York U-led laser instrument to help bring home asteroid sample by NASA mission

The OSIRIS REx Laser Altimeter OLA undergoing testing

Michael Daly, a York University researcher, is the lead scientist on a laser altimeter that will map the surface and create a 3D model of the asteroid Bennu during a NASA mission launching in 2016.

The instrument will also help to guide the spacecraft on the OSIRIS-REx Asteroid Sample Return Mission to a safe spot, where it will grab a sample to bring back to Earth.

“From a science perspective, we need to understand the current state and the evolution of the asteroid,” said Daly, a Lassonde School of Engineering professor, noting one of the goals of the mission is to understand the organic material content of asteroids.

“The sample will provide a snapshot of materials available during the formation of the solar system.”

The OSIRIS REx Laser Altimeter (OLA)

By contributing the instrument – the OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter (OLA), an advanced LIDAR (Light Detection And Ranging) – to the mission, Canada will get a portion of that sample. The mission is expected to return 60 grams of the asteroid, but more than a kilogram is hoped for. It will provide Canadian scientists the first-ever direct access to a pristine asteroid sample, according to the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), which funded the instrument.

OLA is more accurate and has a higher resolution than previous altimeters that have been aboard any previous planetary missions, which means better mapping of the asteroid’s topography.

“A lot of LIDARs stare straight and depend on the spacecraft to move around and provide mapping, but we actually do a raster scan, like the way an old cathode-ray tube TV works,” said Daly. “It’s more like taking a range picture than getting a single measurement. The fidelity of information will be higher.”

Bennu, which is about 500 metres in diameter, is of particular interest because it is one of the most potentially hazardous asteroids presently identified, with a small chance of hitting Earth in the 22nd century. The mission will allow the team to study and track the asteroid’s orbit, as OLA will provide precise distance measurements from the spacecraft to the rocky surface.

Michael Daly

“That’s important, as an asteroid’s orbit is difficult to predict over the long term; because asteroids are so small, they get pushed around by small forces,” said Daly. “Understanding how this asteroid has been pushed around, along with its surface and shape properties, will help us to track asteroids better in the future. And thereby we can provide improved predictions about probability of collisions with the Earth.”

OLA, about the size of two bread boxes, will also help navigate the spacecraft to the best location for grabbing a sample. But that won’t happen for a while.

“The main part of the mission, the proximity operation, starts seven or eight kilometres from the asteroid,” said Daly. “Then, it’s a long process of getting to know the asteroid well enough and its non-uniform gravity field well enough to be able to get down and touch the surface and grab a sample.”

That phase will start in late 2018.

As the prime contractor for the CSA, MacDonald, Dettwiler & Associates (MDA), together with its industrial partner Optech, designed, built and tested the instrument.

York University’s Daly is the lead instrument scientist for OLA. The team also includes professors Alan Hildebrand, University of Calgary; Ed Cloutis, University of Winnipeg; Rebecca Ghent, University of Toronto; and Catherine Johnson, University of British Columbia.

Recently delivered to Lockheed Martin in Denver, OLA will now be integrated with the NASA spacecraft for launch in September.

Climate change altering Greenland ice sheet and accelerating sea level rise, says York U professor William Colgan

Professor William Colgan. Photo credit: YFile news.

The Greenland ice sheet has traditionally been pictured as a bit of a sponge for glacier meltwater, but new research has found it is rapidly losing the ability to buffer its contribution to rising sea levels, says a York University researcher.

York University Professor William Colgan, a co-author on the study published Jan. 4 in the journal Nature Climate Change, helped analyse data from three expeditions to the Greenland ice sheet in 2012, 2013 and 2015. The research was done in conjunction with lead researcher Horst Machguth of the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, Mike MacFerrin of the University of Colorado at Boulder and Dirk van As of the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland Copenhagen, Denmark.

In 2013, Colgan spent five weeks with the team drilling firn cores in the interior of the Greenland ice sheet. Firn is multi-year compacted snow that is not as dense as glacier ice. Instead, it forms a porous near-surface layer over the ice sheet. Dropped off by a ski-equipped US Air National Guard C-130 Hercules in minus 40 degrees Celsius weather, with 6,000 kilos of supplies and equipment, the team set up several camps and drilled a series of shallow firn cores about 20 metres deep during their time on the ice sheet.

“We were interested in the thin porous near-surface firn layer, and how its physical structure is changing rapidly with climate change,” said Colgan, a professor in the Lassonde School of Engineering at York University. “The study looked at very recent climate change on the ice sheet, how the last couple of years of melt have really altered the structure of the ice sheet firn and made it behave differently to future melt.”

Ice sheet

The researchers also towed a radar unit behind their skidoos to gather profiles between core sites along a 100-kilometre path from the low elevation ice sheet margin into the high elevation ice sheet interior. They analysed the firn cores on the spot by cutting them into small sections to quantify their properties, such as their density, so they could compare them with samples collected the following year. “The year-on-year firn changes were quite dramatic,” said Colgan.

The team was surprised by what they found. An extreme melt that occurred in 2012 caused a layer of solid ice, several metres thick, to form on top of the porous firn in the low elevation areas of the ice sheet. “In subsequent years, meltwater couldn’t penetrate vertically through the solid ice layer, and instead drained along the ice sheet surface toward the ocean,” said Colgan. “It overturned the idea that firn can behave as a nearly bottomless sponge to absorb meltwater. Instead, we found that the meltwater storage capacity of the firn could be capped off relatively quickly.”

