University of Calgary

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Robert Thirsk’s life in orbit

Robert Thirsk, astronaut

Robert Thirsk, astronaut. / Photo: Jason Stang
What’s your favourite space meal? Smoked salmon (from Canada).

And the nastiest space food? Rice pilaf, but I’m not a big rice fan on Earth, either.

Favourite sport? Hockey

Favourite team? Ottawa Senators (fortunately, I don’t have to worry about missing any playoff games this year!)

Favourite space movie? Apollo 13, because it was mostly factual and because the three astronauts and ground support team didn’t accomplish the mission objectives but they got three people back to Earth alive under a very difficult situation.

Growing up did you see yourself becoming an astronaut? No, back in those days it was only Soviet cosmonauts and American astronauts that were flying in space.

What are you putting on your iPod for six months in space? Jazz, Classical music. People like Diana Krall, Oscar Peterson. As I grow older I start to appreciate older music. I think Frank Sinatra has a great voice.

 
 

 
 

The mother of all telescopes

Russ Taylor holds a paper model of one of the hundreds of telescopes that will make up the SKA. / Photo: Ken Bendiktsen

Russ Taylor holds a paper model of one of the hundreds of telescopes that will make up the SKA. / Photo: Ken Bendiktsen
As far as lofty goals go, building a telescope that can chart the complete history of time is right up there.

But that’s exactly what Russ Taylor, head of physics and astronomy at the University of Calgary is hoping a group of scientists from around the world can achieve with the $3-billion Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project.

Through SKA, a global enterprise, Canada is playing a leading role and Taylor has been an instrumental leader since the massive project was conceived in 1993. Taylor is currently the chair of the Canadian SKA Consortium board. But there are also several other U of C researchers working on micro-electronics and digital processing technologies that will be needed for the radio telescope to operate. “The work being done here in Calgary is recognized internationally as the best in the world,” he says.

When it’s built and in place either in the Australian Outback or South Africa’s Great Karoo, it will be one of the largest science projects ever undertaken. SKA will be 50 times more powerful than any other telescope on Earth, able to scan the skies 10,000 times faster than ever before. It will study naturally occurring radio emissions from the edge of the universe to a distant time before stars and galaxies even existed.

“This telescope is designed to observe the universe right back to shortly after the point of creation,” says Taylor. “We know that the universe evolved from this Big Bang when there were no stars and no galaxies. But how that all happened, we don’t know. This telescope is going to chart the complete history of time, telling us how we evolved from the Big Bang to the universe of today.”

And like any good research, it’s guaranteed to raise even more questions, including doozies like what created the conditions for life? And are we alone in the universe? “Was the rise of intelligent life encoded in the fabric of the big bang?,” asks Taylor. “Was it a necessary outcome of the creation of the universe?”

James Stevenson

Mystery of the Martian rock patterns

Andrew Leier plays with a sandbox that led him to some complex conclusions about Mars. / Photo: Ken Bendiktsen

Andrew Leier plays with a sandbox that led him to some complex conclusions about Mars.
/ Photo: Ken Bendiktsen
If you’re disappointed to learn that peculiar rock patterns on the surface of Mars have a perfectly scientific explanation and are not in fact a complex version of Martian chess, blame U of C geoscientist Andrew Leier.

Leier and two American colleagues have also dispelled a NASA theory that the strong winds on Mars were blowing around these rocks and pebbles, otherwise known as clasts. In fact, computer modeling shows that clasts tend to move in the direction of the prevailing winds—not away from them.

“The wind is causing the rocks to move, but it’s actually causing them to move by removing the material around them,” says Leier.

The loose sand around clasts is blown away, causing scour-pits to form in front of the larger rocks. Eventually they fall forward into these pits and the process begins again. Behind the larger rocks, sand is protected from the wind erosion and pools in “sand shadows”, which prevent the clasts from being pushed downwind or bunching up with one another.

Leier didn’t really start out to study sand erosion patterns on Mars. The idea came from closer-to-home examples of similar rock patterns in arid regions like the sands dunes in the Athabasca region and in Wyoming.

“I was more attuned to the geoscience part of it,” he says. “At the same time, it’s hard not to look at some of those Martian photos and wonder what forces were at work. Finally, we started putting it together that maybe some of the stuff we’re seeing down here on Earth could actually be applied to what they’re seeing on the Martian surface.”

Future research into the way the wind influences the movement of both sand and rocks will likely be focused more on the planet Earth, says Leier, and could eventually look into ways of applying the findings in ways to reduce the harmful effects of erosion.

James Stevenson

Arctic ahoy: studying ice at sea

Climatologist John Yackel, MSc’95, is part of an international team studying the formation of ice-free channels between land and
Climatologist John Yackel, MSc’95, is part of an international team studying the formation of ice-free channels between land and ocean. / Photo: Courtesy John Yackel
From the hazards of icebergs in shipping lanes to the reflection of heat off the North Pole each summer, the state of pack ice in the Arctic Ocean is a hot topic for researchers who are helping to unravel the critical role sea ice plays in global climate systems and improve navigation in the increasingly open waters of the North.

“A crucial parameter for sea ice is thickness. It controls the stability of the sea ice pack,” says Alexander Braun, a geomatics engineer in the Schulich School of Engineering. For the past five years, Braun has worked on the first Arctic-wide model of sea ice thickness. Using data from NASA’s ICESat I satellite, the project is developing a comprehensive picture of sea ice thickness throughout the year. It is a dramatic improvement to traditional models that rely on direct measurements from scattered locations using drilled samples or sonar from submarines.

“Those measurements don’t give us a pan-Arctic picture. And you only do the measurements once, so you don’t know how the ice changes from month to month,” Braun explains.

Sea ice is critical to understanding climate change since it acts as a mirror to reflect a portion of the sun’s heat each year. When ice melts, the dark ocean that is exposed absorbs heat and magnifies the effects of global warming.

Climatologist John Yackel, MSc’95, is part of an international team studying the formation of ice-free channels between land and ocean, known as “flaw leads.” Yackel and his graduate students spent time aboard the Canadian government’s Arctic research ship CCGY Amundsen during International Polar Year in 2007. This spring a team of his graduate students are based at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre in northern Manitoba to collect information on sea ice and snowpack that can be used to enhance the accuracy of Canada’s new RADARSAT 2 imaging satellite.

“We’ll be collecting the same kind of data as RADARSAT but from ground-level, which we can use to fill in the gaps from RADARSAT’s data that covers a much larger area but is not as detailed,” says PhD student Mark Christopher Fuller. “It will result in important information for determining accumulation, melt rates and energy budgets for sea ice that can be used for studying shipping routes, resource exploration and other activities in the Arctic.”

— Grady Semmens