A team from York’s Centre for Research in Earth and Space Science (CRESS) discovered that it snows on Mars using the laser remote sensing instrument, called LIDAR, on the NASA Mars Phoenix Lander mission

Mars planet

York University Professor Jim Whiteway, Department of Earth & Space Science & Engineering, Lassonde School of Engineering, led a team of Canadian scientists in discovering snow falling from Martian clouds. The observations were made with an instrument called the LIDAR on the spacecraft for the NASA Phoenix mission that landed on Mars in 2008. The LIDAR instrument was based on the development of laser remote sensing technology within Prof. Whiteway’s laboratory at York University. It emitted pulses of laser light into the Martian sky, measuring dust and clouds composed of water ice. The clouds were observed to have streaks extending toward the ground. That view was immediately familiar to Prof. Whiteway since LIDAR measurements of precipitation look the same on Earth.

The Phoenix mission is finished, but the work continues in an environmental chamber that simulates the conditions on the surface of Mars. The next generation of the Mars LIDAR will be directed at the surface of Mars to detect the deposition of water and this is being tested in the Mars Chamber. Scientific progress is already being made with the finding that water can condense out of the atmosphere onto salts on the surface of Mars.

The instrument development for the next Mars LIDAR will continue toward the goal of obtaining the measurements again on the real surface of Mars. In the meantime Prof. Whiteway’s research group spends their time applying similar laser instruments for field measurements on the Earth. The studies include chemistry over sea ice, high level outflow clouds from tropical thunderstorms, particles from volcanic eruptions in the stratosphere, desert dust, forest fires, and pollution from industry.

Whiteway is the Director for the Centre for Research in Earth and Space Science (CRESS), which facilitates the advancement of scientific instruments and methods for space missions. Whiteway was also a Canada Research Chair in Space Engineering and Atmospheric Science. He specializes in the development and application of laser remote sensing technology for atmospheric research and planetary exploration.

To learn more about Whiteway’s research, please visit his website.