While Canadian astronaut Steve MacLean took a stunning spacewalk last month for a complex construction job at the International Space Station, most of Canada's innovative space work is done much closer to home -- in university labs and research centres.
"We are involved in a lot of different activities relating to space exploration," said Dr. Edward Cloutis, director of the Centre for Forest Interdisciplinary Research at the University of Winnipeg. "Most of the stuff going on these days relates to Mars."
In fact, about 70 per cent of Canada's current space science is Mars-related, Dr. Cloutis said, reflecting the fact that the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) has identified the exploration of Mars as a key theme in its program.
In the absence of an all-Canadian space mission, researchers are looking at areas where they can fit in with international partners, Dr. Cloutis said.
"The reality is that we are going to be a partner in some other effort either led by the Europeans or NASA or the Japanese."
The CSA's first mission to Mars is planned for 2007, when York University's meteorological station, MET, will launch on NASA's Phoenix satellite.
"The Phoenix satellite will land on Mars and be involved in making measurements of the meteorology," says Professor Gordon Shepherd, director of York's Centre for Research on Earth and Space Science (CRESS).
York currently has four projects on the go, "which is a pretty high-level of involvement for a Canadian university," said Prof. Shepherd.
One is Argus, a tiny space instrument that measures carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere and will go on a nanosatellite called CanX-2, led by the University of Toronto and scheduled for launch in 2007.
Other projects include the all-Canadian satellite Chinook, which will include the SWIFT instrument, which measures winds in Earth's stratosphere, and ARGO, which aims to measure temperatures in the stratosphere and water vapour in the troposphere.
"Canada has a really good space program, especially for a country of its size," said Prof. Shepherd. "Any professor in science in Canada can apply to the Canadian Space Agency to conduct a space mission," he noted.
While not all applications are approved, the variety of projects make for a grassroots approach that results in a wide range of space science, with each university carving out its own niche, he says.
These include the University of British Columbia's activity in space astronomy and the Canadian satellite MOST, which is currently in orbit; and the University of Saskatchewan's OSIRIS, which makes measurements of ozone in the Earth's atmosphere for the Swedish satellite Odin, launched in 2001.
The University of Calgary, meanwhile, is focusing on specialty instruments. "Our niche is actually building instruments to put on spacecraft and send to space," explained Dr. David Knudsen, director of the Institute for Space Research at the University of Calgary.
"We build instruments for space flights and deploy instruments throughout the Canadian Arctic to study Northern Lights," he said. In the early 1970s, the University of Calgary built the first camera to fly into space to look at the aurora borealis from above.
Dr. Knudsen said Calgary's biggest current project is e-POP, a small satellite scheduled to be launched in early 2008 in collaboration with a commercial satellite flight, which will measure the loss of Earth's atmosphere to space. Other projects include Themis, which will look at what happens in Earth's magnetosphere and with which Canada will play "a really important role in this NASA mission - from the ground."
Another University of Calgary project, known as Swarm, is still in the design and development stage; it will provide three instruments for a European Space Agency mission that will observe both Earth's magnetic and electric fields. "The Earth's magnetic field is changing very rapidly. Nobody is really sure what's going on," Dr. Knudsen observed. "We might be losing our North Pole."
At the University of Winnipeg, research at the school's Planetary Spectrometer Facility is focused on understanding the surface composition of Mars. "We set up a facility where we can simulate the surface conditions on Mars," explained Dr. Cloutis. "Things like low atmospheric pressure, low temperatures, a carbon dioxide rich environment, heavy-duty ultra violet radiation."
Researchers throw different minerals and rocks into the simulated environment to see what happens, to be able to do a better job of mapping the planet's surface.
"The thought is that perhaps some of these rocks and minerals are stable on Earth, but not when exposed to Mars conditions," Dr. Cloutis said.
York University is looking at another angle related to Mars by testing what happens to instrumentation in Mars-like conditions. "To make something work in space, you have to test it," said Ben Quine, assistant professor of space engineering.
The new CRESS space instrumentation lab, designed to reproduce the challenges of space flight, officially opened on Oct. 11. In a simulated environment, instrumentation is vibrated and put through thermal vacuum tests. "We are trying to make it so that all the faculty, and indeed even the undergrads, can build space prototypes of instrumentation that we can include on payload manifests," Prof. Quine said.
York University is also the official research host of a project known as Northern Light, which plans to send a small lander to the surface of Mars in 2009.
Like staking a claim in North America in the 19th century, "presence is what counts," said Prof. Quine, who is leading the mission.
Northern Light's website ( http://www.marsrocks.ca), reads like a who's who of space research, listing more than 50 participating scientists from 12 Canadian universities.
York's space research is also focused on miniaturization, since the prohibitive cost of a satellite launch can be eased by using microsatellites attached to rockets that are typically paid for by big commercial customers launching direct broadcast TV satellite systems or communications equipment.
"Underneath that spacecraft are a whole host of little spacecraft . . . that's where the universities are really getting involved in the space business," Prof. Quine said.
Follow us on Twitter: