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What space scientists hope to accomplish with this month's missions to Mars – CTV News

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TORONTO —
It’s been a long time since we believed there could be “little green men” on Mars – but the debate over life on the red planet could soon be reignited.

At least, that’s the dream of the scientists behind the three Martian missions arriving at their destinations this month.

The United Arab Emirates-developed Amal orbiter and China’s Tianwen-1 combination orbiter and rover have already arrived at the red planet, and NASA’s Perseverance rover is scheduled to land there Feb. 18.

The confluence of these three missions is more about timing than teamwork – they were all launched last summer, to take advantage of the window when Earth and Mars are at their closest – but they’re all designed to further global understanding about the only other planet in our solar system that is considered potentially habitable.

“Each of these missions have different goals, but ultimately it’s to learn more about the habitability of Mars and whether it’s suitable for life, or was suitable for life,” Sara Mazrouei, an educational developer at Ryerson University in Toronto and planetary scientist, told CTVNews.ca via telephone on Wednesday.

WHAT WE’RE AFTER

Amal, the first-ever planetary mission from the Arab world, will spend two years studying the Martian atmosphere from above. Its observations may give scientists clues as to how Mars went from having a fairly Earth-like atmosphere to leaking its atmospheric gases into space.

“It started out just like the Earth. It had water, it had an atmosphere, and things were going great. Our planet stayed like that, and their planet – all of a sudden the atmosphere just disappeared, and it got very cold, and it all just went to hell,” CTV News Science and Technology Analyst Dan Riskin told CTVNews.ca on Wednesday via telephone.

“One big question is ‘What went wrong, and is that something we should worry about?'”

Tianwen-1, meanwhile, will send its rover to the surface in May to explore for evidence of subsurface ice. This is important for improving our understanding of water on Mars, and potentially life too, Mazrouei said – but also crucial knowledge for planning to send astronauts to the planet, which a space program as ambitious as China’s might want to try someday.

As she explained it, a manned spacecraft journeying to Mars and back will not be able to carry a full set of supplies for its astronauts, the way ships to the moon can. As a result, based on current technology and thinking, the astronauts will need to be able to obtain some of their own supplies from the planet’s surface.

“Figuring out if there is water ice below the surface, and how much of it, will really determine where we might land humans in the future,” she said.

China’s rover will be touching down on Utopia Planitia, a wide-open space where the U.S. first landed a spacecraft in 1976.

Riskin noted that landing site decisions are the result of what he called a “really interesting tension” between those looking to avoid the possibility of a crash-landing and those looking to maximize the possibilities for discovery.

“You have engineers who want to nail the landing, and so they look for the place on the planet that is the safest place to land. They would like it to be a flat, barren landscape with nothing interesting,” he said.

“Then you have another team, which is not the engineers but the scientists, and the scientists want to go to the most interesting place possible.”

The engineers seem to have won that battle in China, but not in the U.S. Perseverance is expected to touch down at Jezero Crater – a jagged, rocky area that will make for a tricky landing and has never before been explored by a rover.

SELECTING SAMPLES

If Perseverance lands safely and is able to perform its mission, it will take key samples from the soil and set them aside. Plans are underway to send another rover in Mars in a decade or so to retrieve these samples and bring them back to Earth in what would be a historic first. To this point, we have only ever sent spacecraft to the moon and back to retrieve samples.

“The samples that it’s going to be setting aside are going to be really, really interesting,” Mazrouei said.

Evidence of clay in the crater has been detected from orbit. Because clay forms when water is present, scientists believe Jezero is as likely a spot as any on Mars to have once been underwater – offering up the tantalizing possibility that it also once harboured life.

“It’s an ancient river delta, in a sense,” Mazrouei said.

There is also a Canadian connection to this work. Chris Herd, a professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at the University of Alberta, is one of the scientists selected by NASA to participate in the project – meaning if the samples collected by Perseverance do make it back to Earth, he’ll be one of the first experts to analyze them.

Riskin said Herd’s selection for this task is one example of the outsized role Canada plays in space discovery and research. The deal to send a Canadian astronaut on a future NASA moon mission is another.

“We do a really good job getting our foot in the door and playing a pivotal role,” he said.

