Sask. man leading science program for Mars campaign in 'disbelief' after successful rover landing

·3 min read
This artist's concept depicts NASA's Mars 2020 rover on the surface of Mars.
This artist's concept depicts NASA's Mars 2020 rover on the surface of Mars.

(NASA/JPL-Caltech - image credit)

A man from Canora, Sask., is part of the team that successfully landed a rover on Mars Thursday. The rover — called Perseverance — will seek out ancient life and collect soil samples on the Red Planet.

Tim Haltigin is a senior mission scientist in planetary exploration with the Canadian Space Agency. He said the emotions he felt when Perseverance landed are "difficult to describe."

"There was, you know, sheer celebration and clapping and disbelief that we pulled it off and amazement and excitement for the work that's still to come," Haltigin said.

This is part one of a decade-long mission to bring samples back to Earth from Mars for the first time in human history, he said.

"Later in the decade, we'll be launching two other spacecraft to go pick up the samples, launch them into space, catch them in space and bring them back to Earth in about 2031," he said.

"It's kids in high school and elementary school and kindergarten and people that haven't even been born yet that are really going to be making the amazing discoveries on these samples."

The first image captured by NASA's Perseverance Mars Rover, which landed on the Red Planet on Thursday.
The first image captured by NASA's Perseverance Mars Rover, which landed on the Red Planet on Thursday.

Perseverance landed in a region that has an ancient lake bed and an ancient delta with rocks that are about four billion years old.

"The great thing about rocks is that they're incredible storytellers," Haltigin said. "They preserve clues about the environment that was existing when they were formed."

The rocks may even show signs of life, which he said would be a profound discovery.

"This would be one of the, I think, greatest discoveries in the history of science. It would open up whole new fields of science. … The volume and the magnitude and the importance of the questions to follow after that would be amazing."

'That beautiful blanket of stars'

Haltigin is helping lead the team that's designing the overall science program for the sample return campaign.

He grew up on a farm near Canora and said his interest in space started with the night sky.

"I think we've all seen that beautiful blanket of stars above us on those crystal clear Saskatchewan nights," he said. "I would just sit there and wonder what was out there and how we could go explore it."

He said his family and community back home in Saskatchewan have been "tremendously supportive."

"This is one of those great things about growing up in Saskatchewan, is that … I've moved away, but I always feel like I'm still part of it."

This job is "a dream come true," he said, and his advice for kids out there interested in pursuing a career in space science is, "You can do it."

"It's never a straight path or a clear path or you never know how you're going to be able to do it, but you can do it," he said.