A Maple Leaf on Mars: Interview with Canada's Mars Exploration Lead

Science's Next Wave: Dr. Berinstain, can you describe your role, and the CSA's in general, on the Phoenix mission?

CSA, as a federal government agency, is contributing the Meteorological Instrument Package (MET) to NASA for incorporation into the Phoenix mission. In order to do this, CSA works with the Canadian scientists and engineers designing, fabricating, and planning to use the instrument once landed on Mars. The internal CSA team managing this activity serves as the interface between scientists, engineers, and other government space agencies to ensure the successful delivery of this important payload.

As director of the Planetary Exploration and Space Astronomy directorate of the Space Science branch, I lead the group that has sponsored this project. My team's role is to develop the initial science requirements and instrument requirements, to ensure that the science requirements are met for the instrument throughout the manufacturing phase, that data is disseminated appropriately once in operation, as well as maintain the links to NASA. My group works very closely with the Space Programs group that has the critical role of managing the fabrication of the instrument.

SNW: What does our participation in the Phoenix mission mean to Canada and its role in space exploration today?

Our first participation in a Mars mission was with the contribution of the Thermal Plasma Analyser on the Japanese Nozomi mission. That mission unfortunately failed last year [a solar storm caused a short circuit in one of the subsystems and a loss of telemetry signal, which made the Mars orbit insertion impossible] but many doors of collaboration were opened through that project. Phoenix will mark the first time a Canadian instrument has landed on Mars. It will demonstrate that Canada is a reliable partner in planetary exploration missions of the future, and more importantly, Canadian scientists will benefit from this wonderful opportunity.

The conquest of space has been a dream of humans for centuries. Only in the last five decades however, have we had the technology to explore the cosmos. Until recently, this technology has been limited to only a few countries, including the United States, which leads the world. Lately though, Canada, too, has been gaining a foothold in space science.

Canadian scientists and engineers have made a series of important contributions to space missions, like Radarsat, the robotic Canadarms for the space shuttle and the International Space Station, and the MOST space telescope, just to name a few. Now, under the auspices of its own space agency, Canada is partnering with other countries to help explore the Red Planet. In its latest project, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) is collaborating with NASA on its next Mars lander, called Phoenix, scheduled for launch in 2007. Hopes are high that the Canadian maple leaf will soon be seen on Mars.

As the Mars Program lead at CSA, Dr. Alain Berinstain (pictured above) acts as the link between the scientific community and research and development teams in government and industry. He is also responsible for science missions that explore the planets (including Mars), Mars-analog sites on Earth, and astronomy missions. Berinstain has a Bachelor's degree in chemistry and biochemistry and a doctorate in chemistry, specializing in the effects of radiation on biological systems. As adjunct professor at University of Guelph, he also conducts research into environmental controls systems for greenhouses in extreme environments. We interviewed him via telephone last week.

SNW: What is the long-term goal of Canada regarding space exploration and going to Mars in particular?

Long term, Canada will aim to continue to play an important, enabling role in space exploration, both in robotic missions as well as in human missions. Canada also wishes to lead small, complementary robotic missions to Mars in order to put Canadian scientists and engineers in the "driver's seat" to realize Canadian objectives. The goal is to develop and maintain world-class planetary science community in Canada, have Canadian industry recognized as providers of choice for technology, and to bring the wonders of Mars back down to Earth for all Canadians to enjoy.

SNW: How do you see Canada fitting in to the big global picture of space exploration?

Canada has much to offer in the area of space exploration:

  • Expertise in bone demineralization, radiation, and psychological issues of long-duration human spaceflight

  • Robotic systems that make the best of Canadian expertise such as drilling systems, sample-handling systems, and assistive robotics

  • Expertise in training of astronauts and operating robotic systems in space (as demonstrated with our work on ISS)

  • Intelligent medical systems that will leverage Canadian expertise in telemedicine

  • Advanced communications systems to support robots and humans during exploration systems, leveraging on our long heritage in space telecommunications in Canada

SNW: Besides Phoenix, are there any other Mars missions that Canadians are working on now or are potentially considering participating in (NASA or ESA based missions)?

