The York University Magazine

YorkU Fall 2014

The alumni magazine of York University

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10 YorkU Fall 2014 s there life on Mars? John Moores is checking it out. He's got his head in the red planet's clouds, evidence at least of water on the fourth rock from the sun. One of only three Canadians among the 29 scientists selected by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to participate in its Curiosity rover mission, the York space engineer has had privileged access to daily images of Mars since the spacecraft landed there on Aug. 5, 2012. Moores has worked on several previous Mars missions; each has radically altered our perception of the red planet. We used to imagine it as a barren, lifeless place based on static images relayed by the earlier Viking mission. Then, in 2004, data from the Opportunity rover showed evidence of ancient pools of warm water. Later, the Phoenix mission – launched in 2007, carrying a York University weather station and lidar (remote- sensing technology that uses laser to measure distances to Earth) – visited the Martian arctic and discovered snow and ice beneath a veneer of soil. Moores is studying clouds because they hold clues about the water cycle on Mars. "Unfortunately, we don't have any samples from Mars," he jokes. "But we do have spacecraft information." He relies on data from the Curiosity weather station about humidity, temperature, atmospheric pressure and winds. His students monitor ultraviolet (UV) radiation readings – which render the clearest picture of clouds – and comb vast public databanks for cloud images. It's a lot of fun to figure out what's causing the data we see, says Moores. Still, it's an imperfect science. Mars is almost 376 million kilometres from Earth, so the postcards of data Curiosity beams back have to be short. For instance, UV readings are taken every second for five minutes every hour and clouds are photographed once a week. "Trying to understand the weather on Mars using this atmospheric monitor is a bit like trying to understand the weather in Toronto by looking at it through a paper towel once a week," says Moores. So, to help, he's built a Mars simulator to validate and observe more closely the atmospheric data coming from Curiosity. The chance to do so was the deal he struck with York's Lassonde School of Engineering. This "little bit of Mars at York" looks like the old-fashioned deep-sea diving helmet Kirk Douglas wore in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The shiny, stainless steel chamber is the size and shape of a soccer ball. Moores can simulate the environment of Mars in its totality – the surface layers of ice and "soil" (broken- down rock called regolith), the thin atmosphere and extreme cold. "We're trying to get everything right, to get the whole picture," says Moores. How do you simulate the Martian environment? Ice on Mars is the same as it is on Earth. For the regolith, Moores crushes volcanic rock from Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano in Hawaii. The black rock turns reddish brown when touched by water and looks like nutmeg. "The mineralogy is reasonably close," he says. The atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide (CO2), with a tiny bit of argon and nitrogen. To create the thin atmosphere, he uses a pump with the power of a jet engine to suck out the heavy molecules. "This chamber will provide years of investigations," he pre- dicts. His colleagues at York's Centre for Research in Earth & Space Science will be able to use it to test and refine instruments and experiments for future space missions. Moores wants to find out what happens to the ice table when temperatures increase. He would like to test the theory that "sublimation spiders" – geysers of CO2 and dust – occur when the sun heats up the regolith causing the ice below to vaporize and erupt. It would be nice to prove that theory, says Moores. He also plans to introduce perchlorates – a mineral found on Mars similar to water-absorbing silica gel – into the chamber to observe their drying effect. We know more about some aspects of Mars than we do about Earth because we can see its entire surface, says Moores. Though the red planet is intensely studied, it remains exotic to Moores, a Newfoundlander with an affinity for barren places. "It really is fascinating looking at the clouds and sunsets on Mars. They are for all the world the same, except the sunsets on Mars are blue!" Nothing is as exciting, however, as being present for the firsts. Moores was crowded around a computer screen in a German portable with 11 other scientists when the Huygens mission touched down on Titan, the largest moon of Saturn. He was present when Curiosity landed next to a mountain on Mars and he's witnessed the Phoenix and Opportunity missions. "The first view of a completely alien place gets me out of bed every day." Y I

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