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Lab technologist brings little pieces of Mars to York, promotes space research

Lab technologist brings little pieces of Mars to York, promotes space research

Nick Balaskas is on a mission. He wants to set a world record for the number of people who have walked on Mars.

Although technically he would need only one person to achieve his goal, Balaskas has set his sights on 500 – a round number he developed based on the total number of individuals who have flown in space since the start of manned space flights 50 years ago, plus a few more for good measure.

Right: Janusz Kozinski, dean of York’s Faculty of Science & Engineering, takes a ‘walk’ on a piece of the red planet

A laboratory technologist in the Faculty of Science & Engineering’s Department of Physics & Astronomy and a York physics grad who studies meteorites, Balaskas (BSc ’79) hit upon the idea when he became interested in a meteorite known as NWA 998 (photo, left © Royal Ontario Museum). This orthopyroxene-bearing nakhlite from Mars was found in the Sahara Desert and purchased by meteorite dealers in 2002. The dealers, Adam and Greg Hupe, have shared fragments of the meteorite for research while the main portion is now part of the Royal Ontario Museum’s collection.

Balaskas purchased a couple of tiny fragments from the Hupes and invited York students and friends of York, including a who’s who of distinguished Canadians, to become the first to “walk on Mars” for his world record attempt. Each person who joins Balaskas’ select group treads a careful step (barefoot or socks, their option), receives a certificate of achievement and will be listed among those who helped establish the record, which Balaskas eventually plans to submit to the publisher of the Guinness Book of World Records for official recognition.

York President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri became the latest person to walk on Mars when Balaskas visited his office in the York Research Tower. Janusz Kozinski, dean of York’s Faculty of Science & Engineering, joined Shoukri in his Mars trek and said the record attempt was a good way of drawing attention to York’s space programs. Balaskas said his goal in starting the project was to raise awareness of York’s ever-increasing reputation as one of the leading space science universities in Canada where York students and members of the York community play a big part.

Left: From left, President Shoukri with Balaskas and Dean Kozinski

York researchers achieved world recognition in 2008 when, as part of the Phoenix Mars Mission team led by Professor Jim Whiteway, they helped determine that, like the Earth, it even snows on Mars (see YFile, Oct. 1, 2008).  A new team of researchers from York’s Department of Earth & Space Science & Engineering led by Professor Jack McConnell will take part in the MATMOS (Mars Atmospheric Trace Molecule Occultation Spectrometer) project, a partnership between the California Institute of Technology, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Whiteway is the director of the Centre for Research in Earth & Space Science; McConnell is also a member, as are many faculty involved in space research at York.

York grad Steve MacLean (BSc ’73, PhD ’83, Hon. DSc ’93), a former Canadian astronaut who was appointed president of the Canadian Space Agency in 2008, is a member of a smaller and exclusive group of York space scientists who have walked on a different world and have certificates to prove it. Balaskas said he told Canadian astronaut Julie Payette, an honorary degree recipient at this year’s York Spring convocation, that her colleague McLean had done something she hadn’t done – walked on the moon! McLean was presented with a certificate and a fragment of NWA 482, a meteorite that originated from the Lunar Highlands that is geologically identical to the Genesis Rock brought back from the Moon by the Apollo 15 astronauts.

Left: A fragment of NWA 998, a meteor from Mars

But his project is more than just a promotional gimmick, says Balaskas, who during the day oversees the Faculty’s undergraduate physics labs. He and Sal Boccia, an engineering technologist in the metallurgy lab at the University of Toronto, have examined samples of NWA 998 under an electron microscope and found things they feel are worth further study, which they plan to pursue.

Republished courtesy of YFile– York University’s daily e-bulletin.