Tim Haltigin is a Senior Mission Scientist at the Canadian Space Agency. On July 29th, 2021, I had the pleasure of speaking with him on the subject of Mars.
Throughout the following Q&A we touch on a range of subjects including:
- Tim’s crucial role as part of an international planning group for the Mars sample return campaign
- Martian craters named after coffee shops
- Canada’s place in the future of Mars exploration
- The path to becoming a Mars scientist
- The inspirational beauty of Saskatchewan’s night sky
… and more.
Evan: Tell us a little bit about the Mars sample return mission. What is the objective there, and why is that important?
Tim: Sure, so the Mars sample return campaign is, actually, you can think of it as an international multi-mission relay to bring samples back from Mars for the very first time. This has been almost the holy grail of planetary science for the past 30 years and it’s only now that we’re technologically capable of doing it.
It’s going to take multiple missions in order to get these samples back. The first one is the Mars 2020 mission [with] the Perseverance rover that’s already on the ground on Mars. Its job is to drive around and select the samples that we would want to bring back, drill them out and put them in very specialized tubes, cap those tubes, and then leave them in a location on Mars that we can go pick them up later.
Later in the decade, a second rover will come and set down. It will drive around to pick up the samples that Perseverance left, return them to a small rocket on the lander that is going to then launch them into Mars orbit, but that rocket isn’t powerful enough to get all the way back to Earth. It’s going to take another spacecraft in orbit to come and basically capture a canister the size of a large basketball, put it inside the spacecraft, reorient it and then bring it home to Earth.
If everything goes according to the best-case scenario plans, the earliest that the samples could arrive back is 2031, and there’s also an alternative to bring them back in 2033.
So, the first mission is already doing its job, and the second two are very much in the planning stage.
Just to go back to the original question, I mean, why is this so important? Sample return is such an incredible opportunity for us to learn more about the history of Mars, both the evolution of the planet and to potentially look for if life ever arose on Mars billions of years ago. Whereas Earth and Mars are very different today, about three and a half to four billion years ago, the climates were very similar. Mars was a lot warmer than it is now. There was a lot more liquid water, and the atmosphere was a lot thicker, so the conditions were actually conducive to the formation of life like it was on Earth.
By bringing these samples back to Earth, we’re able to study them in laboratories across the entire planet, to understand the geological history of Mars, but also to potentially see if life arose there as well.
E: Fascinating, actually, I saw an article recently published talking about how Mars might have been favourable for abiogenesis before Earth
T: Well that’s the great thing about rocks, right? I mean, rocks are the greatest storytellers in the solar system because when they form they basically trap the environmental conditions that were existing at the time when they formed. So, ultimately by bringing these samples back from Mars, when we’re looking at rocks that are three and a half or four billion years old it’s the equivalent of going back in time by three and a half or four billion years to understand what the environment was like.
You can think of them almost like cosmic time capsules that preserve the history of what Mars was like then, and it’s only now when we open that time capsule that we reveal what’s inside of it.
One part I do want to highlight is that sample return is very much the gift that keeps on giving, in the sense that if you think about the Apollo missions where the US astronauts brought back samples from the Moon in the 1960s and 1970s, we’re still making brand new discoveries on those rocks today almost 50 years later. . . We have technologies that flat out didn’t exist back then, and we’re capable of asking questions we didn’t know how to ask 50 years ago.
So to me, when you think about Mars sample return, this isn’t just about what is the science that we’re going to be able to do in 2031 or 2033 when the samples come back to Earth, it’s what kind of science are we going able to do in 2053 and 2083. When you think about making these samples available to Canadian scientists, I mean, there are people in high school, grade school, kindergarten, and – frankly – that haven’t even been born yet who are going to be making those amazing discoveries.
Knowing that we’re paving the careers of generations of Canadian scientists and international scientists… that’s what really really excites me about being a part of this.
E: How are you contributing to that goal as a scientist at the Canadian Space Agency?
T: I’m part of a group called the Mars Sample Return Science Planning Group. This is an international team that’s been put together to really consider what the end-to-end science program is going to look like. So, [as] part of my responsibility, I was helping lead the team that is designing the overall end-to-end science program starting now that ends with the initial investigations that we’re going to be conducting on the samples. So, what types of research programs are necessary, what types of teams will we need to put together, when do we need to put them together and how are we going to organize.
So you can think of it as part of the symphony conductor in terms of putting all the pieces together for the overall science program.
E: A common criticism raised against space exploration is that it’s too expensive and that public funds should be allocated elsewhere. As somebody directly involved in Canada’s efforts in space, how do you respond to that perspective?
T: Well, there’s a number of ways to look at it. We can consider it from a number of different perspectives. One is from a purely educational and inspirational perspective. If you look at the number of hits that websites get, and the excitement that you see in the general public, and in the next generation – for example – of scientists, part of it is inspiration.
