Mars @ MaRS: Canadian space scientists talk rovers, satellites and other worlds

Mars @ MaRS: Canadian space scientists talk rovers, satellites and other worlds

“I went in thinking, ‘This has got a 50-50 chance of getting down,’” said John Spray, describing how it felt watching the rover Curiosity land on Mars this August.

Curiosity’s elaborate landing sequence was dubbed “seven minutes of terror,” and some steps of the sequence had only ever been modelled.

“Many of the processes involved could not be simulated on Earth,” said Spray, who is the Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Planetary Materials at the University of New Brunswick. “For example, the parachute was one of the largest—if not the largest—parachutes ever made, but it couldn’t be tested on Earth because our atmosphere is thicker, and it would have been torn apart. So how did they test it? They couldn’t. They had to simulate it.”

Ever since Curiosity landed successfully on Mars, Spray has been commuting from Canada to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to analyze the geological data that the rover sends.

Spray spoke at the Science Media Centre of Canada’s public event, Mars @ MaRS: From ‘Curiosity’ to Innovation at MaRS Discovery District on October 22, marking the SMCC’s second anniversary and annual general meeting.

Emceed by veteran Canadian science journalist Jay Ingram, the panel opened with MaRS’s CEO Ilse Treurnicht, who spoke passionately about fostering innovation. Bill Mantel, Ontario’s assistant deputy minister of research and innovation, also spoke about Ontario’s aerospace industry and its many contributions to Canadian space science.

But space isn’t just about the surface of alien worlds. Panellist Gordon Osinski from Western University in London, Ontario, spent some of his summer in the Canadian Arctic studying one of the relatively few impact craters known on Earth. He showed the panel a handheld X-ray spectrometer that he used to help train Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen in field geology. Spectrometers, used on rovers to analyze rocks, can make fieldwork more efficient for geologists and even mining companies.

Canadian researchers aren’t simply developing rover technology. They’re also looking at cutting down on space junk. Panellist Mathieu Caron is the engineer behind the Canadian robot Dextre on the International Space Station. Dextre goes a step further in its new mission next month, attempting to refuel satellites mid-flight to prolong their lives, and Caron described how he will be programming Dextre every step of the way.

The panel ended with Space Concordia, a group of undergraduate students from Concordia University who won this year’s Canadian Satellite Design Challenge. They showed the audience their winning shoebox-size satellite, scheduled to launch in 2013 to study anomalies in the Earth’s magnetic field over the South Atlantic.

The panel applauds Space Concordia’s winning satellite design during the discussion. From left: Dr. John Spray, Dr. Gordon Osinski, Mathieu Caron, Greg Gibson, Nick Sweet and Jay Ingram. Credit: Jeff Beardall, MaRS Media

A question period covered everything from the usefulness of rovers versus humans to the future of space exploration. We even got a question from snarky Twitter personality @SarcasticRover courtesy of Alberta’s Jason Filiatrault.

A huge thanks goes out to our longtime supporters, MaRS Discovery District, who sponsored the event and have provided us with a beautiful new office in Toronto, as well as to our board members, the Editorial Advisory Committee and Research Advisory Panel; to our platinum sponsor, the Ontario Ministry of Economic Development and Innovation; and to the scientists, journalists and everyone in between who came out to the panel. You join the 131 charter members and 53 ongoing patrons who support the Science Media Centre of Canada every day in getting accurate, evidence-based science out to the public.