Retired Malaspina University-College Physics and Liberal Studies professor Russ McNeil has some pretty impressive bragging rights.
Technology he helped pioneer 35 years ago is on its way to Mars.
Optech lidar (laser radar) technology, first developed by McNeil and Dr. Allan Carswell in 1972, has been tweaked and fine-tuned into modern day technology currently on board NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander, launched into space from Florida’s Cape Canaveral August 4.
The Phoenix spacecraft has now begun a 680 million kilometre journey to the Arctic region of Mars. In about nine months, the Phoenix will land near the Martian North Pole on May 25th, 2008 and begin its search for water and environmental habitats that could harbour life.
McNeil, a PhD student in early 70s at York University in Toronto, worked with Carswell, principal investigator in the project and Optech Chairman (Toronto), to develop the first lidar system designed for terrestrial atmospheric research at York’s multi-disciplinary Centre for Research in Experimental Space Science (CRESS). “Dr. Carswell was my PhD supervisor,” explained McNeil.
“Optech lidar technology is at the heart of Canada's contribution to the Phoenix mission – a meteorological weather station that will help accurately model Mars's climate and predict future weather processes,” he added.
“The Canadian Space Agency funded the contribution of the meteorological ( MET) package to NASA, which was designed and built by Optech and MDA Space Missions with input from Canadian and US scientists. The Phoenix lidar will bounce laser pulses off passing clouds and atmospheric dust overhead to determine their composition, movement and size," said McNeil.
McNeil was “bowled over” when he received an email last week from Dr. Carswell telling him the modern day Optech lidar technology was launched into space.
“The Mars bound generation of this now miniaturized technology involved contributions from dozens of individuals over many years and has come a long way from the one ton ruby laser “Model T” monster we designed back then,” said McNeil.
“Our original invention weighed about 30 pounds, and the power supply weighed as much as a refrigerator. It sat on a large 12-inch telescope, then on an artillery gun mount built out of aluminum. Obviously it’s been tweaked and fine-tuned dramatically over the years. This is how science works.
“I’m delighted to realize my boyhood dream of contributing to space research by playing a modest role in helping to seed this exciting adventure so long ago. It’s been a long wait!”
For more information about the Optech lidar (laser radar) technology visit the Canadian Space Agency’s lidar web page at www.space.gc.ca/asc/eng/exploration/phoenix_lidar.asp.
Russ McNeil has just written his first book, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: Selections Annoted & Explained, reflecting on his many years in Physics and Liberal Studies at Malaspina. Publication is slated for September through Skylight Paths Publishing. For information on the book and about the Malaspina Great Books website, which McNeil edits, go to http://www.malaspina.org/marcus.htm and http://www.malaspina.org/home.htm.