space push us to innovate the things that we need here on Earth,” said Campbell.

Many moon-related projects, including the rover mission, have received funding from the Lunar Exploration Accelerator Program, a five-year $150-million fund that scientists such as Osinski are hoping will be renewed.

“I would hate us to have all of these missions to the moon in the next two, three years and that be it, and then kind of be back to square one,” Osinski said. “The CSA needs to convince the government that this is a worthwhile endeavour.”

While Campbell said the program has been “highly popular,” she wouldn’t say whether the federal government has committed to funding another term.

“Additional investments are always welcome,” she said.

The federal Liberals’ space strategy, released in 2019, committed Canada to remaining a space-faring nation and recognized “the importance of space as a strategic national asset.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 11, 2022.

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New AI algorithm helps find 8 radio signals from space



A new artificial intelligence algorithm created by a Toronto student is helping researchers search the stars for signs of life.

Peter Xiangyuan Ma, a University of Toronto undergraduate student and researcher, said he started working on the algorithm while he was in Grade 12 during the pandemic.

“I was just looking for projects and I was interested in astronomy,” he told CTV News Toronto.

The idea was to help distinguish between technological radio signals created by human technologies and signals that were potentially coming from other forms of life in space.


“What we’re looking for is signs of technology that signifies if the sender is intelligent or not. And so unsurprised to us, we keep on finding ourselves,” Ma explained. “We don’t want to be looking at our own noisy signals.”

Using this algorithm, Ma said researchers were able to discover eight new radio signals being emitted from five different stars about 30 to 90 light years away from the Earth.

These signals, Ma said, would disappear when researchers looked away from it, which rules out, for the most part, interference from a signal originating from Earth. When they returned to the area, the signal was still there.

“We’re all very suspicious and scratching our heads,” he said. “We proved that we found things that we wanted to find … now, what do we do with all these? That’s another separate issue.”

Steve Croft, Project Scientist for Breakthrough Listen on the Green Bank Telescope, the institute whose open source data was the inspiration for Ma’s algorithm, said that finding radio signals in space is like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

“You’ve got to recognize the haystack itself and make sure that you don’t throw the needle away as you’re looking at the individual pieces of hay,” Croft, who collaborated on Ma’s research, told CTV News Toronto.

Croft said algorithms being used to discover these signals have to account for multiple characteristics, including the position they are coming from in the sky and whether or not the transmission changes over time, which could indicate if it’s coming from a rotating planet or star.

“The algorithm that Peter developed has enabled us to do this more efficiently,” he said.

The challenge, Croft says, is recognizing that false positives may exist despite a signal meeting this criteria. What could be signs of extraterrestrial life may also just be a “weirdly shaped bit of a haystack,” he added.

“And so that’s why we have to go back and look again and see if the signal still there. And with these particular examples that Peter found with his algorithm, the signal was not there when we pointed the telescope back again. And so we sort of can’t say one way or another, is this genuine?”

Researchers have been searching the sky for technologically-generated signals since the 1960s, searching thousands of stars and galaxies for signs of intelligent life. The process is called “SETI,” or “the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.”

But interference from our own radio signals has always proven to be a challenge. Croft says most pieces of technology have some kind of Bluetooth or wireless wave element that creates static, resulting in larger amounts of data needed to be collected.

“That’s a challenge but also computing provides the solution,” he said.

“So the computing and particularly the machine-learning algorithms gives us the power to search through this big haystack, looking for the needle of an interesting signal.”

Ma said that while we may not have found a “technosignal” just yet, we shouldn’t give up. The next step would be to employ multiple kinds of search algorithms to find more and more signals to study.

Peter Ma

While the “dream” is to find evidence of life, Ma says he is more focused on the scientific efforts of actively looking for it.

This sentiment is echoed by Croft, who said he is most fascinating in working towards answering the question of whether humans are alone in this universe.

“I don’t show up to work every day, thinking I’m going to find aliens, but I do show up for work. So you know, I’ve got sort of some optimism.”


