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A Canadian Martian Scientific Wish List

Participants at the 3rd Canadian Space Exploration Workshop (CSEW) had the happy task on Saturday of putting together a wish list of scientific objectives for a Canadian program of Mars exploration.

On Friday night, Canadian Space Agency Executive Vice President Marc Garneau had surprised the space sciences community by announcing his intention to see Canada become a major player in the international Mars research scene. Calling on researchers to be bold and to ‘think big,’ Garneau made his announcements on the 40th anniversary of US President John F. Kennedy’s famous ‘put a man on the moon’ speech. The announcement also came with the promise of funding that will be “an order of magnitude greater” than what exists currently, putting the budget in the hundreds of millions range.

After a brief morning plenary session, the country’s leading space scientists and engineers broke up into workshop groups, and returned by mid-afternoon to make presentations. Several different ideas and potential mission scenarios were suggested. Small bodies researchers would be interested in flying a mission to the Martian moons Phobos or Deimos, either to conduct research from orbit or perhaps to do some sort of sample return. Atmospheric scientists presented a potential instrumentation package that would help them answer fundamental questions about the Martian atmosphere.

Canadian advanced life support scientists, who are focused on longer term goals like supporting manned missions to Mars or other destinations beyond low Earth orbit, are positioning themselves to become world leaders in this type of research. They’re hoping that any near term missions will bring them more data on the Martian environment so that they can create more accurate simulations.

Solid planetologists and astrobiologists, meanwhile, suggested several variations on a rover/drilling platform scenario, which could see data extraction take place down to a depth of as much as twenty meters. Terrestrial analog researchers hope to see a networking and expansion of existing analog stations, to allow for further research on the logistics of exploration in harsh and remote environments, and to provide Mars-like testing facilities for other scientists.

The task ahead of the Canadian space exploration community is daunting, to say the least. In order to be ready for the next available Mars launch windows – in 2007 and 2009 – CSA and its stakeholders must make several decisions and start building next year. Agreements must be struck between Canada and its eventual partners; these could be relatively simple, like launching arrangements, or they could be more complex, and include shared mission objectives and hardware exchange.

Personnel availability is also a key issue. While there seems to be no shortage of expertise in Canada, there may be an overall manpower shortage when it comes to the actual grunt work of designing, building, testing and operations, as well as post-mission data analysis. As well, many researchers are used to working in three year funding cycles, so adjusting to new timelines may be difficult.

That being said, however, officials at the CSA seemed to be pleased with the results of CSEW, and participants themselves left the meeting feeling cautiously optimistic. Not only has the Agency declared its intentions to ramp up space sciences in Canada with the Mars initiative, it has reiterated its desire to follow through with non-Mars missions as well.

“The plan is to put Canada at the forefront of space exploration,” said Alain Berinstain, CSA Program Scientist.

About Chandra Clarke

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