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Marc Garneau
CSA President Marc Garneau wants to lead Canada on its own mission to Mars. (credit: CSA)

A Maple Leaf on the Red Planet

The recent landings of NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity Mars Exploration Rovers have excited and inspired millions around the world. If Canadian Space Agency president Marc Garneau has his way, they may be joined in a few years by a craft bearing the red Maple Leaf.

On February 8, the Royal Canadian Institute for the Advancement of Science brought Garneau to the University of Toronto to present his vision of Canada’s role in the exploration of Mars. It was a dream he first enunciated in an address three years ago—on the 40th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s Moon speech to Congress—in which Garneau challenged the Canadian space community to set a course for Mars. The plan called for Canada to be an active participant in the international Mars missions of this decade, culminating in the launch of a Canadian-led mission to the Red Planet. Allons-y, he said. Let’s go.

Marc Garneau is without question a national hero. As the first Canadian in space, he flew as a payload specialist on mission STS-41G of the space shuttle Challenger in October 1984. He subsequently served as a mission specialist on two more flights, both on Endeavour (STS-77 in 1996 and STS-97 in 2000), logging over 677 hours in space. In 2001, Garneau became the president of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

“Mars does not give up its secrets easily. But our success as a species is rooted in a larger belief. We believe that only by accepting risk do we more forward. Today, I’d like to engage you in a glorious risk.”

His remarkable achievements and down-to-Earth personality have made him an extremely popular figure in Canada. This and the interest generated by the current missions to Mars brought a capacity crowd to the University of Toronto’s Macleod Auditorium on a Sunday afternoon. So many people came to hear Garneau speak that latecomers had to watch his presentation on monitors in an overflow room.

“I am here today to share our vision,” Garneau began, “and to reach out to kindred spirits willing to embark on one of the greatest adventures of our lifetime.” He started by acknowledging the risks inherent in Mars exploration, highlighted most recently by the presumed loss of the British Beagle 2 lander and the failure of the Japanese Nozomi spacecraft. The latter was particularly poignant for Canada, as Nozomi carried an instrument called the Thermal Plasma Analyzer that would have been the first Canadian science payload to orbit Mars. “There are great risks involved in driving deep into the unknown,” said Garneau. “Mars does not give up its secrets easily. But our success as a species is rooted in a larger belief. We believe that only by accepting risk do we more forward. Today, I’d like to engage you in a glorious risk.”

Since he first challenged the nation to pursue that glorious risk three years ago, the Canadian trajectory to Mars has had its share of ups and downs. In 2002, NASA invited the CSA to participate in the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), a mission that will send a sophisticated long-range rover to the Red Planet in 2009. Canada was to provide a suite of innovative technologies including robotics for sample acquisition and processing, lidar (light detection and ranging) systems for precision landing and rover navigation, and a drill for subsurface exploration. Unfortunately, the Canadian federal government’s 2003 budget did not allocate any new money to support the CSA’s participation in MSL, a setback that Garneau called a “lost opportunity”. The decision galvanized members of Mars Society Canada to set up a petition urging the government to reconsider its budgetary priorities.

While participation in MSL remains uncertain, Garneau’s dream of a major Canadian role in Mars exploration this decade will still become a reality. In August 2003, NASA selected Phoenix as the first of its low-cost, science driven missions under the Mars Scout program. Scheduled for launch in 2007, Phoenix will land in the northern Vastitas Borealis region to assess the astrobiological potential of Mars at high latitudes. In particular, it will verify the recent discovery of possible subsurface water ice detected by the gamma ray spectrometer aboard the orbiting Mars Odyssey spacecraft. Canada’s contribution to the Phoenix mission will be a Meteorological Station (MET). This system will consist of a lidar instrument that will characterize boundary layer turbulence and dust circulation in the near-surface atmosphere and measure phenomena such as dust devils, as well as sensors for measuring atmospheric pressure and temperature. In the summer of 2008, the MET will become the first Canadian science instrument on the surface of Mars.

A distinctly Canadian mission

But Garneau’s ambitious are much grander. His presentation made lavish use of the gorgeous images from Gusev Crater and Meridiani Planum. He praised the success of the NASA rovers, but added, “As inspired as we are about the recent advances by Opportunity and Spirit, how satisfying would it be to turn on CBC and hear about Canadian breakthroughs on Mars.”

The CSA president spoke of NASA’s new directive to return to the Moon in advance of human expeditions to Mars, and the European Space Agency’s Aurora program, as well as plans by Russia, Japan, India, and China for deep space exploration. “Now,” Garneau said, “it is our turn to set ourselves firmly on a course to Mars. It is time to build upon our national spirit as pioneers and firmly take our country’s next step in the exploration of space. We need a chance to position ourselves as an indispensable partner in the international program to explore Mars, in all stages of that effort, from robotics to human exploration, and we need to start soon. What could set our own mark higher than by daring to develop a Canadian capability that will allow us… to lead our own scientific planetary exploration mission?”

According to a CSA fact sheet distributed at the lecture, such a “Canadian Concept” mission to Mars could take place as early as 2009 or 2011, although in his spoken remarks Garneau mentioned 2011 and 2013 as possible launch dates. The fact sheet further stated that the proposed mission would not be exclusively Canadian but would be “distinctly Canadian” and would feature Canadian ideas, technologies, and expertise in collaboration with international partners. Another criterion was that the mission had to be science-driven and fill a void in the international Mars exploration strategy.

Garneau provided some hints as to what form a Canadian mission might take. “We could develop a state-of-the-art, but very modest, Mars science platform and all the components for an atmospheric science orbiter, or a lander science station that could even be mobile on the surface, or a set of small landers with penetrators that would function as a network of science instruments.”

“As inspired as we are about the recent advances by Opportunity and Spirit, how satisfying would it be to turn on CBC and hear about Canadian breakthroughs on Mars.”

Collaboration with international partners would be a necessity because Canada does not have a launch capability and currently lacks experience with interplanetary transfer and atmospheric entry, descent, and landing. The country’s longest partnership is with NASA, a collaboration that dates back to the launch of Alouette 1 in 1962, which made Canada the third nation to have a satellite in orbit. Garneau had high praise for Canada’s relationship with NASA, which has included participation in the Space Shuttle and International Space Station programs as well as Earth-observation missions like RADARSAT. He also noted that strong ties have also been forged with the European Space Agency, “and most recently with Japan and Russia.” Garneau did not address a recent article which reported that the CSA has been in contact with Russia on the possible provision of launch services and other relevant technical expertise.

Two pizzas a year

Engineering issues aside, there is of course always the matter of cost. “Do we have the will to do it?” Garneau asked rhetorically. “That is the crux of the matter, and the will implies getting the funding. Now, when I talk about a Canadian mission in 2011 and 2013, I’m thinking we can do a mission to Mars that’s either an orbiter or a lander for about $150 million [Canadian, US$112 million]. That is a very cheap mission in my opinion, and I think it is definitely very doable.”

Cheap by the standards of major space programs is still a significant sum of money in the eyes of the general public. As in other spacefaring nations, the question is often asked whether space exploration is worthwhile when there are contemporary terrestrial needs that must be addressed. To the skeptics, Garneau had an answer.

“I like to say it costs every Canadian one medium-size cheese-only pizza per year to finance Canada’s space program.”

“There’s a small crowd of course who think that we should not spend a penny on space. I know that the majority of Canadians feel the opposite is true. We feel good about our contributions to a life-sustaining and life-affirming endeavor. Exploring space is as natural a thought to Canadians today as building a railway across a vast and rugged country was in 1885.

“We have every reason to place Mars high on our priority list. For one, if Canada doesn’t, we will be left back on the launch pad. For another, the requirements inherent in such a venture are a natural fit for Canadian talent and know-how. We have everything to gain by embracing a program that allows Canadian industry to develop and advance cutting-edge technologies. This is the time to start thinking outside the box, to participate as opposed to watching from the sidelines.”

The Canadian Space Agency’s annual budget is $300 million (US$225 million). “That may seem like a huge amount of money,” said Garneau, “but it’s 75 times smaller than NASA’s budget, and we’re an economy that’s 1/12th of the US economy. I like to say it costs every Canadian one medium-size cheese-only pizza per year to finance Canada’s space program.” That remark elicited friendly laughter from the audience. In response to a question, Garneau said that he thought “$300 million is not enough to do what we would like to do. If you’re asking me what I would like to do, I think we could do a lot more if we had about $500 million [US$375 million] per year budget.”

A Maple Leaf on the Red Planet would definitely be worth two pizzas a year.