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Mars, eh?

Canada’s important and growing contribution to Mars exploration
A Computer-Generated Image showing the Phoenix Mars Lander, with Canada's weather station clearly visible on top

As I write this, it’s a frigid minus-30 degrees Celsius in the low Arctic region of Mars. I know this because a Canadian weather station is helping to provide climate data from a perch on the back of the Phoenix Mars Lander.

In fact, the Phoenix Mars Lander — which confirmed the existence of ice water on Mars back in June — has two Canadian-made instruments on board for its three-month (but likely to run for years) mission.

These instruments are only one way that Canada is committed to Mars exploration. From the ongoing study of rare bacteria coral in Pavillion Lake (just north of Whistler), to the instruments on the Phoenix Mars Lander, to the use of our Arctic to test habitats and technologies for a proposed manned mission to Mars, Canada is one part of a massive and coordinated international effort with other nations to unravel the mysteries of the Red Planet, our solar system, and life itself.

The Phoenix Mars Lander

The Phoenix Mars Lander touched down on Mars on May 25, via a tricky bit of rocket science that NASA engineers said was the galactic equivalent of hitting a hole in one with a golf ball from 16,000 kilometres away. So far less than half the probes sent to Mars have actually reached the surface in one piece as even a small miscalculation or minor misfire can end in disaster.

It really was a one in a billion shot, as the lander entered the thin Martian atmosphere at about 21,000 kilometres an hour and had to put on the brakes fairly quickly. In the next seven minutes the lander performed a series of maneuvers to slow to about 8 km/h, including launching a massive parachute to slow the initial decent until just above the landing area. At that point the parachute was released to allow the lander to drop the remaining few hundred metres while onboard thrusters slowed the descent to about 2.4 metres per second — probably the speed at which most of us fall off our bikes.

The lander’s three legs were designed to absorb the final impact on the northern plains of Mars — judged the best place to find frozen water, likely deposited over millions of years as Martian weather cycles condensed and trapped traces of water vapour.

Upon landing, the Phoenix mission control crew at NASA waited breathlessly for the Phoenix lander to make contact with Earth — it takes anywhere from three to 22 minutes to send a message from Mars to Earth, depending where the two planets are in orbital relation to each other — then promptly went crazy, rocket scientist style, with awkward high fives, hugs, pumped fists and the obligatory bottle of champagne after they received the first signals from the lander. Mars was about 170 million miles away at the time, so their enthusiasm can be excused.

Guided by instructions from mission command, the Phoenix then started to deploy its various tests, including those designed and deployed by the Canadian Space Agency.

The meteorology mast, which pokes out about a metre above the lander, detects temperatures with three Canadian-made thermometers, while other instruments on the mast that were provided by researchers in Denmark and Finland measure wind speed, wind direction, and air pressure.

The data can be combined with images from the camera to spot cloud cover and dust storms, and to get a better sense of Mars’ weather patterns and seasons.

Canadians also contributed a sophisticated lidar to the Phoenix lander, which stands for Light Detection and Ranging. The lidar essentially transmits laser light upwards while a companion camera is used to spot reflected light on airborne particles, fog, dust and cloud cover.

These small pieces may be less glamorous than the lander itself, or the clever device that scooped a Martian soil sample into an onboard oven that confirmed the presence of frozen water only a few weeks ago, but Canada’s role is crucial to understanding the climate of the planet.

By studying the variations in temperatures and winds, and collating that data with observations from the Mars Orbiter above the planet, scientists can determine, for example, whether the planet still experiences free-flowing water that could support life.

In fact, we know that temperatures at the equator of Mars can heat up to a balmy and Earth-like 27 degrees Celsius when the planet passes closest to the sun. While the equatorial belt is dry, or appears dry, scientists wonder whether melted ice and frost from the poles could be evaporated and carried by the wind to those warmer regions as airborne moisture or even rain, maybe sparking blooms of biological activity by organisms that lie dormant in the soil most of the time.

