Canada and the United States | Hand in hand in the room

One is a climatologist, the other an astronomer. They control the space science orientations in their respective countries. This week, NASA’s new chief scientist, Katherine Calvin, met in Saint-Hubert and Ottawa with her colleague from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), Sarah Gallagher. The press interviewed them in Ottawa.

Posted at 11:00

Mathieu Perreault

Mathieu Perreault
The press

Q. What were you talking about?

Katherine Calvin: We wanted to talk about our climate science collaboration and the data that NASA has.

Sarah Gallagher: We have a lot of collaborative projects. We’ll receive an asteroid sample next year from a NASA mission. We contributed to the SWOT satellite [Topographie des eaux de surface et des océans], which launches next fall. And we’re working on Canadarm3 for the moon station Gateway.


Sarah Gallagher and Katherine Calvin

What is the benefit of SWOT?

KC: It’s a collaboration between NASA and France, with British and Canadian contributions. It will for the first time measure the amount of water in rivers and lakes, currently evaluated with meters in the field. It is important for energy and agriculture. It will also measure the oceans’ uptake of heat and carbon.


The artist’s impression of the SWOT satellite

Where will the asteroid sample be stored?

SG: A CSA laser instrument activated the probe OSIRIS-REx to take a sample from the asteroid Benu in 2020. We want part of this sample. We are in the process of deciding where to store it, possibly at our Saint-Hubert headquarters.


The artist’s impression of the James Webb telescope

Another important Canadian-American collaboration is the space telescope James Webb.

KC: Even though I’m not an astrophysicist, I still got up early for Christmas to watch the launch.

SG: The first scientific images will be unveiled on July 12th. Many of my colleagues blocked the next two weeks to work on it. Until now, we have only had technical images to confirm that the instruments are working properly. I expect the images from July 12 will be different in terms of showing the possibilities of the telescope.

Outside of astrophysics, what are the concrete benefits of exploring space?

SG: Our technology development program in space medicine, for example, is primarily aimed at keeping astronauts aboard the Gateway station healthy. In Earth orbit, an astronaut can be brought back to Earth in a matter of hours. But on the Moon it takes several days. Telemedicine is very useful for remote areas of Canada.

KC: We are trying to grow agricultural crops on the International Space Station. There are already ground-based applications of this program, such as LED lights for indoor farming and technology to apply fertilizer near the roots to use less.

SG: We also have an indoor container farming program in Nunavut, the Naurvik project. Technicians from the region have been trained to handle it.


The Naurvik experience in Nunavut

What other missions are in preparation?

KC: The next satellite observation system will provide a 3D image of the atmosphere by the end of the decade.

SG: CSA will provide three instruments for this system, two that will look at the edge of the atmosphere and one that will look down. They will trap all particles such as ice and aerosols. These are the biggest uncertainties about the Earth’s warming and cooling.

Will the Gateway be used to build a rocket for Mars?

SG: We study the Moon’s resources. Water is very heavy, if you can take it on the Moon, you save on shipping costs. It is also possible to use lunar materials to build structures. Moon working experiments are planned.

Do you think your employment will have an impact on women’s access to scientific careers? Have you experienced obstacles as women in your career?

SG: I am the first person to hold this position. The obstacles have been subtle. For example, I am sometimes asked if I am a PhD student or assistant. When I am the only woman in a meeting, I feel a responsibility to be excellent.

KC: We also met with Canada’s Chief Scientist, Mona Nemer. In my case, there had already been a woman in the position I have. In the beginning of my career, it happened more often that I was the only woman in a meeting. It is good that this is no longer the case.

Will a Canadian go to the moon?

SG: That is a reasonable expectation. We are Gateway partners and our astronauts will go there.

Do you expect to see a manned mission to Mars before retiring?

KC: We want to do more and more complex missions on the Moon and from the Moon.

SG: Many difficult issues need to be addressed, including the long-term impact of radiation on astronauts. I would say: maybe.

Learn more

  • 5%
    Percentage of Canadian institutions observing time at the James Webb Space Telescope for 24 years

    Sources: NASA and Canadian Space Agency

    USD 9.6 billion
    Expected cost of the James Webb Space Telescope, including operating costs

    Sources: NASA and Canadian Space Agency

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