Looking towards the centre of Gale crater, Mastcam mosaic showing the APXS pointing up, at the end of the robotic arm (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS) The Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) is the only such instrument included on all NASA Mars rover missions, providing a unique opportunity to compare chemistry across different locations. Dr. Ralf Gellert (APXS Principal Investigator and physics professor at the University of Guelph) provided the scientific design for the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) APXS. MDA was the prime contractor, funded by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), who also fund Mars operations run from the University of Guelph and the University of New Brunswick.   Dr. Lucy Thompson is a geologist/planetary scientist at the Planetary and Space Science Centre, University of New Brunswick. She came to Canada for her PhD studies and first foray into planetary geology in 1991, studying the Sudbury meteorite impact structure in Ontario. She has since studied other terrestrial, martian and lunar craters and geology, as well as meteorites. This experience led to her becoming a member of the APXS and MSL Science teams in 2011. The APXS is located on the end of Curiosity’s robotic arm and is placed in contact with, or close to, a rock, sand or soil sample, or pointing away from the surface for an atmospheric measurement. It bombards the area of interest with X-rays and alpha particles, causing the sample to emit characteristic x-rays that reveal its detailed chemical makeup. The APXS is compact, simple to operate, requiring very little power or uplinked data and generating low downlink data volume products, making it ideally suited to landed planetary mission payloads. After nearly 7 years and more than 20 km of roving in Gale crater on Mars, the MSL Curiosity APXS instrument has acquired more than 750 individual chemical analyses of rocks, sand, soil, dust and the atmosphere. In concert with the 9 other instruments on the Curiosity payload, it has been key in discoveries regarding the geological history of the Gale crater landing area as well as the martian crust in general. These have included; recognition of a past environment at Gale that could have sustained life, as well as extending the compositional range of crustal materials so far found on Mars. Navcam left photo of APXS analyzing the “Kilmarie” drill target prior to drilling on Sol 2382. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech) The Canadian-built and operated APXS continues to play a pivotal role in the exploration of Gale crater. As Curiosity continues to climb the rock layers that comprise the central mound, the APXS will provide key chemical information regarding changes in the martian environment through time as the rocks were formed. The APXS team during landing, August... Read more
A rendering of the James Webb Space Telescope (Credit: Northrup Grumman) The Hubble Space Telescope’s impact on our understanding of the Universe and the public’s perception of space is undeniable. It is truly a revolutionary mission! But nearly three decades after it began operations, Hubble is set to be supplanted by an even grander telescope: the James Webb Space Telescope. And unlike with Hubble, this time Canada will be along for the ride! Dr. Nathalie Ouellette is an astrophysicist and science communicator. Her research focuses on galaxy formation and evolution. She is a frequent contributor to space stories in the Canadian media and public outreach events. Nathalie is currently the Coordinator of the Institute for Research on Exoplanets (iREx) at the Université de Montréal. She is also the JWST Outreach Scientist in Canada collaborating with the Canadian Space Agency. The James Webb Space Telescope is an international collaboration between the Canadian Space Agency, NASA and the European Space Agency. Unlike Hubble which was mostly sensitive to visible light, Webb will peer into the infrared universe. This 6.5m telescope, arguably one of the most complex machines ever built, will be launched into space in an Ariane 5 rocket. The telescope itself is so large that it will need to be folded up like origami to fit into the rocket. It will take about a month for Webb to reach its final destination 1.5 million kilometres away from Earth. Canada’s contributions to the Webb Telescope, the Fine Guidance Sensor (FGS) and the Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS), was delivered in a single unit to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Credit: NASA The Webb Telescope will be able to study alien worlds, observe the evolution of galaxies over time, help us understand the lifecycle of stars and peer further back into the Universe than ever before. The Near-Infrared Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS), one of Webb’s four scientific instruments, is Canadian-made. It was designed, among other things, to study the atmospheres of exoplanets and determine if they are habitable… or even inhabited! The Fine Guidance Sensor (FGS), Webb’s guiding camera, is also part of Canada’s contribution to the mission. It will be essential in making sure that every single image taken by the telescope is clear and sharp. Webb is currently undergoing a battery of tests to make sure it will survive the extreme environments of a rocket launch space. This is especially crucial since Webb’s distant location will mean it will not be repairable. The Webb Telescope is scheduled for launch in March... Read more