As Machguth said, “Basically our research shows that the firn reacts fast to a changing climate. Its ability to limit mass loss of the ice sheet by retaining meltwater could be smaller than previously assumed.”

Because the models scientists use to project Greenland’s sea level rise contribution do not presently take firn cap-off into consideration, it means that Greenland’s projected sea level rise due to meltwater runoff is likely higher than previously predicted. Getting this newly observed physical process into these models is an important next step for the team.

Using unmanned aerial vehicles, Colgan also plans to begin surveying the changes in ice sheet surface reflectance caused by the development of massive ice layers associated with firn cap-off. There are preliminary indications that firn cap-off is also occurring in the ice caps of the Canadian High Arctic.

Lassonde students receive NASA award for Mars Rover work

Lassonde PhD Student Casey Moore (left), MSc student Jacob Kloos (middle) and
advisor Prof. John E. Moores (right) show off their NASA Group Achievement Awards in
front of the Bergeron Center on September 1st, 2015. Photo Credit: Brittney Cooper

Casey Moore and Jacob Kloos, two graduate students in the Lassonde School of
Engineering’s Earth and Space Science (ESS) Program have been awarded the NASA
Group Achievement Award for their contributions to the Curiosity Rover mission.
Moore and Kloos are members of the Curiosity’s Science and Operations teams and
are part of the team that decides and plans what the rover will do on the Martian
surface each day.

“This is a significant honour in space exploration where contributing as a team is the
key to success” said Moore and Kloos’ advisor, Prof. John E. Moores. “It is fantastic
that our students have the opportunity to become directly involved in running a
space mission by operating a robot on another world.”

For MSc student Kloos, working on a space mission is an opportunity “to see how
things really work in the background. You always hear about results from Mars, but
it is cool to understand the complex mechanics of doing science on another planet
and to be a part of that.” PhD student Moore has been a part of the mission for
nearly two years and notes that “not many people can say they go to work on Mars.
It’s exciting working on such a large project with top researchers from all around
the world. I don’t think many people have an appreciation for just how much work is
put in my hundreds of dedicated people on a daily basis to keep the rover healthy
and productive.”

In specific, the award cites the student’s contributions to “exceptional innovations in
rover surface operations leading to significantly improved Mars Science Laboratory
prime mission performance and science return.” It is the 11th NASA Award for
members of Prof. Moores’ Planetary Volatiles Laboratory in the last six years.

Professor Izaak de Rijcke Receives Grant for Textbook


Izaak de Rijcke, OLS, LL.M.

The Foundation for Legal Research has awarded a grant to adjunct professor Izaak de Rijcke to assist in the preparation of a manuscript for a textbook to be titled, Principles of Boundary Law in Canada. The textbook will address the doctrinal principles of boundary law in common law Canada and will be the product of research, synthesizing emerging trends in boundary cases in Canada and be used in the teaching of undergraduate courses in boundary surveying. It is intended as a resource for the deeper understanding of this important element of property law. The mandate of the Foundation is to help enable the creation of top-quality legal writing—one of the key tools that Canadian lawyers and judges need in their everyday work.

The book will be published by Four Point Learning and will be available for purchase from its site: http://4pointlearning.ca

Advance orders are being accepted now.

Real – Time MADAM : Pan Am and ParaPan Am Forecast

ESSE Post Doc (Zhan Li) and 4th year undergraduate student (Zheng Qi Wang) are working with the The Weather Network on a joint project with ESSE (Principle Investigator, Professor Yongsheng Chen) to run real time weather forecasts for southern Ontario during the Pan Am and ParaPan Am games (July 10-26 and Aug 7-15). The forecast model is WRF, adapted to assimilate radar and radar wind profiler (The York-Western OQ-Net) data in real time. The model is run every hour to generate hourly forecasts out to 12 hours. A display of simulated radar forecasts indicating rainfall rates and locations is available at:


This pilot study is the first ESSE/TWN attempt to run an independent weather forecast model in real time. Earlier tests indicated benefits from assimilating data from our OQ-Net wind profilers.

Lassonde Student Wins Research Conference Prize

Brittney Cooper, the undergraduate student of Professor John Moores has been awarded the Best Student Poster Presentation Prize for her work presented at the American Geophysical Union Joint Assembly in Montreal taking place in early May. The prize comes from the Geological Association of Canada’s Planetary Sciences Division. This is a significant honour for an undergraduate student, especially at such a large conference (several thousand attendees).

The title of her poster and the brief description which will appear in the upcoming edition of Planetary Matters is:
“Constraints on Lower Atmosphere Clouds on Titan from Perturbation Images Using the Huygens’ Probe Descent Imager and Spectral Radiometer (DISR)”

Her complete abstract can be found here:

Page 362 of the pdf (361 of the program) abstract 34462.

Izaak de Rijcke’s talk in Whitehorse attracts large turnout


On June 10th 2015, Izaak de Rijcke contract lecturer at Lassonde School of Engineering and practicing real estate law in Ontario gave a lecture at the Yukon Arts Centre in Whitehorse. The lecture had a large turnout of over 200 people. The title of the lecture was “Rethinking Land Titles and Boundaries: Integrating Aboriginal Interests with Fee Simple” and it was well received. The CBC had reported on professor de Rijcke’s presentation in thier article “Reconciliation is inseparable from recognition of aboriginal land title”.

The full CBC article can be found at the following link: