Mars Phoenix Polar Lander

Sitting in a sparsely furnished office cluttered with books, students’ papers and pictures of his family, Dalhousie University physicist Tom Duck looks like any other university professor. Beneath the veneer of the mild-mannered academic, however, Tom Duck hides a surprise. Unbeknownst to many, Duck and fellow Dalhousie physicist Cam Dickinson have set their sights on Mars.

On Aug.4, the Mars Phoenix Polar Lander blasted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida on a Delta II rocket to begin its 10-month journey to the Red Planet. In service since 1989, the Delta II is one of NASA’s most reliable rockets and has launched all of NASA’s Mars missions as well as many other high-profile robotic space missions.

The final destination for the $325 million lander, which is roughly the size of a coffee table, is the northern Martian pole, where it will conduct experiments on the atmosphere and weather for 90 days.

This is the Mars Phoenix Scout Program, a joint venture between NASA and the Canadian Space Agency. The Canadian contribution to the mission is a weather station with temperature and pressure sensors, a small wind sock and a lidar system.

Lidar stands for light detection and ranging. It’s a common tool in the study of fine particles in the Earth’s atmosphere. The lidar on the Mars Phoenix Lander will carry out the same purpose.

Dust is a key component in the Martian weather cycle says Duck and serves a function similar to carbon dioxide on Earth by trapping heat in the atmosphere. This will be the first time Martian dust will be subjected to detailed scientific study, he adds.

Duck was invited to participate in the mission both because of his experience working with lidar systems and his prior association with the mission’s director, Allan Carswell, who was also Duck’s graduate supervisor while he was at York University in Toronto.

“I was always interested in space,” says Duck, adding that his work with lidar systems was a natural evolution of that interest.

It will be Duck’s job to oversee the operation of the Mars Phoenix mission’s lidar system on Mars. Duck will also collect and analyse the data gathered by the lidar system.

Duck says this project is important not only for future robotic missions, but for manned missions to Mars. He believes it is important to learn as much as possible about Mars in order to know what to expect when a manned mission is finally launched.

With the first probe in NASA’s Moon, Mars and Beyond program set to launch next year, it is becoming more and more important to learn as much about Mars as possible. With that being the case, it seems likely that Duck and Dickinson will have their work cut out for them for years to come.

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