ExoMars – Artist’s impression of Schiaparelli separating from Trace Gas Orbiter. Credit: European Space Agency   Why are Earthlings so obsessed with Mars? They want to know whether life existed on Mars some time in the past or whether life might still exist on Mars! Of all the planets, Mars is the most Earth-like, but is still very different from the Earth. Mars is colder, drier, and has a much thinner atmosphere. However, scientists think that as we go further back in time, Mars and Earth become more similar to each other. Life arose on Earth around 3 billion years ago, and at that time Mars was much more Earth-like. What that means is that even though Mars is pretty inhospitable today, it was more hospitable in the past and so life could have arisen on Mars like it did on the Earth.   An artist’s interpretation of what ancient Mars may have looked like (Ittiz via Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-3.0) Dr. Ed Cloutis is a Professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Winnipeg. He is Director of HOSERLab, which uses laboratory equipment to reproduce the surface conditions on Mars and study how rocks and organic materials may change when exposed on the surface of Mars. He is a co-investigator on a number of present and future Mars missions. Canada may not be able to fly its own mission to Mars because that is incredibly expensive. However, Canadian scientist and engineers are involved in almost all current and future Mars missions. This allows Canada to explore Mars at a fraction of the cost of having its own mission. Canada is part of the Russian  and European Space Agency ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) mission. This is an orbiting satellite around Mars that is searching for signs of past or present life on Mars. ExoMars TGO studies the Mars atmosphere for traces of gases that are produced by life, such as methane. Canadian scientists are also using data from the ExoMars mission to study dust kicked up by dust storms that is in the atmosphere of Mars to find out whether the dust either contains biological molecules or contains compounds that are essential for life, such as boron-containing compounds. Artist impression of the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) analyzing the martian atmosphere. Credit: European Space Agency Using the scientific instruments on TGO to search for evidence of life in the dust in the Martian atmosphere is difficult since the instruments were not designed for this. However, scientists are working hard to make this possible. The knowledge and experience gained by studying Martian atmospheric dust is also being applied to monitoring the health of Earth’s atmosphere from... Read more
A team of Canadian astronomers and engineers has developed a bold new concept for a Canadian flagship space telescope: CASTOR, the Cosmological Advanced Survey Telescope for Optical and ultraviolet Research. CASTOR’s name pays tribute to Canada’s national animal, the beaver. Space astronomy is on the verge of a revolution. In the next decade, a pair of sophisticated imaging telescopes — Europe’s Euclid mission and NASA’s WFIRST mission — will survey the skies at red-optical and infrared wavelengths, hoping to unlock the secrets of Dark Energy, a mysterious form of energy that is causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate. CASTOR has been designed to complement these by providing razor-sharp images at shorter wavelengths, in the ultraviolet and blue-optical region. Patrick Côté is an astronomer at NRC’s Herzberg Astronomy & Astrophysics Research Centre in Victoria, BC. He uses both ground- and space-based telescopes — especially the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope in Hawaii and NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope — to study galaxies and clusters in the local universe. CASTOR would not only open a new window on the cosmos, but it would succeed the legendary Hubble Space Telescope (HST) as the world’s preeminent imaging facility at these wavelengths. Launched in 1990, HST is nearing the end of its lifetime, and astronomers worldwide will soon lose access to the razor-sharp imaging capabilities that have propelled their research to new heights and captivated the pubic in the process. Smaller, lighter and cheaper than Hubble, CASTOR would use the latest technologies to deliver images that are nearly as sharp as Hubble, but covering a field nearly one hundred times larger. Astronomers plan to use its revolutionary billion-pixel camera to image about one fifth of the entire sky, yielding the sharpest, widest and deepest view of the universe to date at these wavelengths. A team made up of nearly one hundred astronomers from across Canada and around the world has recently explored CASTOR’s research capabilities in a study sponsored by the Canadian Space Agency. The conclusion? CASTOR’s scientific potential is immense and includes not just Dark Energy, but the progenitors of gravitational wave events, supermassive black holes, the atmospheres of extra-solar planets, the search for possible dwarf planets beyond the orbit of Pluto, and much more. CASTOR will produce the deepest, widest and sharpest view of the universe in ultraviolet light, allowing astronomers to understand how galaxies form and evolve over cosmic timescales. (Left). A region of sky imaged in ultraviolet light by NASA’s GALEX telescope. (Right). Credit: Patrick Côté Energized by the results of their recent study, the team hopes the Canadian Space... Read more