That seems to be as true now as it was in 2008, when it was Canadian scientists – appropriately enough – who discovered snow falling from clouds on Mars via NASA’s Phoenix lander.

Since then, NASA rovers including Curiosity and Opportunity have helped enhance our understanding about everything from Mars’ dust storms to its seasonal climate.

“We have so many missions on Mars, but every one of them seems to discover something new,” Mazrouei said.

THERE’S WATER, BUT IS THERE LIFE?

Our understanding of Mars has come a long way from centuries ago, when astronomers observed the planet through telescopes and saw what they thought were signs of existing canals.

The idea of widespread water on the planet was disproven by the 1960s, when the first orbiters revealed that, while Mars does indeed contain landscapes that could have been formed by bodies of water, they are now dry and barren.

That’s not true of the whole planet, though. Its polar regions are covered in ice, and scientists have found evidence of water hiding beneath that ice cover. Because the existence of water seems to correlate with the existence of life on Earth, scientists believe learning more about water on Mars will help us better understand any form of life that may exist or have existed there.

“We’re going back to figure out ‘How much water? Is there any subsurface ice water? Was there any life, and what happened to that life?'” Mazrouei said.

We don’t know any of that at this point. We don’t know if any samples collected by Perseverance will help us figure out those answers, if they’ll make it back to Earth, or if they’ll even be collected to begin with.

All we can say with certainty is that Perseverance is scheduled to land on Mars shortly before 4 p.m. EST on Friday, Feb. 18.

Like so many others around the world, Mazrouei will be paying rapt attention.

“It never gets old, watching in anticipation,” she said.

“It doesn’t matter which space agency has sent a mission, or which planetary body [is involved] – it’s always just as exciting as the first time.”

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

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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.

HRivers@postmedia.com

Twitter: @SudburyStar

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

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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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'Forward edge of human exploration': Victoria company helps design piece of NASA Mars rover – CTV Edmonton

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VICTORIA —
When NASA’s six-wheeled Perseverance rover touched down on the red soil of Mars, ground control teams in California leapt to their feet in unbridled enthusiasm. But they weren’t the only ones bursting with joy.

North of the border on Vancouver Island, a team of mechanical engineers and metal workers were overwhelmed with their work landing on the red planet.

“A lot of the guys were watching the landing on their computers as it came down, going through the countdown. So, there was a lot of excitement,” said Ron Sivorot, Kennametal Inc. Langford Site business director.

Inside Kennametal Inc. in Greater Victoria, teams of metal workers and mechanical engineers design a variety of custom products for businesses around the world.

Last Thursday, however, was the first time a partnership had taken the Vancouver Island business into orbit.

In 2014 the company began a partnership with NASA’s jet propulsion laboratory to help design and build a drill bit capable of tearing into the harsh and unknown soil of Mars.

“We specifically made a tooth blank for a core bit drill,” said Sivorot. “So basically, that is the business end of the drill that basically drills into Mars.”

The company has a specific skillset with the material tungsten carbide.

It’s an incredibly hard metal known for its use in harsh climates.

Staff at the Langford operation helped create a blank drill bit tip which NASA then put the final touches on before mounting to the car-sized rover.

Perseverance touched down in dramatic fashion on Mars last week and almost immediately began its work of taking core samples.

NASA hopes that drilling into the ground of Mars could uncover galactic mysterious about the planet and possibly uncover life on another planet.

Commander Chris Hadfield is no stranger to Canadian contributions to space exploration.

The Toronto-based astronaut was the first Canadian to walk in space and has served as the commander of the International Space Station.

He says each time Canada is represented in the cosmos, it dares us all to dream bigger.

“There is a great sense of contributing to something important that is bigger than yourself,” said Col. Hadfield from his Toronto home.

“For the folks at Kennametal, they are doing a great job, they make a great product. Their tungsten carbide is twice as hard as steel, but that little thing they work on, that they take daily pride in, is now right on the very forward edge of human exploration,” he said.

Over the next two years, the rover will use its two-meter arm to drill down and collect rock samples containing possible signs of bygone microscopic life.

Three to four dozen chalk-size samples will be sealed in tubes and set aside to be retrieved eventually by another rover and brought homeward by another rocket ship.

The goal is to get them back to Earth as early as 2031. 

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