Canadian scientists help prepare a path to Mars

Canadian scientists are making their mark and preparing for a day when humans could set foot upon our nearest planetary neighbour.

Research by Canadians is advancing knowledge about the planet closest to our own

Canadians are actively involved in the effort to put the first real footprint on Mars. (Getty Images)

If humans one day set foot on Mars, Canadians will have contributed to the science that helped make it possible.

As Canadians, we're not known for bragging, but there are many Canadian scientists and engineers who have contributed greatly to our understanding of Mars and who are preparing the path for humans to one day settle on its dusty surface.

Last week, for example, NASA announced the discovery of an ice deposit as voluminous as Lake Superior. The lead author of the paper was Cassie Stuurman, a Canadian currently with the University of Texas.

Cassie Stuurman is the lead author of a paper on the discovery of a large ice deposit on Mars. (Cassie Stuurman)

The deposit is estimated to contain about 50 to 85 per cent water and ranges in thickness from about 80 metres to 170 metres. As well, it's not too far below the surface — about one to 10 metres — and is in the planet's mid-latitude region, an area where it's easy for spacecraft to land.

Plainly put, it would be a great location for humans to utilize as a source of water on the Red Planet.

"We're going to need water resources if we send astronauts to Mars," said Stuurman. 

Gordon (Oz) Osinski of Western University in London, Ont., was a co-author of the paper. Among other hats he wears, he's the acting director for the university's Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration. His research takes him to the Arctic where his findings are a guide to what we might expect to find on Mars.

Mars is the end destination.- Gordon (Oz) Osinski, Western University

His study of the Arctic helped form the basis for the new discovery of ice on Mars. Planetary scientists generally believe that the planet once had flowing water. But the lingering question has been: Where did it go?

"It either went up into space and is lost forever or went into the ground," Osinski said.

The water was found using Osinski's research here on Earth. In the Arctic, scalloped land forms tend to be associated with ice deposits. Those same landforms are found on Mars, so that's where the researchers decided to search for underground water. And they found it.
Gordon (Oz) Osinski's work in the Arctic helped uncover the ice deposit on Mars. (Gordon Ozinski)

The findings are exciting to Osinski. It holds great promise for the future.

"It is where we're going," he said. "Mars is the end destination." 

Robotic reach

Canada's most famous contribution to the space program is undoubtedly the Canadarm (though some may argue that it's Chris Hadfield). And robotics is something that we do extremely well.

"This has been the Canadian model: to contribute instruments to other lead missions," said Richard Léveillé, adjunct professor at McGill University's department of Earth and planetary sciences. Léveillé has done extensive research on Mars, with a focus on geology, and is currently working in partnership with the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and NASA analyzing the composition of Mars. 

One of the instruments he relies on is the Canadian-built APXS instrument (alpha particle X-ray spectrometer) aboard the Mars rover Curiosity, developed by the CSA, the University of Guelph, and MDA Space Mission here at home.

Canadians have played a role in the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) missions, including with Phoenix and Curiosity.

"There are Canadians who are directly involved in the MSL mission with Curiosity, for the past four years and even before that," Léveillé said. "And there are other people who are just analyzing data from Mars from various missions."

Then there are analogue missions taking place — missions that mimic conditions that may be found in other environments, such as Mars or the moon. 

At the beginning of November, students and researchers from Western University and McGill University spent more than two weeks in Utah in an analogue Mars sample return mission. It's a training mission designed to help train people here on Earth to use rovers to collect a sample from the planet and then send it back to Earth.

Moving ahead

The most recent Canadian involvement in missions to Mars is the European Space Agency's ExoMars, a spacecraft orbiting the Red Planet in an effort to study its atmosphere (its lander, Schiaparelli, unfortunately crashed on the surface). Among many instruments on board is the Trace Gas Orbiter, which carries a communication antenna built by MDA.
ExoMars was sent by the European Space Agency and Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, in 2016. The Trace Gas Orbiter (left) reached Mars safely but the Schiaparelli lander (middle) crashed on the surface. (ESA/ATG medialab)

Two Canadians, Livio Tornabene of Western University and Ed Cloutis from the University of Winnipeg, will be investigators on two separate studies with the mission.

Although Canadians continue to be involved in space exploration — even if it means piggybacking on the missions of other countries — some think we could be doing more.

"I think there are major academic contributions coming out of Canada," Stuurman said. However, she added that she'd like to see more investment from government to provide newly trained academics with jobs.

In June 2016, the new Liberal government announced the development of the Innovation Agenda that will help guide the future of science and technology. Included in that was the opportunity for the Canadian Space Agency to provide a plan for a new vision. Already this year, the agency announced a call for new astronauts. 

But looking ahead, it's clear that it's a new world when it comes to space exploration. More private companies are involved, as well as more countries such as India and China. And Canada can continue to play a major part in space exploration.

"You know what? Canada does what it does well," Stuurman said.


Nicole Mortillaro

Senior reporter, science

Based in Toronto, Nicole covers all things science for CBC News. As an amateur astronomer, Nicole can be found looking up at the night sky appreciating the marvels of our universe. She is the editor of the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and the author of several books. In 2021, she won the Kavli Science Journalism Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science for a Quirks and Quarks audio special on the history and future of Black people in science. You can send her story ideas at