Have you ever wanted to shoot lasers in space? Do you know that Canadians are doing that right now? OSIRIS-REx is a NASA-led mission that launched on September 8, 2016 and has traveled to a Near-Earth Object called Bennu, which is thought to have formed over 4.5 billion years ago, and has remained relatively unchanged since then. OSIRIS-REx reached Bennu in August 2018, and in October 2018 started a survey of the surface of the asteroid to measure its global properties, identify strange or unique features, and scan the surface for potential sites to touch down and collect material to bring back to Earth in 2023. First 3D lidar map of asteroid Bennu created by Canada’s OLA instrument. Credit: NASA/University of Arizona/Canadian Space Agency/York University/MDA Left: Dr. Kim Tait is the Senior Curator of Mineralogy at the Royal Ontario Museum and a collaborator on the Canadian OLA science team. Right: Dr. Michael Daly is the Canadian Science Team Lead for the OSIRIS-REx Mission and the Lead Instrument Scientist for OLA. He is the holder of the York Research Chair in Planetary Science and the Director of the Centre for Research in Earth and Space Science. One of the 5 instruments on the mission was built in Canada, by MDA and Teledyne Optech, It is a laser system that is able to scan the asteroid from up to seven kilometres away called the OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter (OLA). From February 12-17, 2019 OLA made more than 11 million measurements of the distance between the spacecraft and Bennu’s surface as it orbited the asteroid at less than 2 kms above the surface – the closest orbit ever achieved by spacecraft. OLA obtained these measurements by firing a laser pulse at the surface of the asteroid and measuring the amount of time it takes to bounce back to the spacecraft, creating a 3-D model of Bennu’s surface. Left: OLA’s electronics box. Right: OLA’s sensor head which holds the two lasers that fire short laser pulses and a receiver that captures the returned beam from the surface of Bennu. Credit: NASA / Goddard / Debora McCallum OLA will take nearly a billion more measurements throughout 2019 to create a complete LIDAR map of a near-Earth asteroid. This information will help researchers and mission planners select the best location from which to gather a sample of the asteroid to bring back to Earth. Close-up images of asteroid Bennu’s northern hemisphere. Wide-angle image (left) shows a 180-meter wide area with many rocks and large boulders and is obtained by the MapCam camera on OSIRIS-REx. The two images on the right are obtained by the high-resolution PolyCam camera. Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of... Read more
Credit: CSA/NASA The Canadian government has established a new partnership with the United States for the NASA-led Lunar Gateway project. It also unveiled its latest Space Strategy, reaffirming Canada as a major spacefaring nation and sets bold visions by designating space as a “strategic national asset”. The 22-page document is embodied by three thematic points, with Imagination as the pivot to Exploration and Innovation. A reinvigorated space program merits the input of Canadian students and young professionals. Zaid Rana is an undergraduate student at Concordia University who is now working at the European Space Agency (ESA) as a Mission Operations Trainee. His work involves using machine learning applications to study the impact of radio frequency interference using ESA’s space telescopes. He has previously spent eight months at the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) as an intern and is also active with the Space Generation Advisory Council (SGAC). The Lunar Gateway project represents the next major destination for the international space community, and Canada has an important role to play. Orbiting the Moon, the station will be much farther than the International Space Station orbiting Earth. It takes on average 2.5 seconds for a round-trip signal from Earth to Moon. Away from Mother Earth, this poses new challenges requiring autonomous systems. The next generation of Canadian robotics will be driven by artificial intelligence to fulfill this role. Scientists and engineers will also gain a better understanding of the space environment and its impact on astronaut’s health. Gateway: Proposed modules and preliminary design (Credit: NASA)   The announcement was accompanied with the Junior Astronauts initiative. This is significant as space is a domain that is undeniably multigenerational. To invest in education and space for Canada is central to the vision set out in the new Space Strategy. Securing the nation’s posterity is vital to enable and to ensure that Canada maintains its foothold in braving the next frontier. This can only be achieved if it maintains the imagination of young Canadians to set their gaze upon the stars and bolsters their capability, all the while keeping Earth in sight to showcase its benefits back home. Junior Astronauts program by the Canadian Space Agency (Credit: CSA)   The $150M committed to the Lunar Exploration Accelerator Program paves the way for scientific experiments and technology development on or around the Moon. The Strategy also calls for an update to regulatory frameworks and to strengthen commercial... Read more
