A Phoenix Flies to Mars


With twin rovers still making tracks on Mars, plans are already underway for the next robotic mission to set foot on the Red Planet. Onboard the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA's) Phoenix Polar Lander, is a sophisticated meteorological station developed by a team of Canadian scientists and engineers to analyze the Martian arctic climate. For Isabelle Tremblay, lead systems engineer for the Canadian component and the overall mission's logo designer, this is exactly where she hoped she would be in her career.

"This is a lifelong dream come true for me" says Tremblay. "For the first time, Canadian-built science will actually touch down on the Martian surface ?- and I am taking part." Working at the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) in St.Hubert, Quebec, she is in charge of developing and coordinating the overall Canadian-part of the Phoenix project. In addition to all her scientific and engineering contributions, she even designed the mission logo.

Rebirth of a Mission

Rising from the ashes of the last, failed attempt to land on the Martian high arctic, Phoenix is the resurrected and improved twin of the Polar Lander that crashed on arrival in 1999. The robotic craft is scheduled to launch late in 2007 and arrive in the summer of 2008. Following an expected soft landing in the northern polar region, Phoenix will study the planet's ice cap and use a robotic arm to dig into the Martian subsurface, collecting ice and soil samples.

"Phoenix is very important because it will be the first to look, directly from the surface of Mars, [for] water or ice, and it's the first mission to land so far north and at such high latitude." explains Tremblay.

The primary scientific goals of the Phoenix mission are to study the history of water on the Red Planet and to search for habitable zones by sniffing out any signs of current liquid or frozen water and traces of organic and biological material. A suite of science instruments will also determine the suitability of Mars for human exploration and examine the atmosphere.

(Courtesy of JPL/NASA)
Artist's rendition of the Phoenix Polar lander

Dreams of Space

Tremblay can trace her own interest in space science and engineering back to when she was a youngster playing with construction sets and reading science magazines back in the little northern town of Jonquière, Quebec. "I always was interested [in] construction and technology and what kind of life we would have in the future." Her head was filled with thoughts of space travel even though it seemed to her that living in the far north, she was on a different planet from where all the action took place. Growing up in the era of the Voyager missions' picture-postcard grand tour of the solar system and the newly minted space shuttle, she was hooked early, and she knew it. "Voyager really got me into space -- it was something new and strange."

Isabelle Tremblay

By the time she was in her last year of her Bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering at École Polytechnique de Montréal, she realized that if she wanted a career in space exploration she would have to master English. "At the university all the books were in English and that was a big, big challenge. When I started university I couldn't speak a word of English, coming from a small French-speaking town." So Tremblay went down to Boston in a student-exchange program and immersed herself in the language. "I wouldn't do what I do now if I didn't learn English," she says.

After completing her degree she went off and started a Masters in Aerospace Engineering at University of Laval where, in 1997, she did an internship at the Canadian Space Agency. She landed a position within the agency the following year.

During the first few years she cut her teeth on experimental lab work and informational control and design as a robotic engineer, but what she really wanted to do was work directly on planetary missions. She got her chance in 2003 when NASA, from a field of over two-dozen contenders, chose the Phoenix mission to fly to the red planet. "It's a long term goal. I always dreamed to do this and when you have a chance to materialize your dream, then you got to grab it."

More than a year later, Tremblay and her team at CSA are in the midst of designing a concept for the weather instrument that will meet the requirements of the science team. Her team at the space agency works hand-in-hand with the engineers at MD Robotics, which has a contract to build the instrument, and with project scientists, mainly at York University in Toronto, who will be analyzing the data.


Working on interplanetary robotic probes has its own unique challenges. One of the most time-consuming tasks for Tremblay and her team is negotiating with the scientists about what instruments should be kept on the spacecraft and which should be removed, and analyzing how these decisions impact the industrial team at MD Robotics. "We help the scientists translate their needs into technical specifications, so we are the link between the science team and the industrial team." adds Tremblay.

(Courtesy of JPL/NASA)
Image taken by the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit perched above the plains of Gusev Crater

And Tremblay believes that such liaison is critical. "Scientists are not used to this way of working so there's a little bit of a culture clash" between the visionary scientists and the more pragmatic engineers. "If it's a ?like-to-have' request, then we usually tell the scientists to forget about it, because we have a mass constraint on the lander. But if the design does not meet the requirements, then we will come together to find a solution." At the end of the day, it's up to the scientists and what they want to accomplish, because they, Tremblay notes, are the clients.

Scientists and engineers all have to come to terms with the lengthy timeline required to design, launch, and land the lander, and, if all goes well, receive and analyze the data. Missions like this may last close to a decade, and then roughly 30% of all missions to Mars end in failure, as happened to the original NASA Polar Lander, Japan's Nozomi, and Britain's 2003 Beagle 2 -- the red planet is a nerve-racking place for a scientist or engineer to make a living.

Work on Phoenix began back in 2001, and the landing is still more than 3 years away. A lot of time and energy will be invested by hundreds of people in this mission before it's over. But the rewards are great, according to Tremblay. There are opportunities to work on different aspects of the project over the years from the first proposal to the time the craft dies. "You get to learn so much when you're with a project from the start to the end; you really get to see the effect of your decisions and I hope that I'm with Phoenix all the way to the end because you get to see what went wrong or right."

The Next Wave of Mars Specialists

Tremblay believes the future is bright for the next generation looking towards space for their careers. Her foremost recommendation is to have the drive and passion for space exploration, as it is a highly competitive field, especially in Canada. "Ask all the questions, to really broaden your horizon and get as much information as possible to get to know exactly what you want to do and find out what all the possibilities are out there."


Finally Tremblay says that nothing beats on-the-job experience and knowing what companies and agencies like MD Robotics and the CSA do. Take a tour of a company and discover the kind of work they do. Doing an internship at the CSA, just as Tremblay did, is a great way to get that invaluable ?on the job' experience and increase your networking power.

Tremblay feels that she has already reached her midterm career goal, but she knows that she has many more years ahead of her. Working on Phoenix has definitely whetted her appetite.

"I would like to do other planetary missions and get more responsibilities so I can have a bigger contribution to Canada's future in space." There are plans for car-sized, nuclear powered rovers, robotic mining platforms, and sample-return missions, and Tremblay hopes to be part of it.

What will Tremblay do next?

"Maybe work on a bigger mission with more Canadian contribution, and who knows, we might have our own mission to Mars in the not so distant future."

For more information on the Canadian component of the Phoenix Mars Mission visit the Canadian Space Agency's Web site. Or for a full rundown on the entire 2007 mission, check out the Phoenix home page.

Stay tuned for a follow-up article next week, when Next Wave interviews Dr. Alain Berinstain, Head of the Mars Exploration program at the Canadian Space Agency

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

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