Canadian Colleges Plan Mission to Mars

Sharp-eyed Jean Kumagai, a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum spotted this item last week. It seems that a group of Canadian universities is putting together a low-cost robotic mission to Mars in 2009, known as Northern Light. The Canadian project intends to land an exploratory vehicle on the Martian surface to search for evidence that water was once present, as well as any signs that life may have once existed. It is the price tag for the mission that has many shaking their heads in wonder. The Canadian group intends to bring in their trip to the Red Planet at a thrifty US $20 million, funded by corporate donations. In contrast, NASA's latest Mars probe, Phoenix, is expected to cost $420 million in all.

The Canadian project is designed to minimize expenses at every turn. They have chosen to use a converted Russian ICBM, called the Rockot, as their launch vehicle. They will also construct the space and landing crafts themselves, largely from previous components. Currently, Northern Light has some 50 scientists and engineers devoted to the project, headquartered at the University of York Centre for Research in Earth and Space Science (CRESS), which works with NASA on select assiggnments. Joining York University, personnel from the Universities of Alberta, Calgary, McGill, New Brunswick, Saskatchewan, Simon Fraser, Toronto, Waterloo, Winnipeg, and Western Ontario are actively participating in Northern Light. As of present, the Canadian Space Agency is not involved.

The head of the Mars project, Brendan M. Quine, an assistant professor of space and planetary physics at York, recently told the Ottawa Citizen that his group will be able to keep costs down by manufacturing their own machinery "in-house" at universities, testing them there as well, and designing a smaller robot. Northern Light would be 35 kilograms, while the Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers weigh in at about 200 kg apiece.

"It would go late in 2009," Quine told the paper. "We're aiming to have all our hardware together a year from now, and that will give us a year to integrate and shake out the bugs. We seem to be on schedule. We've been working on this since 2001."

Next month, the Northern Light team will publicly test the entry, descent, and landing system, dropping a prototype vehicle from a helicopter to simulate landing on Mars, according to the news account. Team members said it has passed crash-tests held privately in the past.

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