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Looking for Canada's next big contributions to Mars exploration? An amazing team of students from across the country is current plotting our nation's future on the Red Planet.
OUT OF THIS WORLD | What's Up In Space

University students plot Canada's future in Mars exploration

Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Thursday, November 19, 2015, 2:06 PM - Looking for Canada's next big contributions to Mars exploration? An amazing team of students from across the country is current plotting our nation's future on the Red Planet.

Check NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory website and you will find a treasure trove of ongoing Martian discoveries from robot rovers Opportunity and Curiosity. How cool would it be, though, to actually participate in these interplanetary adventures?

Well, right at this moment, in a fairly non-descript classroom on the campus of Western University, in London, ON, a group of brilliant students from all levels of higher education is gathered in what they call "Mission Control" to do just that, with one catch.

CanMars "Mission Control" at Western University.

Just as with the teams that run Opportunity and Curiosity for NASA, each member of this Centre for Planetary Science and eXploration (CPSX) student team is responsible for a separate aspect of the mission - management, science, mapping and an array of cameras and instruments on the rover.

The team at Western, under the guidance of CPSX acting director Gordon "Oz" Osinski, conducts their operations just as the NASA teams do. They go over their planned operations for the day, making any revisions necessary based on any added thoughts or discoveries the team has from the previous day. They verify these plans through official channels (in this case, with the Canadian Space Agency), and if everything checks out, they transmit them to the rover. They even play the same "waiting game" as the NASA teams, looking forward to when the rover sends back the data it accumulated the day before, so that they can spend the rest of the day poring over these results and using them to plan the next day's activities.

The catch to all this? They don't have to adjust their sleep patterns to Mars time. Why? Because the rover they are operating, the CSA's Mars Exploration Science Rover (MESR), is much closer to home. Although the terrain MESR is exploring bears a certain resemblance to the cratered plains of Mars' Arabia Terra, it is actually in an undisclosed part of the Utah badlands.

Does this fact diminish the excitement of the mission, or even its importance? Not even one little bit.

MESR will never set wheels on the surface of Mars, but then, it was never meant to. The rover is specifically designed as a platform to test the equipment that will (hopefully) someday make the journey to the Red Planet, and to test the knowledge, skills and ingenuity of the students running the mission, so that (hopefully) someday they will be at the helm of a real rover mission on Mars.

Although not all instruments make the journey and not all scientists who want to be part of these missions get selected, these hopes are certainly not long-shots.

Mars Curiosity's Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS), the instrument it uses to determine what elements its science targets are made of, was built by MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (MDA) in Brampton, Ontario. The scientist leading the team for this instrument is Dr. Ralf Gellert, a professor at the University of Guelph, and his international team includes members from the University of New Brunswick and Western University. NASA's Phoenix Mars lander, which touched down near Mars' north polar region in May of 2008, included a Canadian-built meteorological station, which was the instrument that first discovered falling snow on the Red Planet.

Currently proving their worth on MESR are:

  • X-ray diffraction and X-ray fluorescence instruments, used to determine mineralogy and chemistry (respectively),

  • a Raman spectrometer, which detects molecular vibrations,

  • a device known as TEMMI (Three-dimensional Exploration Multispectral Microscope Imager) that can actually deliver 3-D views of mineral deposits and rock surfaces to allow for closer, more detailed study, and

  • a LIDAR instrument that scans the rover's surroundings with a laser to return amazing high-resolution 3D terrain maps.

Past and present members of the team operating this analogue mission are actually involved with the very real exploration of Mars as well. Raymond Francis, who is the Planning Lead for this year's CPSX team, was on the research team that identified the snow that Phoenix Mars' meteorological station spotted, and he currently works on the team operating Curiosity's ChemCam instrument. Livio Tornabene, a researcher and adjunct professor at Western University who has participated in the past and returns for the current CPSX mission, has been involved in several past and ongoing missions. He was a member of the teams running the Mars Odyssey orbiter and the Mars Exploration Rovers (Spirit and Opportunity), he has participated in operations involving the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and he is now the Co-Investigator for the Colour and Stereo Surface Imaging System (CaSSIS) on the ExoMars 2016 orbiter/lander mission.

Based on their experience with this CPSX mission, other members of the team - who range from Undergraduates to Postdoctoral Fellows - could be the people helping to run missions like NASA's Mars Insight lander or their Mars 2020 rover, or any number of other planetary science missions launching in the future.

Some of the extraordinary details of the mission so far:

  • When a team names the objects and features their rover is investigating, they often pick a specific theme to work from. For this year's mission, the CPSX team chose a Norse naming convention (also note "Jotunheim" in the Tweet quoted above).

  • While the team is keenly aware of the fact that their rover is exploring the more familiar terrain of our homeworld, they continuously push past that awareness to treat each batch of data the robot sends back as if it actually came from Mars. This includes findings that clearly point to the presence of life (past or present) or that involve processes we would not expect to occur on Mars. Mars has certainly surprised scientists over the decades we've been exploring there, so this kind of thinking gives the students experience in exploring all the possible reasons for something (a valuable skill when you are searching for life on other planets).

  • With the above mindset, linking the rover's current location on Earth to an analogous location on Mars just comes naturally. Tanya Harrison, the team member in charge of MESR's Mast Cameras (MastCam), puts the Utah "landing zone" in a very specific region of Mars, and for very specific scientific reasons.

  • One of the best aspects of the team (and the part that some members of the team find especially exciting) is the diversity represented in their ranks. They bring together backgrounds in geology, chemistry, biology, physics, engineering and computer science (just to name some), and they come from a wide range of academic levels. This combination of different scientific disciplines, depths of knowledge, and levels of experience results in a very strong team, and mimics the composition of teams that are conducting science on Mars right now.

  • The team is not only simulating a rover mission, but also a sample return mission. The logistics of such a mission are more difficult than they sound, but the goal is to actually return samples from the Martian surface to Earth for direct study. According to CSA planetary scientist Tim Haltigin, such a mission would require three different parts - a lander or rover to collect samples, a second mission on the surface to gather these samples and launch them into orbit, and a third to "catch" the samples once they reach orbit, for delivery to Earth. The biggest challenge for a sample return mission, says Haltigin, is how to handle the samples once they've made it to Earth. Any facility that housed these bits of Mars would need special quarantines in place, to not only prevent contamination of the samples by Earth's environment, but to keep the samples from contaminating Earth as well.

  • This project, and the amazing experience it grants the students involved with it, is directly supported by the Canadian Space Agency. Haltigin was representing the CSA at Mission Control this week, expressing both his enthusiasm for the team's work, and the value this mission has for the future of Mars exploration.

This CPSX mission, which is part of the NSERC Collaborative Research and Training Experience (CREATE) project led by Osinski, continues until the end of November. Follow the hashtag #CanMars on Twitter for regular updates, and come back to The Weather Network for more coverage of the team's progress in the weeks to come.

What's Up On Real Mars?

While the students at CPSX plan the future of Mars exploration, here's a taste of what's going on there right now.

Curiosity is off to investigate "active dunes"

Curiosity snapped this image of a dark sand dune on Sept. 25, 2015. The unusual nature of this dune is the focus of the rovers next science investigations. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

NASA's newest rover on Mars has been very busy exploring the various features at the base of Mount Sharp, and its next target is a nearby sand dune. The rover has seen its share of dunes on Mars already, however this one is not only moving (as seen by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter), but it is proving to be rather unusual.

"These dunes have a different texture from dunes on Earth," Nathan Bridges, of the Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory, said in a NASA statement. "The ripples on them are much larger than ripples on top of dunes on Earth, and we don't know why. We have models based on the lower air pressure. It takes a higher wind speed to get a particle moving. But now we'll have the first opportunity to make detailed observations."

Venerable Opportunity suffers more "amnesia" episodes during its active winter

The Mars Exploration Rover team handling operations for Opportunity has a very active winter planned, however they ran into difficulties in early November, as the rover suffered yet another problem with its memory.

"Hinners Point," on Mars, imaged by Opportunity at the northern edge of Marathon Valley. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.

According to NASA:

The rover team has been dealing for more than a year with Opportunity's tendency to undergo unplanned computer resets when using the type of onboard memory that retains information when power is off: flash memory. For three months until mid-September, operators fully avoided use of flash memory. In this mode, images and other data cannot be stored overnight, when the rover is powered off to conserve energy. To gain operational flexibility in a trade-off with possible "lost" days from resets, the team has resumed occasional use of flash memory.

Opportunity has been on Mars for nearly 12 years now, of a planned 90-day mission. Based on that, the rover is an incredible success, far beyond what the designers could have hoped for. However, it is definitely showing its age these days. Still, the team is very active in exploring Opportunity's little parcel of Mars, and we should continue to see new results and discoveries from the mission for some time.

Sources: WesternU/CPSX | CSA | CSA | NASA | NASA

Related Video: Alexandra Pontefract, the Science Lead for this year's Canadian Mars analogue team, discussed the difficulties of simulating Mars during their 2014 mission.

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