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
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
The Pavilion Lake Research
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
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”
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
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
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.
War of the Worlds
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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 — http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/
Discovery Channel educational
series — www.racetomars.ca
Haughton-Mars Project —