Mars also experiences massive dust storms that can create a haze around the entire planet — could ice particles migrate around the planet along with the clouds of dust?

Scientists can reliably assume that there was a time on Mars, maybe 700 million years ago, when temperatures were warmer, when volcanic activity may have created an atmosphere capable of retaining heat, and when liquid water coursed over the surface of the planet to create conditions that were generally optimal for life. Some believe that evidence of those Martian life forms may be found fossilized below the surface of Mars, just waiting for the right expedition to be uncovered.

Some even hold out for the possibility that some rudimentary forms of bacterial life are still there in the Martian soil, eking out a fragile existence despite the frigid temperatures, low air pressure and lack of water.

After all a group of organisms called extremophiles can be found surviving in the harshest conditions imaginable on Earth, embedded in arctic ice, swimming in the frigid waters surrounding scalding deep sea volcanic events, in acidic soils and pools, in caustic soils and pools, in radioactive slag heaps, in the pores of rocks, in the bottoms of the deepest caves, in the driest deserts, in concentrations of heavy metal that are toxic to most other forms of life, in the arid salt flats of Utah and South America, in areas where temperatures are over 60 degrees Celsius, and at fantastically high pressures in the sediments below the ocean floor. While Mars is certainly extreme, it also harbours enough of the basic building blocks of life to provide a home for various extremophiles.

The Pavilion Lake Research Project

One of Canada’s ongong contributions to Mars exploration is a joint University of British Columbia and NASA research project on Pavilion Lake, which is located between Lillooet and Cache Creek. Back in June, researchers used a single person submarine to explore the depths of the lake and collect samples of unique freshwater microbialites.

The microbialites are reef-like structures vaguely resembling brains that were likely formed by a unique type bacteria. They are rare, and are thought to resemble undersea structures from the early Cambrian period when life formed on earth.

The Pavilion Lake microbialites were first discovered in the year 2000, and can be found at depths of five metres to more than 60 metres. Some of the larger structures, about three metres tall, likely date back more than 11,000 years as glaciers in the area retreated. The find is unique to North America, and could give Mars researchers an idea “how the biological signatures of early life forms may be preserved in rock structures.”

“Better understanding of how ancient fossils on Earth were created will hone our ability to find and detect life — and remnants of life — on other planets,” said Bernard Laval, a professor of civil engineering at UBC.

Specifically, researchers are curious to know what evidence of life may have been left behind from the time that Mars had surface lakes and oceans. Finding carbonate in Martian lake areas similar to the microbialites in Pavilion Lake could hint at the existence of a similar bacteria producing similar reef-life structures.

The evidence of Martian water is everywhere, from the deep gullies on the surface, to the erosion lines on Mars’ massive volcanoes, to the polar ice caps, to the obvious difference in surface minerals between low lying areas and the surrounding hills.

The evidence of life may be there as well, providing we know what to look for. Studying the microbialites’ structures on Pavilion Lake may help scientists spot the remains left by similar bacteria on Mars.

If life is discovered, the next question faced by Mars researchers is whether life evolved on Mars or was it planted there by a meteor.

The “Galactic Panspermia” Theory

There is a branch of astrobiology that believes some hardy bacteria can survive on meteors in deep space that were broken off of other life supporting planets after collisions with larger meteors. These life forms may be sealed in ice, in rock, or in metals, laying dormant until they can be revived on another planet.

Rocks from massive collisions with Mars are believed to hit the Earth every month, and some believe it’s possible that one of these castoff Martian rocks may have seeded Earth with basic bacterial lifeforms hundreds of millions of years ago that gradually evolved into us.

The galactic panspermia theory works both ways, so it’s equally possible that Mars could have been seeded by life from Earth at one point.

At the very least some astrobiologists suggest that life may have been jump-started by meteors, which are proven to carry very basic amino acids that are the building blocks of life. For a planet that already has the other building blocks in place, an encounter with one of these meteors could be the missing piece of the puzzle.

