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Canadian space technology gets more bang for the buck

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The public interest surrounding the existence of life on Mars was obvious this past Sunday as Marc Garneau, Canada’s first astronaut and current president of the Canadian Space Agency, spoke to a packed auditorium in the Medical Sciences Building at the University of Toronto about the future of Mars exploration.

As part of the public lecture series sponsored by the Royal Canadian Institute, a not-for-profit organization for the advancement of science, Garneau discussed how recent discoveries on the red planet have altered our perspective of our planet, our universe and ourselves. The recent success of NASA’s two land rovers, Spirit and Opportunity led Garneau to postulate that “we are getting closer to establishing tangible proof of water on Mars.”

“Water,” he continues, “could be indicative of life.”

Garneau is optimistic about Canada’s future role in the exploration of Mars. Strong partnerships with NASA, Japan and the European space program are giving Canada the opportunity to be at the forefront of future missions. As Garneau explains, much of Canada’s strength lies in our “cutting edge, world class” robotics development, including such innovations as the Canadarm. By continuing in this and building stronger relationships with other nations, Garneau feels that Canada will have the knowledge and resources to lead a robotic mission to Mars as early as 2011.

Beyond the scientific value of space exploration, Garneau spoke of the sense of national pride and spirit Canadians would have being an integral member of future Mars exploration programs. The picture he painted, of how satisfying it would be to turn on the CBC to learn that Canadian innovation was responsible for a ground-breaking discovery, created a polite buzz among the smiling audience.

However, a pragmatic Garneau addressed the issue of how much money Canada should be spending for its space program. With an annual budget of 300 million dollars, funded from the federal government, Garneau is well aware of Canada’s limitations. He points out that, although the United States has roughly ten times the population as Canada, “They spend about 75 times more on their space program annually.” Garneau claims the amount of money “is not enough to do what we want to do,” citing a “long waiting list of accomplishments,” but he is adamant that the CSA is getting the most value it can by selecting innovative and high profile projects.

Future discoveries on Mars might help tell us whether or not we are alone in the universe. Garneau claims, “Only courage and creativity will answer that question.”

He continued by asking, “When looking at Mars, are we looking at the future of the Earth?” With more missions and scientific research on the red planet, we will not only gain knowledge about Mars, but also will potentially learn more about medicines, mineral applications and scientific techniques to analyze our own planet to better understand what the future may hold.

As Garneau hints, space exploration via unmanned probes, rovers and robots is only the beginning. Much like the history of moon exploration, Garneau feels that significant technological progress is being made and that one day we will see humans on Mars.

“Humans will go to Mars because humanity wants them to.”