As a youngster growing up on a farm near Canora, Tim Haltigin, son of Linda Osachoff, had plenty of opportunities to look up in amazement at the seemingly endless prairie sky.
Haltigin later pursued his interest in science and is now the Senior Mission Scientist in Planetary Exploration at the Canadian Space Agency headquarters in Saint Hubert, Quebec, near Montreal.
He said he has been working on planning the Mars 2020 mission since 2014, leading the team in charge of designing the science program to bring back samples from Mars. The first step was the February 18 landing of the rover Perseverance.
“Lots of things went through my mind when the landing was successful,” said Haltigin, “including excitement, elation, relief, along with the realization that we have a lot of work ahead of us, and that work has just started.”
The Perseverance was launched in July 2020, and flew almost 500 million km (over 300 million miles) to reach Mars. Haltigin said the successful landing was a huge relief because so many different things could have gone wrong during the entry, the descent and the actual landing.
“Probably the riskiest aspect was slowing it down from 20,000 km/h to two km/h in seven minutes,” marveled Haltigin. “The craft entered the Martian atmosphere, slowed down, then the parachute slowed it down even more. It hovered about 20 m above Mars, lowered the rover on a tether and settled it on its wheels.”
The landing on Mars is only the first step in an interplanetary relay to identify and bring samples back to Earth for further, more detailed analysis. They have many different instruments to analyze the rocks on earth, instead of just the basic tools available with the mission on Mars.
“The samples will be collected by another spacecraft and returned to earth,” explained Haltigin. “I like to refer to this type of a mission as a gift that keeps on giving. For instance, scientists are still making discoveries from samples taken from the moon during Apollo missions that took place about 50 years ago.
“This mission has the potential to extend our science team to every scientist on earth for years to come. As time goes on, they’re basically learning what questions to ask.”
Following this mission, a smaller “fetch rover” rocket will launch the samples from Mars, but it’s not powerful enough to get them home to Earth. A following mission will be responsible for catching the sample rocket and bringing it back home for further analysis. If all goes according to plan, Haltigin expects the samples gathered by Perseverance to be back on Earth sometime in 2031.
“It’s exciting to think about this mission and what it means for the future,” detailed Haltigin. “We are potentially going to be answering some of the most fundamental questions in science regarding the origins of life. About four billion years ago there was a standing lake in the crater around the Perseverance landing site, over time it eventually turned to rock. Life leaves different kinds of clues in rocks. By bringing back and analyzing those rocks we could potentially find signs of life on another planet.”
“These samples could be paving the careers for generations of future scientists over the long term, including Canadians. By making samples available around the world, people that haven’t been born yet could be making major discoveries.”
A high priority has been place on planetary exploration in recent years, and now scientists have the equipment available to do it. As an added bonus, Haltigin said the planets have lined up perfectly for exploration.
Haltigin has fond memories of growing up on the family farm outside Canora, and recognizes that it definitely had an effect on his future career choice.
“Absolutely. I would go outside at night and look up at the blanket of stars and wonder how we could explore it. And now, all these years later, we’re actually exploring one of those dots. It’s incredible.”
Haltigin continues to enjoy his chosen career. He encourages any Canora and area students who read his story and are interested in the Mars mission, and space exploration in general, to explore those interests further.
“Never stop asking questions. In science it’s not about always being right, it’s about always asking questions. If I can do this, you can too.”