Given that all of the elements in the Universe are understood to have formed in the Big Bang (and subsequently by the energy created by exploding suns) — and given all the ways that these individual elements form compounds under different conditions — it would appear that the rudimentary building blocks for life are quite common. Those building blocks are liquid water, and basic chemicals (mainly carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and nitrogen), as well as a consistant source of energy from a nearby star. Put those ingredients on any planet in sufficient qualities and it’s believed that life can just happen.

While astronomers and scientists have always believed that organic life was at least statistically probable elsewhere in the universe — given the hundreds of billions of stars in our own galaxy, and the hundreds of billion of galaxies in the Universe — finding past or present evidence of life on Mars would prove once and for all that life is possible, if not inevitable, whenever a basic set of elements and system conditions is present.

Mars, Earth’s second-closest celestial neighbour (Venus is closer most of the time), contains many of the same elements as our planet. Because of the thin atmosphere it also receives a similar amount of solar energy even if the sun is half as bright from that distance.

According to the Wikipedia entry, with input from NASA:

“Conditions on the surface of Mars are much closer to habitability than the surface of any other planet or moon, as seen by the extremely hot and cold temperatures on Mercury, the furnace-hot surface of Venus, or the cryogenic cold of the outer planets and their moons. Only the cloud tops of Venus are closer in terms of habitability to Earth than Mars is. There are natural settings on Earth where humans have explored that match most conditions on Mars. The highest altitude reached by a manned balloon ascent, a record set in May, 1961, was 34,668 meters (113,740 feet). The pressure at that altitude is about the same as on the surface of Mars. Extreme cold in the Arctic and Antarctic match all but the most extreme temperatures on Mars.”

Although the chances of finding life are slim, Mars may be our first and best chance to prove that we’re not alone in the Universe.

In Search of Little Green Men

Back in January, a photo from the NASA Mars Explorer Spirit (two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, were launched in 2003) was blown up to reveal a rock formation that resembles a humanoid creature strolling downhill. From a scientific point of view it’s about as convincing as those grainy sasquatch photos, but that didn’t stop the image from making the rounds as proof of alien life on Mars.

Perhaps we can be forgiven for believing that there’s complex life on Mars. After all, most of us grew up on a steady diet of little green men, as did our parents, grandparents and great grandparents. The theme is old enough that it’s become ingrained in our culture.

The very idea of life on Mars goes back to 1877 when Italian astronomer Gionvanni Schiaparelli spotted grooves on the surface of Mars. He called these grooves canali, which literally translates to channels, but which the English-speaking world took to mean canals. The difference was significant, as channels can occur naturally as a result of wind, water, lava, and geotechnical movements like tectonic plates shifting and earthquakes, while canals are manufactured by intelligent beings to move water from place to place.

One theory later put forward by astronomer Percival Lowell in 1895, millionaire turned astronomer, suggested that the canals were built to bring polar ice to equatorial crops by an advanced and desperate Martian race. For the next 70 years the debate raged on as to whether the canals even existed, and, if so, whether they were evidence of alien life.

The alien life theory became a staple of science fiction movies, comics, novels and radio programs (H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds ), which continued even after the Mariner 4 space probe shot pictures of Mars’ surface in 1965 that proved, once and for all, that there were no canals on the planet, and that the patterns seen by astronomers were likely an optical illusion. There were valleys and canyons that likely once had water, but all are as naturally occurring as the Grand Canyon.

When the Viking Orbiter 1 snapped a shot of the surface of Mars in 1975 and found what appeared to be a hill shaped like a face — it kind of looks like a chimp wearing a helmet — a long debate started about whether the hill was natural or manufactured, a Martian sphinx or a topographical anomaly. The answer, of course, is topographical anomaly, as the photo itself was a composite, but more than three decades later is still held up as proof of past or present life on Mars.

Why? Why not just assume that the Earth is relatively unique, at least in our neighbourhood of the Milky Way, and that other Earth-like planets are likely so far away that we’ll never be able to journey that far without warping the laws of physics?

Is it comforting for humans to believe that there may be intelligent life out there, or are we merely looking to colonize distant planets as an insurance policy in the eventuality that our own world will be destroyed by a meteor, a growing sun, a new plague, or some type of environmental devastation?

Why Not Life?

We now know for certain that Mars has traces of water in the topsoil, and probably has a lot of water ice hiding under a layer of carbon dioxide ice in polar ice caps that grow and shrink with changing seasons. We know a Martian day is similar to an earth day (it’s just 39 minutes longer), and that Mars rotates around the sun on a similar axis and plane as the earth even if the orbit takes almost twice as long and is a little more elliptical. And while the climate there can be harsh it’s not an alternately superheated and frozen mass like Mercury, a toxic gas ball like Jupiter or Saturn, or a frozen methane-sicle like Uranus.

Mars also had abundant surface water at one point before it boiled away in the low atmospheric pressure and was either sloughed off into space, frozen in the poles, or trapped beneath the surface.

Mars has several prominent volcanoes — Olympus Mons is the biggest volcano in the solar system, with a height about three times Mount Everest. We know volcanism played a crucial role in the creation of life on Earth by spewing chemicals and gases, trapping heat with greenhouse gases, and regulating levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Mars’ volcanoes appear to be dead, or mostly dead, at this stage although some researchers suggest that they were recently alive, and may be still active at times. This is based on the fact that the flanks of the volcanoes are relatively smooth, when we should expect to see more meteor impact craters on the flanks of the volcanoes similar to what you can see on the surrounding plains. Recent lava flows, or periods spewing ash, could explain the discrepancy.

If the volcanoes are still alive, then there could also be thermal vents providing warmth and nutrients to isolated pockets of life — similar to what we can see in and around volcanic vents on earth.

The truth is, nobody really knows what’s going on beneath the surface of Mars. There is no sign of plate tectonics that would confirm activity beneath the crust of the planet, and Mars’ magnetic field is also weak. Still, some researchers believe that Mars has a liquid core similar to Earth, and possibly also a solid inner core that could recharge the planet’s magnetic field at any time.

If Mars is incapable of supporting complex life today, yesterday and tomorrow are a different story.

While the discovery of water was significant, it should also be noted that the Phoenix lander also recently confirmed that Mars’ soil likely contains perchlorates — compounds toxic to most organic forms of life, but that could theoretically support some extreme forms of bacterial life and plant life like we see on Earth. Scientists are divided on whether the discovery of perchlorate is good or bad news for the Mars mission, while others suggest it’s irrelevant — the compound may only be found in certain areas of the planet, for example, or maybe Martian organisms may have evolved to use the compound. Its existence neither confirms nor denies the past or present existence of life, but it could ultimately limit the types of organisms we might uncover in our explorations.

A Mars to Call Home

Some researchers are even proposing that we seed Mars with some rudimentary life forms that can survive similar extreme conditions on earth to eventually adapt Mars to support human life. Terraforming the planet would be slow — thousands or tens of thousands of years probably — but the theory is that various forms of bacteria and algae could be planted there to alter conditions on the planet.

One way they could alter the planet is by changing the atmosphere. For example, some bacteria might break down the perchlorates and oxidized metals in the Martian soil, and release increased oxygen in the atmosphere. Other bacteria or algae could also release stored carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas, which would in turn allow the planet to retain more solar heat.

Other forms of terraforming suggested include using rockets to send reactive compounds and elements like CFCs and hydrogen to Mars; blasting asteroids out of orbit with nuclear explosives to collide with the planet and release energy and ammonia gas while liberating water frozen in the Martian soil; placing mirrors around the planet to reflect more light onto the surface, especially at the polar regions; and grinding up Mars’ moons to spread dark dust on the planet’s surface to absorb more sunlight.