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How to spot the green comet in Manitoba



Space enthusiasts in the province will get the chance to potentially see a rare green comet over the next couple of days.

The comet was discovered by astronomers in southern California last year and it was determined the last time it passed Earth was around 50,000 years ago.

Mike Jensen, the planetarium and science gallery program supervisor at the Manitoba Museum, said the time between appearances and the colour of the comet makes this unique compared to others.

“The last time it would have appeared anywhere within the region of visibility to Earth, we’re talking primitive humans walking the Earth,” said Jensen. “And then yes, its colour. Most people associate comets, they’re often referred to as ghosts of the night sky because they often have a bit of a whitish-blue appearance. This one’s got a bit of green to it. Comets are all made up of different types of material, this just happens to have a bit more of some carbon elements in it.”


Jensen notes the green tint on the comet will be subtle, comparing it to the subtle red that surrounds Mars in the night sky.

Wednesday and Thursday are the best days to see the comet as Jensen said that’s when it will be closest to Earth – 42 million kilometres away.

“That proximity to us means it does get to its best visibility for us. The added advantage is it’s also appearing sort of high up in the northern sky, which puts it amongst the circumpolar stars of our night sky. In other words, the stars that are circling around the North Star.”

Now, just because the comet is close enough to be visible doesn’t mean it will be the easiest to see in the night sky according to Jensen. He said there are a few factors that play into having a successful sighting.

First, he suggests getting out of the city and away from the lights, noting, the darker it is, the better. If people head outside city limits, Jensen recommends people dress warmly, saying comet watching in the winter is not for the “faint of heart.”

Secondly, he said even though it might be possible to see the comet with the naked eye, he still suggests bringing binoculars to improve people’s chances. He also recommends checking star maps before leaving to get the most accurate location of where the comet may be.

Lastly, even if all of that is achieved, Jensen notes people will have to battle with the light of the moon, as it is close to a full moon.

“I’m not trying to dissuade anybody from going out to see it, but certainly, there’s going to be some hurdles to overcome in order to be able to spot it on your own.”

If people don’t want to go outside to see it, he said there are plenty of resources online to find digital views.

 – With files from CTV News’ Michael Lee


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Is there life on Mars? Maybe, and it could have dropped its teddy



Larger than the average bear: there’s a 2-kilometer-wide bear’s face on the surface of Mars, space scientists say.

Yogi, Paddington and Winnie the Pooh, move over. There’s a new bear in town. Or on Mars, anyway.

The beaming face of a cute-looking teddy bear appears to have been carved into the surface of our nearest planetary neighbor, waiting for a passing satellite to discover it.

And when the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter passed over last month, carrying aboard the most powerful camera ever to venture into the Solar System, that’s exactly what happened.

Scientists operating the HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment), which has been circling Mars since 2006, crunched the data that made it back to Earth, and have now published a picture of the face.


“There’s a hill with a V-shaped collapse structure (the nose), two craters (the eyes), and a circular fracture pattern (the head),” said scientists at the University of Arizona, which operates the kit.

Each one of the features in the 2,000-meter (1.25-mile)-wide face has a possible explanation that hints at just how active the surface of the planet is.

“The circular fracture pattern might be due to the settling of a deposit over a buried impact crater,” the scientists said.

“Maybe the nose is a volcanic or mud vent and the deposit could be lava or mud flows?”

HiRISE, one of six instruments aboard the Orbiter, snaps super-detailed pictures of the Red Planet helping to map the surface for possible future missions, either by humans or robots.

Over the last ten years the team has managed to capture images of avalanches as they happened, and discovered dark flows that could be some kind of liquid.

They’ve also found twirling across the Martian surface, as well as a feature that some people thought looked a lot like Star Trek’s Starfleet logo.

One thing they have not found, however, is the little green men who were once popularly believed to inhabit the planet.

© 2023 AFP

Is there life on Mars? Maybe, and it could have dropped its teddy (2023, January 31)
retrieved 31 January 2023

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