August 15, 2008 Features & Images » Feature Story

Mars, eh? 

Canada’s important and growing contribution to Mars exploration

click to enlarge A Computer-Generated Image showing the Phoenix Mars Lander, with Canada's weather station clearly visible on top
  • 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.

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