Mars...Spirit and Opportunity still roam the Red Planet landscapes, orbiters scrutinize its secrets, Rosetta had its close encounter a few months ago, the Phoenix is journeying for a May 2008 EDL, Dawn left, yesterday, Mother Earth and will make a close passage by our rusty neighbour in 2009, and what about Northern Light?
Never heard of it?
I must admit I hadn’t until a few days ago…
Northern Light is a Canadian attempt to, not only reach, but explore, in situ, the Red Planet.
The mission has quite ambitious objectives, broadly the same as agreed at the first science meeting in 2002 as indicated to spacEurope by Brendan Quine, the project leader.
The search for life and water are on the frontline, the first by looking for such "biomarker" gases as carbon dioxide and methane, and looking at the surface and immediate subsurface for signs of life, the second will be directed to the surface and atmosphere of Mars, subsurface geology study looking for permafrost is another target. Atmosphere and radiation balance are also on the list, even more desirous is the preparation for a future sample-return mission and the conduction of life-science experiments in preparation for future human visits to Mars.
All this will be, hopefully, achieved, with a wide range of instruments, from a The Ground-Penetrating Radar to a Point Spectrometer and Microscope, a Rock Grinder and a Rock Cleaver, the Aurora Spectrometer and the Mars Active Seismic Surveyor (MASSur) Sensors, designed to provide shallow images (depth profiles) of the Martian near surface and its rock properties, the Mares camera (a zenith sky-imaging system that can monitor wave activity in the Martian atmosphere from the ground) and additional camera systems that will provide a very high resolution panoramic view of the landing site and that will be capable capturing an ‘Earth rise’ with the narrow field survey camera.
The mission supports its strength in a factor that many, by their reactions, consider quite hard to satisfy: to, build, test, lift from Earth, guide towards Mars, enter, descend and land a payload composed by lander and a small rover on Martian ground, all this, as previously propelled, for only $20 million dollars (such for reference, the Phoenix mission cost only 21 times more…). You’ll read ahead that this is not entirely true.
The consortium of Canadian Universities and private companies, being one of them, Toth Technologies, the leader of the project, aims to have a launch within 2 years, in 2009, when, in the past, 2007 was presented as the probable date for this event to take place.
In latest news regarding the project, the mission PI stated that everything is under schedule and that during the month of September, EDL tests will take place, assuring that 2009 is, indeed, a viable scenario.
As I’ve written in the beginning of this text, Northern Light was a complete surprise to me, and curiosity about the project grow, so, as there are some European participants in the project, and because, as some of the readers know, I am a man of El Dorados, of quests that may appear as condemned to never reach an end, quests doomed by the crudity of numbers and facts, but as I always keep this secret hope that doors opens only to those who dare to chase dreams, I decided to try to get some more accurate and recent information about it.
I contacted Brendan Quine, the mission PI, at University of York, to request him some answers and enlightenment about a project so impassioning but that we know so little about.
Answers arrived yesterday after some days of waiting, for which Quine apologized, indicating that the delay was justified by the fact of, during that period, spacecraft thermal vacuum test for a microsat that carries a prototype of Northern Light's primary science instrument was being conducted.
Here’s the result.
In a recent interview to the Vancouver Sun Quine made reference to the fact that the Northern Light team was aiming to have all the hardware together a year from now, in 2008, indicating that the time left, would be spent integrating and, his expression, “shaking out the bugs”, the intention? To have a launch in 2009.
Facing this I couldn’t avoid to ask about what is the current status of the mission, which are the steps being given for the time being.
According to Quine, the team is currently focused in the Entry, Descent and Landing System (EDLS) that delivers the instrumentation to the Mars surface, underway are is drop test campaign to verify the engineering model performance.
For later this year it is also planned a space demonstration of the previously referred Aurora, the primary scientific instrument on CanX-2.
Aurora is a spectrometer capable of measuring the Martian radiative environment, the gaseous composition of the atmosphere and that will, as well, be able to characterize Martian aerosol.
Lifting the veil of doubts over the mission components, the PI indicated that most of the hardware exists in prototype or in EM, plus, he added, some instrumentation is supplied other parties what leads to a situation where the development state goes from developed instruments to others still in concept, the policy of the mission is that if instrument systems non-essential meet the schedule and test verification objectives they will make part part of the payload and fly.
The 2009 launch, that is one of the biggest interrogation points about Northern Light, I had to question Quine about how confident is he about this, even more knowing that a previous 2007 scenario has revealed not possible to achieve.
Is Quine optimist? He is…Going back in time and memories he justifies the delay with space exploration common sense, in his words there are many things that cause the slippage of a mission, slipping a couple of years is the fate of nearly all space projects, making reference to the fact that some notable missions have slided two decades.
The PI, in a confident manner, counterpoints that they are planning for a launch within two years, the Northern Light team believes that the 2009 launch is “achievable given the work status thus far”.
Another aspect getting people by surprise and even getting serious cautions about the project are costs envolved...I asked Brendan Quine to convince me about the feasibility of a mission to Mars which presented costs are of "just" $20 million...
That is not quite correct…
The truth is that this value is not the total mission cost but the amount of funding that the project needs to raise in order to complete the team’s plan.
This figures do not include labour, facility or development costs.
There are no funds coming from the Canadian Space Agency, however Quine indicates that there is no wish to exclude governmental involvement in the project as the fundraising activities are rapidly ramping up.
There is something striking about Northern Light, under the Principal Investigator perspective, nearly all of the effort required is supplied with no charge to the project itself. One of the reasons for this particularly cost effective development approach has to do with the fact of York University, one of the universities taking part in the project and where Brendan Quine is based, has a space test facility in situ that includes vibration and thermal vacuum testing, this allows the team to simulate every mission phases in their own laboratory, even Martian environmental conditions
As testing and verification is, under the scientist opinion, the key to a successful mission plan, Northern Light takes advantage over other interplanetary missions by not needing to construct the required extensive facilities.
They already have them.
Looking at the available information Northern Light, it gave me the impression of being inspired by Beagle 2, seems like I was wrong, a Beagle 2 inspired model is not being utilized in spite of one of the earlier prototypes did use a similar design approach.
As the PI clarifies the system used by the project is tetrahedral in configuration, this doesn’t mean that the Beagle 2 was not important, on the contrary, it was extremely instructive for the team that is aiming to learn with the team involved in that specific previous attempt to reach the Red Planet.
The Canadian Project team elements followed the British mission very closely and attended the Royal Society event in London when the unfortunately lost lander was released from ESA’s Mars Express.
Quine, personally, worked for Beagle 2 prime EADS Astrium.
Although this is a Canadian project there are European scientists working for making Northern Light reality, such as Pillinger and Sims, this was also derived from the Beagle 2 campaign, Northern Light project leader indicates that both of them maintain a strong interest in planetary exploration and plans are for flying the environmental suite developed by Mark Sims laboratory, equipped with seven environmental sensors to monitor landing-site conditions, they will measure UV, oxidizing substances, air temperature (-120 to +30ºC), air pressure, wind speed, dust impact, and vibration. These sensors will have a light weighted combined mass of 130 g.
The UV Sensor has an array of 6 photodiodes. Dr. Mark Sims, Open University, UK
Once more Beagle 2 makes an appearance maybe looking for a second chance, the flight models have been developed already for that unlucky mission.
Mars may seem tangible by the eyes of Brendan Quine but there are many aspects needing to be cleared for those not familiarized with what is going on inside Northern Light walls…how will Northern Light be, eventually, lifted-off? This is one, but also there isn't much information available regarding other specifications of the mission like how is it going to be propelled or what will be the EDL procedures...will it be using parachutes? Airbags? Something different?
More questions? I have them…
Who will be responsible for maintaining the mission on its course towards Mars or who will grab the Beaver rover helm?
Data…how will it be acquired and transmitted to Earth?
I could go on and on but Inquisition days are gone and Quine has surely more important things where to spend precious time, even so he was able to clarify some details.
Northern Light is being baselined for a 2 tonne launch into low Earth Orbit.
Concerning Mars interception, this will be achieved by using an apogee kick engine that will be spun up prior to the main burn.
The team preference heads to a direct atmospheric entry at the Red Planet and not to entangle seems to be the policy, as using the simplest landing technique as possible is the adopted path.
Small mid-course correction capability will be provided by the orbital transfer vehicle.
Regarding communications these will take place directly from Canada using a large radio telescope that has also the capability of ranging precisely to Northern Light for orbit determination using interferometry.
Experience counts a lot, in the past, Nazomi tracking assistance may reveal precious in the future, as well a previous successful test to receive signals coming from Mars Express.
From the Martian ground the plan is to use exisiting orbital assets for high data rate comms andto implement a direct to Earth low rate link.
What about the Beaver rover?
It is presented as including a wide angle, stereo-camera system for navigation and landing-site imaging.
Another valuable character is the fact of possessing, as the Mars Active Seismic Surveyor (MASSur), a vibratory source (piezoelectric/magnetostrictive) on its underbody and a receiver deployed on the rover’s arm, the reason indicated for the duplicated instrumentation is to permit economy and instrument-level redundancy.
Beaver Rover Deployment Sequence, UTIAS.
The question is…is it roving?
Only a prototype exists so far, but Brendan Quine enhances the fact of existing considerable interest from team members in order to supply the mission with this particular subsystem, consequently, Beaver has still its place in the baseline plan, but, as the mission may achieve its science objectives with an arm this will be the option to take in the case of the rover does not meet the schedule.
Ambition, confidence and innovation, all is required for going beyond, the race for Mars as in Northern Light, a brave competitor, is there a Maecenas out there?
Know more about the project.