There’s an excitement about going and doing something that nobody has ever done before.
Secondly, in terms of generation of knowledge, humans are by nature explorers. . . this is something we’ve been doing for all of history. In terms of practical benefits, you have to think about how space exploration really impacts life on Earth and societies on Earth. There’s a number of ways. For example, there are specific technologies that are developed for space exploration that are directly relevant to Earth.
Can you imagine a day in your life without GPS, without satellite navigation, without weather prediction coming from space-borne satellites, and without communications? How could you use your cellphone? Going a day in your life without space technology would be drastically different than what you would imagine.
In terms of just economic arguments, there are a number of studies that have demonstrated that for every dollar invested in space there’s a multiplier effect. For example, in 2018, every dollar that Canada’s space sector contributed to the GDP resulted in an additional $0.90 in GDP contributions from the larger economy. When you think about it just purely from an investment standpoint, it’s a wonderful investment that actually helps grow the Canadian economy.
So, there are scientific reasons, there are inspirational reasons, and – frankly – there are economic reasons why space exploration is really important.
E: In a NASA Spinoff publication, they talk about the Teflon seal on sample return lids actually being useful for sutures in heart surgery.
T: Yeah, absolutely. Look at Canadian technologies in space as well, I mean, some of the software that was used to control the Canadarm has been used for robotic surgeries. . . So, doing surgeries remotely with robots has been enabled by space technology. Really, it’s an opportunity for Canadians, the rest of society and for companies, – first of all – just to seize the market that’s there in space, but also then taking those benefits and applying them back to life on Earth.
E: You’ve traveled a very dynamic career path, from biochemistry and malaria to trout river rehabilitation, and ultimately the study of Mars. At MSC, we sometimes get asked by Canadian students “I want to be involved in the exploration of Mars. What should I study to make that happen?”.
Can you offer them any advice? Is there an ideal, linear path?
T: [laughing] Oh boy, if there was an ideal linear path I would be happy to share it, but I think – as with any career – there’s no such thing as A goes to B goes to C. In my case it was A goes to malaria goes to trout goes to Mars. I think the advice that I would give in terms of specific subjects for your readers to study if they were interested in Mars is the obvious basics. . . math, biology, chemistry, and physics. That is sort of your tool kit that you’re going to use.
There are so many different options in terms of ways that you can apply knowledge towards mars. Everything ranging from why do landscapes look the way they do. . . looking at satellite photos and understanding the processes that caused the ground surface to look the way it does. There’s geochemistry, there is actually doing the chemical analyses of the rocks themselves. There’s atmospheric science, biology, the physics of radiation, or spectroscopy, which is just measuring the types of light that bounce off of different materials to tell you what they’re made of.
So in terms of specialties, there are so many different ways that you can get involved. I think once you have those basics in your tool belt the most important thing is to figure out what you think is cool and ask questions about it. There’s no specific thing that you have to do to make you a Mars scientist. . .you need to be really good at asking questions, and you need to be good at making mistakes and learning from them. Honestly, it’s more a question of what part of science makes you tick. What is the thing that you find the coolest, and go from there.
E: Your interest in space started very young, having grown up stargazing the night skies of Saskatchewan’s countryside. Is it fair to say that you’ve been pondering Mars for quite some time?
Oh for sure. When I was a little kid I would just go out on the farm and, you know, when the lights were off it was just black. So you had this beautiful blanket of stars covering you every night. There would be times I would just go out and sit on my deck and stare up and wonder what was out there, how you study it, who gets to study it, and how you even start. To think now that here we are picking out one of those dots in the sky and potentially bringing a piece of it back to Earth is… [laughing] is mind-blowing.
E: If you could look into a crystal ball that shows Mars 500 years from now, what would you hope to see?
T: That’s [laughing], that’s a really tough one. I mean, I think that… I do imagine that there is going to be a sustainable human presence, but the way I look at it is much more how Antarctica is on Earth right now in the sense that there would be very strict environmental protection. It would be internationally managed, and there would be a very collaborative effort amongst all the agencies and all the nations of the world collectively.
We would be very stringent and very protective of the environment, because I think there’s a lot of fantasies about having Mars as the backup planet, right? and if we ever screw things up on Earth then let’s just move society. Maybe all society is living on Mars in five hundred years. I don’t see that at all.
What I hope is that five hundred years from now, Earth is still a wonderful place to be. We have a wonderful, wonderful planet that can meet all of our needs here, and so I hope very much that we continue to be able to protect the Earth, and have the ability to travel to Mars if we wish, being very protective and sensitive about it when we’re there.
E: So, being very deliberate, careful, and treating it as an extension of the human and Terran ecosystem rather than as an alternative?
T: Absolutely. I think naturally there would be curiosity for people to visit, and there would be important work to be done there. Just like Antarctica now, I mean, there are wonderful research centers, there are things you can learn in Antarctica that you can’t learn anywhere else on Earth and so we would be going there to do science and eventually for some tourist industry, but in terms of fundamentally changing the planet or changing the climate and making it conducive to humans… [pause] To me, the Earth provides what we need and Mars is there very much to study and to help us understand the Earth – frankly – and how planets form in general, but from my perspective, I’d like to keep it that way; a select tourist destination and a science outpost where we’re conducting important work, but still being very sensitive about protecting it.
E: How do you think Canada can best participate in realizing that future?
T: Well. . .to think about what we want to be in 500 years you have to think about what we want to be in the near future as well, and we have a space strategy which is built specifically to help achieve that vision of what Canada’s space program should look like in the future.
Canada needs to be a reliable partner in international space efforts. We need to collaborate with our partners and make sure that we make commitments and follow through on those commitments, that young Canadians see this as an option and so making space as a career that emerging scientists and engineers and – frankly – everyone would try to become a part of. . . understanding that the technologies that we are potentially contributing to this future exploration really do have that tangible benefit back here on Earth, right? Because it’s not just about what we’re going to find out there, it’s how do we use that exploration of space to really help us grow and benefit society on Earth as well.
In terms of our commercial sector, obviously, it would be wonderful if Canadian companies can continue to be involved. Space is such a wonderful place to highlight the expertise of Canadian scientists and engineers, and we’ve shown this on the missions that we’ve flown and the instruments that we’ve flown. Canada has a modest program but a tremendously effective one and so that’s something that I think we would want to continue in the future as well.
E: In previous interviews, you’ve mentioned that there is a rock on Mars named after a coffee restaurant that a scientist used to work at. What’s the story there?
T: [laughing] Yeah, so it’s actually a colleague of mine. It’s – I hope he doesn’t mind me mentioning – it’s Livio Tornabene at the University of Western Ontario. He was involved back in the day in the Mars exploration rover, so the MER mission.
He would diligently do a lot of his work at a local coffee shop. Features on Mars – if they’re below a certain size – don’t need to go through a formal process of naming. So, when he was given an opportunity to name one of these craters he named it after the coffee shop that he did a lot of his analyses in.
It’s a fun story in the sense that… it’s a nice reminder, I think, that exploration is done by robots, but it’s humans, right? I mean, it’s people and it’s scientists and we like to have fun. . . It’s a good reminder that even though exploration is difficult and challenging, there’s a lot of fun little elements to it as well.
E: The CSA’s commitment to being a part of our return to the Moon through Artemis is obviously wonderful news for anyone that sees the value of space exploration. Returning to the Lunar surface has often been indicated as a way to get ready for Mars. Some proponents of Mars crewed missions, however, point out that the Moon and Mars are different enough that Lunar technologies might have to be altered for use on Mars, resulting in possible duplication of effort.
How do you view our return to the Moon in the context of Mars? Is it a prerequisite, is it a delay? How do you see it?
T: So the world space agencies got together and through a document called the global exploration roadmap have really set that long-term goal of Mars as the ultimate human destination, but the Moon as a stepping stone towards that goal.
Certainly, some of the technologies would need some modification for the different destinations – of course, that’s true – but that being said, we have to learn to live a little bit further away before we go all the way out. To me I think what’s important when you think about exploration in general [is] we’ve gone from learning how to live on Earth, to how to launch people into space for a few hours. . .to a few days, then multi-month missions on the ISS, then a whole year on the ISS. So it’s that progressive stepping further and further away from the tether and safety of Earth that’s going to be really important to help us learn physiologically how our bodies react, technologically how we can do it, and just from a risk perspective as well.
When you think about it, when there’s a critical problem on the ISS you can be back home in a matter of hours. When you’re on the gateway or on the Lunar surface it’s a very different story. So learning how to take those next steps is really important in terms of physiology and technology. We had to learn to fly between states, and then countries, and then trans-Atlantic if you think about air travel as an analog. We’re just taking those steps and learning progressively how to do it safely to ensure that when we are ready to go to Mars we can get there and back safely.
E: In addition to your direct involvement in space science, you also do wonderful work in science communication. An example of this is the ‘Science with Tim’ series, or your recent discussion of Mars with Canadian astronaut Jenni Sidey-Gibbons, both of which are available on the CSA Youtube channel.
Is there anywhere we can direct people to follow the work you’re doing?
T: Sure, so the CSA website obviously has a lot of videos and interesting information in terms of the planetary exploration projects that we’re working on. For my own stuff, I’ve put together a website. It’s sciencewithtim.webnode.com and there’s a fun little background of all the videos and different projects that I’m working on.
E: Thanks very much, Tim
T: Absolutely, this was a lot of fun. Thanks so much.
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