11/04/2014 04:30 EST | Updated 01/04/2015 05:59 EST

Northern Light Canadian Mars micro-rover and lander aim for 2018 launch

A Canadian company aims to launch a micro-rover and mini-lander to Mars in 2018.

Thoth Technology, based in Pembroke, Ont., launched a campaign on Indiegogo today to crowdfund $1.1 million to pay for the hardware needed to fly the Northern Light lander and Beaver rover in space and land them on Mars. The project is being developed in partnership with Toronto's York University, which houses a lot of the space testing facilities and will analyze the data from the mission.

If it is successful, it would be first Canadian mission to the surface of Mars.

"I think it's important to do big things," said Ben Quine, principal investigator for the mission. "Mars is the only other habitable planet in the solar system, and if we want to survive, we need to be a multi-planet species."

Quine is the technical director and chair of the board at Thoth Technology and a professor of space engineering at York University, which is a partner on the project.

So far, Quine said, robots like NASA's Curiosity and Spirit and Opportunity rovers have only explored a half dozen sites on Mars.

"If we are serious about living on Mars," he said, "we need to explore it much more thoroughly. We probably need hundreds of landers to pepper the surface prior to sending people so we know exactly what it is that we're up against, where we'd find things like minerals and where we'd want to live."

Hunt for life

Northern Light aims to gather data about rocks, minerals and greenhouse gases on Mars, as well as hunt for life.

Quine said that in Antarctica and the Canadian Arctic, photosynthetic microbes can be found in a layer a millimetre or two below the surface of the rock, where they are protected from the harshest of the sun's UV rays, but can still use sunlight to produce energy.

Northern Light will look for similar light on Mars by using the lander's robotic arm to grind away the surface of rocks. It will then use a device called a photometer to scan for different shades of green that may indicate the presence of photosynthetic organisms.

Meanwhile, the solar-powered Beaver rover is like no other that has ever gone to Mars. For one thing, it weighs just six kilograms. In comparison, NASA's Curiosity rover is a hefty 900 kilograms, forcing it to rely largely on nuclear power to lug its bulk around.

The NASA rovers, which are controlled from Earth, move very slowly, covering only a few dozen metres per day, because their commands take 15 minutes to reach Mars from Earth.

The Beaver rover is designed to be quicker — and more independent.

Intelligent rover

"We're going to embed intelligence into the rover," Quine said, "and the rover is going to be tasked to drive around and explore the environment using autonomous algorithms built into the rover to determine things like when it should make a manoeuvre to avoid falling into a hole or run into a rock."

Quine said he has already spent 12 years working on the project. His team has spent half a million dollars developing and testing prototypes of the lander and micro-rover, and done space tests on some of the instruments by flying them on satellites in low-Earth orbit. Thoth Technologies also recently spent $1 million leasing and repairing the Algonquin Radio Observatory from the federal government, which had barely used the crumbling radio telescope in the Ontario park for decades.

Quine said it's the only steerable radio antenna dish in Canada large enough to detect signals from Mars. It will be used as a ground station to communicate with the lander and rover when they are on Mars.

The Northern Light team hopes to send their lander and rover to Mars by piggybacking on a spacecraft that is already headed to the Red Planet.

There are a number of spaceflight options scheduled for 2018 including the joint Russian-European Space Agency ExoMars rover mission and an Indian Space Research Organization mission that will likely include a lander and rover.

Quine said Northern Light aims to barter for the flight in exchange for collecting and relaying other agencies' data from Mars via the ARO ground station, which can collect them at times of day when places like Russia and India are facing away from Mars.

Members of the public who support the campaign will get a chance to help choose the landing site for the mission and will get rewards ranging from a Frisbee for $20 or the chance to name the lander for $1 million.

Mars One, the company that hopes to start the first human settlement on Mars in 2025, also plans to send a lander to Mars, along with a satellite, in 2018. It raised $313,744 US of its $400,000 goal on Indiegogo earlier this year.