It all seems kind of impossible unless you look at all the ways we’ve altered Earth over the centuries. Technology has allowed cities to flourish in deserts, while mountains have been terraced into communities and farmland, or ground down for coal and other minerals. New islands, lakes, and rivers have been created. Our atmosphere has also been altered in many ways, with human activity increasing greenhouse gases and nearly destroying the ozone layer. Those changes could eventually alter the chemistry of our oceans, changing their currents and the jet stream that keeps places like England livable while nearby Greenland is covered by kilometres-thick glaciers.

The Sahara desert, the biggest and fastest growing desert on Earth, was once a fertile grassland and savanna, and quickly became a desert when the rain patterns suddenly changed. The process may have been sped up because of human activities like raising livestock and cutting down trees. All of Earth’s deserts’ are growing at least partly because of human intervention, just as most of our glaciers are shrinking, and our ocean levels are rising.

With enough investment, can we make Mars more livable? And can we do it as quickly as it will take us to make the Earth unlivable?

What’s Next for Canada and Mars

In 2004, President George W. Bush announced plans to go to the moon by 2020, and use that stepping stone for a manned trip to Mars. He proposed spending about $12 billion over the next five years, ramping up funding towards a Mars shot in around 2030.

Needless to say the announcement caused an uproar. Why send people into space on a two-year mission, some scientists asked, when we can send sophisticated robots safely and at a fraction of the price?

Other scientists ask why we have a manned space program at all — International Space Station included — when the bulk of discoveries still come from comparatively cost-efficient observatories right here on earth?

Others wonder why we’re wasting so much time and money exploring our solar system when there are so many worthwhile uses for those scientists and dollars of dollars on our planet curing cancer and ending hunger. Why spend billions looking for evidence of simple or single-cell organisms on Mars when so many complex organisms are endangered on Earth?

A manned mission will be long, dangerous, and lonely. It will be expensive. It will require new, untested technologies, and there is a very real possibility that the first humans to set foot on Mars could end up stuck there.

Given the availability and durability of robots — Spirit and Opportunity were sent out on 90-day missions, and are still operating with some diminished capacity four years later — it makes little sense on the surface.

Until you consider what a manned mission to Mars would mean to humanity.

As astrophysicist Stephen Hawking noted, going to Mars may ultimately be necessary for our survival.

“It is important for the human race to spread out into space for the survival of the species,” he said. “Life on Earth is at the ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster, such as sudden global warming, nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus or other dangers we have not yet thought of.”

There are other, less dire reasons that scientists want to go back to the moon and then on to Mars.

The reasons range from the emotional — the human drive to boldly go where no man has gone before, and humanity’s need to capture imaginations and unite countries and peoples with big ideas — to the scientific. Planning the mission will result in the creation of new technologies that could have worldwide benefits, while humans on Mars would be able to explore better than robots that are ultimately hampered by design, climate and the communication lag between Earth and Mars. Rovers can be damaged by dust storms, while humans can just go inside their habitat to wait the storm out.

One solution that has been proposed is a kind of compromise, where humans would orbit Mars while controlling one or more robots on the surface — something that would likely happen as a precursor to any planned Mars landing anyway.

Canada has not yet committed to the actual manned mission but we’re still involved in many ways by partnering with the European Space Agency, and space programs in the U.S., Russia, China and Japan. In fact, Canada recently formed a global exploration strategy along with space agencies from 13 other countries that maps the way forward to explore the moon and Mars, “first with robots and then eventually with humans,” said Dr. Alain Berinstain, the director of planetary exploration and space astronomy at the Canadian Space Agency. “That’s the big picture, and we’re involved in many of the activities that fit into the big picture.

“The question of life existing anywhere but Earth is very important, and it’s a question that Canadian scientists are interested in answering.”

If the decision is to send people to Mars, Canada has already played a role in studying the technologies necessary to keep a crew alive in the Martian habitat.