Lander and rover missions, combined with exquisite satellite images have revealed much about the surface of Mars. But what about the ~3400 km of rock and metal that lies between the surface and the planet’s center? We know very little about the deep interior, yet it is the ‘engine’ that drives the planet’s evolution. In November 2018, the InSight mission landed on Mars to begin two years of detective work to look deep inside the Red Planet. Left: December 4th, 2018 image from InSight’s robotic-arm mounted Instrument Deployment Camera showing the spacecraft’s deck, with the Martian surface of Elysium Planitia in the background. In the foreground, a copper-colored hexagonal cover protects the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure instrument (SEIS), a seismometer that will measure marsquakes. The gray dome behind SEIS is the wind and thermal shield, which will be placed over SEIS. To the left is a black cylindrical instrument, the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Probe (HP3). HP3 will drill up to 16 feet (5 meters) below the Martian surface, measuring heat released from the interior of the planet. Above the deck is InSight’s robotic arm, with the stowed grapple directly facing the camera. Credit NASA/JPL-Caltech. Right: SEIS deployed onto the surface of Mars on December 19th, 2018. This was the first time a spacecraft robotically placed a seismometer onto the surface of another planet. The image was taken around Martian dusk. Credit NASA/JPL-Caltech.   Geophysicist, Dr. Catherine Johnson, has been working with PhD student Anna Mittelholz at the University of British Columbia to prepare for the InSight mission by better understanding Mars’ interior through studies of the planet’s magnetic field.  InSight will measure the planet’s vital signs: listening for quakes, measuring the heat being lost from Mars, but also carefully monitoring the environment at the landing site.  Part of that monitoring includes measuring magnetic fields. Magnetic fields can tell us about Mars atmosphere and its interior. Like on Earth, Mars’ upper atmosphere is ionized by solar radiation and this creates small magnetic fields that change from day to night. However, unlike Earth, Mars has no present-day global magnetic field, but satellite data indicate that rocks near the surface were magnetized in an ancient field. InSight will, for the first time, measure the magnetic field on the surface of Mars. Those measurements will tell us how strongly... Read more
In today’s world everyone is just a phone call, email, or text away. We can have on-screen face-to-face conversations with loved ones around the world, share photos and videos to social media instantly, or conduct meetings with international business partners without ever leaving the office. The world is literally at our fingertips. Satellites have revolutionized the way we connect and communicate, and Canada was at the forefront of this change. On November 9, 1972, Canada became the first country in the world to launch a domestic communications satellite, “Anik A1”, into geostationary orbit – Anik means ‘little brother’ in Inuit. For the first time, people in the far north received TV and telephone signals. The satellite’s ingenious design allowed for coverage across all of Canada. The antenna was designed in such a way that it was aimed at Canada at all times, and the signals were transmitted by a beam that was shaped to cover the entire country. A geostationary orbit means the satellite’s movement was in sync with Earth’s rotation and therefore stayed positioned above us. Two more identical satellites (Anik A2 and Anik A3) were launched shortly after. Having three satellites ensured continuous service and backup to cover failures. All three satellites were owned and operated by Telesat Canada. For over 10 years, Anik A1 relayed telephone calls, data, and TV signals on 12 channels. We often take for granted the ease at which we are able to connect with the world. Even when travelling is a challenge, satellites can bring the world to you. Being able to communicate and share means the world can work and grow together. This global connection truly is one of the greatest benefits of space science and... Read more
During the mid-20th century, the race to space was in high gear. After years of preparation the first nations made it to the finish line. Following the Soviet Union and the United States, Canadians celebrated a proud moment in history after successfully launching their first space satellite, Alouette-1, becoming the third country in space. How it all got started Shortly after its creation in 1958, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) invited Canada to collaborate in its satellite program. Two Canadian scientists from Canada’s Defence and Research Telecommunications Establishment (DRTE), John Chapman and Eldin Warren, promptly responded with a proposal to design and build a Canadian satellite that could monitor Earth’s ionosphere (a layer of Earth’s atmosphere) and the aurora borealis (Northern Lights). The proposal was approved, and Chapman and his team of DRTE scientists got to work on the design and construction of two identical satellites: Alouette-1 and Alouette-2. Success After three and a half years of work, Alouette-1 was ready. On September 29, 1962, the 320-lb satellite was launched from the Pacific Missile Range in California. Designed to last only one year, Alouette-1 surpassed expectations by continuing to operate for a decade, capturing over one million images. Following this success, Canada and the United States joined forces, launching a new program called the International Satellites for Ionospheric Studies (ISIS). Under the ISIS program, three other satellites were successfully launched: Alouette-2 (1965), ISIS I (1969), and ISIS II (1970). The data collected from these satellites supported over 1200 scientific papers on the physical processes of our upper atmosphere. A legacy is born The success of Alouette-1 marked the beginning of a strong relationship between not only Canada and the United States but nations all... Read more