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InSight lander is set to reach Mars Monday

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After travelling six months and millions of kilometres, NASA’s Mars InSight lander is days away from its final destination.

The one-metre tall, 358-kilogram spacecraft is set to land on the Red Planet on Monday at 3 p.m. ET. It’s sure to be a nail-biting experience for the hundreds of people who have worked on the mission.

It’s easy to imagine the unease the engineers will be facing during the six-and-a-half minute descent to the Martian surface: of all the missions to the Red Planet, only 40 per cent have been successful.

“We all get butterflies when we think about the spacecraft actually landing,” said Catherine Johnson, a professor at the University of British Columbia, who is a co-investigator of the international team that will measure seismic activity on Mars using InSight.

Watch InSight’s chief engineer Rob Manning explain what needs to go right:

But the success rate has been improving. NASA’s twin rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, which launched in 2004, long outlasted their original mission of 90 Martian days, or sols. Spirit lasted 11 years. Opportunity is silent after a months-long dust storm, but not technically dead.

Then there’s Curiosity, which launched in 2011. It’s still going strong.

Landing site is ‘really boring and really safe’

When it reaches Mars, InSight will have travelled almost 500 million kilometres, because it wasn’t a direct trip. Inside a protective casing, it will enter the thin Martian atmosphere at roughly 19,800 km/h. It will deploy a parachute and fire descent thrusters, allowing it to — hopefully — gently touch down on its legs.

​The spacecraft will land in the Elysium Planitia region, near the planet’s equator, only 550 kilometres from Curiosity.

While spacecraft have landed safely recently, this particular location is a bit of a challenge: it is at a higher elevation, which means the spacecraft can’t use as much of Mars’s thin atmosphere to slow down. 

So why pick that spot?

“Mostly because it’s really, really boring and really safe,” Johnson said. 

An artist’s impression shows InSight entering the Martian atmosphere, about 128 kilometres above the surface. Six minutes later the lander is scheduled to stand on Mars. (NASA/JPL)

A flat, rock-free area is best suited to this geological mission where the instruments can be deployed easily. If it were a rocky location, the seismometer and drill, also known as The Mole, wouldn’t be able to do their jobs.

InSight is the first geological mission to the Red Planet. Over two years, using varying instruments, it will measure seismic activity, or Marsquakes, as well as the planet’s negligible magnetic field. It will also take Mars’s interior temperature.

“For those of us who really study the interior of planets, this is a really, really important mission,” Johnson said. “We’ve wanted to go to Mars for several decades now, so it’s really exciting to be almost there.”

The mission’s goals will help scientists understand Mars and planetary formation, and that helps pave the way to knowing what may lay ahead for human missions.

Orbiters may listen in

During the landing, Insight will send signals to NASA’s orbiting Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and transmit the data when Earth is in a position to receive the signals.

There’s also the possibility that two CubeSats, small breadbox-sized orbiters, the first of their kind to make an interplanetary voyage, will be listening in. Mars Cube One — actually two satellites — may be in a position to receive a signal and relay that to Earth immediately.

Engineer Joel Steinkraus stands with both components of the Mars Cube One spacecraft at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The one on the left is folded for stowing on its rocket; the one on the right has its solar panels fully deployed, with its high-gain antenna on top. (NASA/JPL)

Back on Earth, two radio telescopes will be listening in to the beacon that will tell operators that InSight has safely reached the surface.

“We’ll just be very glad when we get the otherwise boring little beep that says, ‘Yes, we’re here,'” Johnson said.

Watch NASA’s feed of the landing on CBC News beginning at 2 p.m. ET. Monday.

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The ‘Maple Majestic’ wants to be Canada’s homegrown Tesla

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Look out Tesla, Canada has a homegrown electric sedan on the way. Well, that’s if AK International Motor Corporation can drum up enough investment to make its EV a reality. Dubbed the “Maple Majestic,” the vehicle is a battery-electric designed to “excel in extreme climate performance without adversely affecting the climate, as befits a vehicle from Canada,” according to its website.

What’s in a name? — The company says the maple leaf is a “symbol of Canada’s warmth and friendliness towards all cultures,” while “majestic” refers to the country’s “status as a Constitutional Monarchy.”

That patriotism carries over into Maple Majestic’s parent company’s lofty goals. AK Motor founder Arkadiusz Kaminski says he wants the company, which he founded in 2012, to become “Canada’s first multi-brand automotive OEM,” and that the “Maple Majestic is intended to be Canada’s flagship brand of automobiles on the world stage.”

Partnerships are key — “We acknowledge that the best chance for the Maple Majestic brand to succeed, lies in continuing to build the relationship with Canada’s parts suppliers and technological innovators, whether they be academic institutions, corporations, or individual inventors,” the company explains. “We are currently seeking partners in automotive engineering, parts manufacturing, automotive assembly, electric propulsion technology, battery technology, autonomous technology, and hybrid power generation technology.”