The Haughton-Mars Project

The Haughton-Mars Project is an ongoing research project on Devon Island’s Haughton Crater, located in Canada’s wedge of the Arctic Cricle. The island is dry, rocky, and with an average summer temperature of two degrees Celsius, and is a perfect environment for testing technologies that could be used on a manned Mars mission — wind generators, solar generators, greenhouses to grow food and produce air (thereby eliminating the need to bring those supplies to the planet), as well as various research equipment that human explorers would use. Over the past 12 years, the Haughton Mars Project has also looked at the psychological effects of isolation on crews.

The trip to Mars will take about six months to complete in each direction, although it’s been suggested that nuclear engines could reduce the travel time to about two weeks. The mission would likely have several stages, with different sections of the habitat landing on the planet before the humans arrive that would start automatically producing oxygen, water, and hydrogen fuel for the return trip.

Three to five humans would spend approximately 12 months in space and 16-18 months on Mars, or two thirds of a Martian year — presumably landing in the Martian spring and taking off again before winter. The total cost could be as high as half a trillion dollars when all is said and done, and would represent a massive international effort.

According to plans released by NASA last year, it will send 40 tonnes of equipment on the mission. The spacecraft will be assembled in orbit — probably outside the International Space Station, although the moon has been put forward as a possibility — and the Martian living quarters would be nuclear powered, and sent to Mars about two years before the manned mission leaves with the cargo.

Astronauts will grow food on the journey, which would be transplanted into a Martian greenhouse to sustain the crew for the duration of the trip. Other needs could be met by resupply ships that would dropping supplies to the surface of the planet.

While we’re easily two decades away from a crew being named it’s safe to say it’s going to take an unusual type of person — part scientist and part engineer — to meet the minimum standards. The ideal candidate will also need to be courageous, cool-headed in emergencies, and both mentally and physically prepared for the stress, isolation and limited socializing that a 2.5 year mission like this would require. How many people could you stand being cooped up wih in a few hundred square feet of space for two and a half years?

Further north of Devon Island, on Axel Heiberg Island, scientists are also studying some unusual hot springs that gush year-round and contain many interesting chemicals and bacteria — examples of extremophiles that explorers may find in heated vents on Mars, if they find heated vents.

According to Dr. Berinstain, these areas are considered analogue sites to Mars.

“In Axel Island there are these perennial springs where water comes out of the ground 12 months a year, with interesting salts and biology, which is very key to understanding life in extreme environments. Pavilion Lake has all these strange and wonderful structures that we think may have been created by lifeforms (we’re not 100 per cent sure yet), but they can help us answer some big scientific questions when we look at what we think are dried-up lakebeds on the surface of Mars.”

What’s Next for the Canadian Space Agency

In 2009, the next time Mars and Earth pass close to each other, Canada will be part of another Mars expedition. This time NASA is sending a nuclear-powered rover to the surface of the planet that will be able to go further and faster than other rovers. Canada is contributing an Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer to the project that will be able to analyze rocks and soil for different chemical elements in various proportions.

The total cost of Canada’s contribution to the rover is unknown, but space exploration doesn’t come cheap. The weather station on the Phoenix cost Canada $37 million, but as Dr. Berinstain points out that’s still only a small part of the $450 million lander.

While he does hear some criticism over the cost of space exploration, he says most people support their work. As well, he says there are benefits for Canada being part of these missions.

“People want to know what the benefits are of space exploration, and that’s normal when you’re using public funds,” he said. “It’s also important that we show people how this benefits of our everyday lives, and there are huge benefits in health, technology, and communications from space exploration. We’re also able to put research programs into universities, and create training opportunities for our young people. It also helps us to attract people to Canada that will help to make us a world leader in science and technology.

“Indeed, there are problems here on Earth and we should continue to try to solve them. That’s why we have a balanced program, and what government is all about. Space exploration is a very small part of the federal budget, but it’s a very important part in many ways.”

For further reading:

Canadian Space Agency —

NASA’s Mars Exploration Program —

Discovery Channel educational series —

Haughton-Mars Project —