Saskatchewan scientist leads team helping in Mars sample return mission

Click to play video: 'Saskatchewan scientist leads team helping in Mars sample return mission'
Saskatchewan scientist leads team helping in Mars sample return mission
A Canora, Sask. man is helping lead a team of scientists in the decade-long mission to bring rock and soil samples back to Earth from Mars. Allison Bamford reports – Feb 20, 2021

An out-of-this-world mission hits a little closer to home for one Saskatchewan community.

Tim Haltigin, originally from Canora, Sask, is leading a science program design team for the Mars sample return campaign, a decade-long mission that starts with the Perseverance rover landing.

The goal: retrieve four-billion-year-old rocks and soil samples from the Red Planet.

“Rocks are incredible storytellers. They preserve clues about the environment in which they were formed,” said Haltigin, the senior mission scientist for planetary exploration at the Canadian Space Agency.

“What we’re doing is going back in time and by three-and-half to four billion years to understand exactly what the environment was like on Mars at the time and potentially if life ever arose, as well.”

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In theory, Haltigin says planning for sample return started 40 years ago. He has been preparing for eight.

This illustration depicts NASA’s Perseverance rover operating on the surface of Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Perseverance launched in July 2020.

On Thursday, Haltigin and his family watched the rover land while virtually celebrating with colleagues.

“It was so many emotions all at once,” he said.

“It was relief, it was excitement, it was elation and then it was the realization that we really need to get to work now.”

According to NASA, Perseverance will spend at least one Mars year, or two Earth years, exploring the landing site region.

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By 2031, they hope to have the rock samples back on Earth.

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Night sky sparks space fascination

Haltigin grew up on a farm outside Canora, Sask.

While he now lives in Quebec, the scientist credits his curiosity and the land of the living skies for launching his career.

“If you drive five miles out of town and look up it’s this beautiful blanket of stars that sort of bathes you,” Halitgin said.

“Being on the farm, I would go out at night and just stare up and think what was out there and how can we explore it.”

It is a dream come true for Haltigin.

Credit: Tim Haltigin. Credit: Tim Haltigin

He says if that young, curious farm kid could see himself now, he’d be in disbelief, but beyond proud.

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“Now, here we are picking one of those dots in the night sky and potentially bringing a piece of it back to Earth. It is really incredible,” he said.

But his younger self isn’t the only one who is proud.

Back home in Canora, Haltigin’s family was fielding calls from the community expressing encouragement, support and excitement on Thursday.

“It really demonstrates how Saskatchewan is a community and we really root for each other and cheer on each other’s successes,” Haltigin said.

But his success is just the start.

Credit: Tim Haltigin. Credit: Tim Haltigin

The way Haltigin sees it, it is his job to retrieve these rocks, but it’s the next generation of scientists who will be making the discoveries forty or fifty years down the road.

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And some of those scientists might not be born yet.

“When something like the Perseverance landing happens, it’s a great reminder to kids that the world that we live in becomes what we want it to be,” said Ryan Holota, director of business development at the Saskatchewan Science Centre.

“As science continues to progress and as people explore and continue to push these boundaries, the world is going to look so different in the future.”

And for those who will be leading the way, Haltigin has some advice.

“Science is about curiosity; it’s about having fun; it’s about just wondering,” Haltigin said.

“If I was to say anything to students now, it’s just never stop asking questions.”

Click to play video: 'NASA shares historic image of Perseverance landing on Mars'
NASA shares historic image of Perseverance landing on Mars

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