In other words, don’t expect to be able to buy a Maple Majestic any time soon… and don’t expect to pour over 0-60 mph times, power output, range, or other key stats, because those don’t currently exist. For now, all we have are pictures and a short video clip. But at least those are arresting.

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PE-backed Quorum Software to merge with Canadian energy tech firm

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Houston-based energy technology company Quorum Software will merge with a Canadian tech firm to bolster its presence in oil and gas services.

Quorum announced Feb. 15 it plans to merge with Calgary, Alberta-based Aucerna, a global provider of planning, execution and reserves software for the energy sector. The combined firm will operate under the Quorum Software brand.

Gene Austin, CEO of Quorum Software, will continue in his capacity as chief executive of the combined firm. Austin, former CEO of Austin-based marketing tech firm Bazaarvoice Inc., became CEO of Quorum in December 2018.

Aucerna co-founder and CEO Wayne Sim will be appointed to the Quorum Software board of directors. Both companies are backed by San Francisco- and Chicago-based private equity firm Thoma Bravo.

“Over the last 20 years, Quorum has become the leading innovator of software deployed by North American energy companies,” said Austin. “Today, Quorum is expanding the scope of our technology and expertise to all energy-producing regions of the globe. Customers everywhere will have access to a cloud technology ecosystem that connects decision-ready data from operations to the boardroom.”

In addition to the merger announcement, Quorum Software announced it had entered into an agreement with Finnish IT firm TietoEvry to purchase TietoEvry’s entire oil and gas business. The agreement, which includes hydrocarbon management, personnel and material logistics software and related services, is valued at 155 million euros, or $188 million, according to a statement from TietoEvry.

“Our three organizations complement each other — from the software that our great people design to the energy markets where we operate,” said Sim. “Our new company will be able to deliver value to our stakeholders, while accelerating the growth of our combined business and the energy industry’s software transformation.”

The combined company will serve over 1,800 energy companies in 55 countries, according to the announcement. With its headquarters in Houston, Quorum will continue to have a significant presence in Calgary and in Norway, the headquarters for TietoEvry’s oil and gas software business. Quorum will have other offices throughout North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

As of Sept. 30, 2020, private equity firm Thoma Bravo had more than $73 billion in assets under management. In late December 2020, Thoma Bravo agreed to acquire Richardson, Texas-based tech firm RealPage in a roughly $10 billion acquisition.

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Piece of Kitchener technology lands on Mars on Perseverance rover

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KITCHENER — A piece of Kitchener technology has landed on Mars, thanks to NASA’s Perseverance rover.

The rover settled on the planet’s surface on Thursday afternoon. It’s been travelling through space since it was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. in July.

“The whole idea of being on a device that we’re sending to another plant with the express mission of looking for traces of past life, it’s pretty mind boggling actually,” said Rafal Pawluczyk, chief technical officer for FiberTech Optica.

The Kitchener-based company made fibre optic cables for the rover’s SuperCam that will examine samples with a camera, laser and spectrometers.

“The cables that we built take the light from that multiplexer and deliver it to each spectrograph,” Pawluczyk said.

The cables connect a device on the rover to the SuperCam, which will be used to examine rock and soil samples, to spectrometers. They’ll relay information from one device to another.

The project started four years ago with a connection to Los Alamos National Lab, where the instruments connected to the cables were developed.

“We could actually demonstrate we can design something that will meet their really hard engineering requirements,” Pawluczyk said.

The Jezero Crater is where the Perseverance rover, with FiberTech Optica’s technology onboard, landed Thursday. Scientists believe it was once flooded with water and is the best bet for finding any evidence of life. FiberTech’s cables will help that in that search.

Ioannis Haranas, an astrophysicist and professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said the rover isn’t looking for “green men.”

“They’re looking for microbial, single-cell life, any type of fossils and stuff like that,” Haranas said. “That’s why they chose a special landing site. This could be very fertile land for that.”

“It’s very ambitious,” said Ralf Gellert, a physics professor at the University of Guelph.

Gellert helped with previous rover missions and said it’s the first time a Mars rover has landed without a piece of Guelph technology on it. While he’s not part of Perseverance’s mission, he said the possibilities are exciting.

“Every new landing site is a new piece of the puzzle that you can put together with the new results that we have from the other landing sites,” he said.

“It’s scientifically very interesting because, even though we don’t have an instrument on that rover, we can compare what the new rover Perseverance finds at this new landing site,” he said.

Now that Perseverance has landed on Mars, FiberTech is looking ahead to its next possible mission into space.

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