Canadians are participating in a number of mission studies; however, none of these studies at this time are confirmed to result in participation in the actual missions by Canadians. There are Canadians participating in studies related to NASA's [mega-rover] Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) in 2009, as well as the European Space Agency's (ESA) exoMars mission in 2009/2011. Several other Canadians are working on concepts for future missions in general that have not yet been manifested for flight. There is a lot of activity in Canada in this area.

SNW: What is funding like for Mars missions today in Canada, and what do you expect for the future?

The current planetary exploration program exists at a funding level that should be able to support occasional participation in future missions such as Phoenix with small instrument contributions such at the MET station on Phoenix. In the future, we desire to increase the level of participation in missions and to eventually lead our own robotic missions to Mars. The expertise definitely exists in Canada; what is lacking at this time is the allocated budget.

SNW: What do you think the job market is like currently for those that would like to work in space exploration here in Canada?

Close to 75% of CSA's budget goes right back out to industry and universities in Canada. If CSA's budget increases, so do the opportunities for jobs in this field. Luckily for Canadians, Canadian expertise is also sought after by other countries, so jobs in Canada are not only dependent on the CSA budget; they are linked. There are tremendous opportunities in Canada right now for young scientists and engineers, but the number could be higher with increased funding.

SNW: Any advice you can offer for those scientists/engineers wanting to specialize in this field?

My advice to young people wanting to get into planetary exploration or any space field is to make use of undergraduate work experience opportunities such as co-op programs and similar programs. I made use of such a program and it opened many doors for me. Many organizations, including CSA, offer student work experience programs.

SNW: Are there particular areas of research that an early-career scientist/engineer should be involved in that would be particularly attractive to the Canadian space exploration field?

What we need is good scientists and engineers. The exact field is less important than the quality of the people doing the work. Of course, the "hot topics" right now are astrobiology, geobiology, and supporting human exploration, but I would only suggest someone follow these specific lines of activity if they have a real passion for these areas to begin with.

SNW: What skills does someone need to have to work in this field?

This field is not that different from many fields in science, technology, or aerospace. Do not underestimate the importance of the so-called "soft skills", such as getting along with people and communication and teamwork skills. These skills will make you a better person and more attractive to any employer, whatever the field. Do what you like and these will come more naturally.

SNW: In space missions like these, scientists and engineers have to work together. Can you describe how this works and some of the challenges associated with this work environment?

This is one of the most exciting aspects of our jobs here at CSA. We often need to act as the interpreters between these communities. We embrace this challenge, and it is definitely a unique skill to be able to act as this interface. Using tools such as standard documentation that describe science requirements can help this. These science requirements are then turned into mission requirements that can then be turned into specifications for space hardware. Regular reviews ensure that the scientific requirements continue to be met throughout the fabrication.

SNW: Some space missions take years to design, build, launch, land and wait for data return. In some case it may take upwards of a decade for all this to transpire. How do scientists/engineers cope with this long-term commitment and what are the challenges of being in such a long-term project?

This is indeed a real challenge. One of the challenges is how we attempt to incorporate graduate students in such missions while ensuring that they will have something to publish and include in their theses. Imagine working a long time on a thesis that depends on the results of a space mission, and that mission fails. It would be irresponsible for us to put graduate students in that situation. In addition, principal investigators, usually university professors, often need to get involved with very detailed and lengthy tasks of report generation, working with contractors, and non-scientific duties that can become difficult to balance with their "real" job of teaching and doing research. It's not easy work, but the benefits outweigh the risks in most cases.

SNW: What are the particular challenges involved in studying things that are so remote and for the most part, out of reach?

Any good experimental scientist will tell you that a good result must be verifiable and repeatable. In a ground laboratory, this is less of a challenge since a researcher generally has continued access to the lab. Imagine your lab is now in Earth orbit, or even more difficult, on the surface of another planet. It is very difficult to do verifiable and repeatable science under these conditions and this explains why it takes so long to make big discoveries in space. Access to space is a limiting factor in producing good science in this field. It is possible, of course, but on different timescales than what most scientists are used to on the ground. Expectations must be managed carefully.

For more information about careers in space exploration in Canada check out the CSA career Web page.

Andrew Fazekas is Canadian Editor at Next Wave and may be reached at afazekas@aaas.org

Photos courtesy of Canadian Space Agency and JPL/NASA.

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