From fascination to space exploration

Newfoundlander works on Mars rover missions and the probe landing on Titan

Josh Pennell
Published on August 14, 2013
John Moores, originally of St. John’s, poses with a mockup of the Mars rover behind him. — Submitted photo

Anybody wondering if the man in the moon really is a Newfoundlander, as Stompin’ Tom Connors sang, can direct their question to John Moores. He’s got the roots to pick up on the accent and the work experience to help get a spacecraft out there.

Moores has worked missions that have sent unmanned spacecraft to Mars and to Titan, the largest of Saturn’s moons.

He lived in St. John’s until he was 17. His father worked for DFO and was then transferred to Ottawa. He says he was always good at math, chemistry and physics, but space also had the type of fascination for him that it had for many young people.

“I remember reading a lot of science fiction when I was younger.”

He decided to go for an undergrad degree in engineering science and that lead to a Ph.D in planetary science. “That struck me as interesting. Maybe I could learn how to build spaceships and things like that,” he says.

Moores realized that robotic exploration was going a lot further out into space than human exploration.

Moores also knew that the University of Arizona had a place on every robotic mission launched into space. That was the place for his Ph.D

“The day I arrived was the day that they announced that the University of Arizona had won the Phoenix mission, which was to be the first planetary mission to the martian arctic,” Moores remembers.

A leader on that project was the University of Arizona’s Peter Smith.

“I waited until the press conference was over and I went up to him as he was leaving the stage and asked him for a job.”

Smith became his adviser, which set Moores’ career into orbit. He got himself on the Mars science laboratory mission involving two rovers — Spirit and Opportunity.

“The easiest way to learn these types of jobs is to shadow people who are actually doing them.”

Moores followed another student and learned as much as he could about how to operate these types of spacecraft.

“What always strikes me about these missions is how many young people are involved,” Moores says.

It isn’t necessarily older people taking the lead roles when it comes to the robotic side of things. Graduates and even undergrads play imp-ortant roles, according to Moores.

“They actually take on leadership roles in deciding what these multimillion- and multibillion-dollar pieces of equipment do from day to day.”


Probe to Titan

Moores’ training on the Mars mission led the way for an extremely exciting project — the Cassini–Huygens mission which involved sending the Huygens probe to Titan. It would mark the first successful landing in the outer solar system.

“Huygens was a really nice experience,” says Moores. “It was the only time we ever landed on Titan, which is the furthest a lander has ever come down.”

Moores’ role was decoding the data strings Huygens would send back.

“We didn’t know what we would see, but we were certain we wouldn’t see any lakes or rivers or anything like that — not any kind of erosion, because the way that that place is set up is that water ice is actually the surface and the rain is methane. Liquid methane, because it’s so cold.”

There’s also a photochemical smog around the whole planet. As the probe descended through the atmosphere, it started to send back data that Moores helped decode into pictures. What they saw was not all what they expected.

“You couldn’t see anything at first, but gradually things started to dissolve out, and what did we see but lakes and rivers and all sorts of erosional features?” he says.

Huygens had to be so close to the surface before any features could be made out that it reminded Moores of a much more familiar place.

“The only thing I could compare it to was coming into St. John’s airport in the fog.”

You couldn’t see anything until you were right on top of it, he says.

Granted, even Newfoundland’s cantankerous weather can’t compete with a moon where it rains methane through a photochemical smog. But at least Moores could relate. He was one of the first 12 people to see the surface of Titan.


Mission to Mars

Moores next worked on the 2008 Phoenix mission to the Martian Arctic. It took the lander Phoenix to an equivalent latitude of the Mackenzie Delta on Earth.

“We saw a lot of clouds going by and overnight we had snow falling on the ground,” says Moores.

And another familiar sight: fog, this time on Mars.

As for a human mission to Mars, Moores says it really depends on if we decide we want to put the resources into it.

He says it’s costly. Going to the moon for the Apollo mission cost as much as the entire U.S. interstate system, he says. The Curiosity mission to Mars was a $2.5-billion project.

“That’s still quite a bit less resources than we would have to deploy were we to really take the human program all the way out to Mars.”

It’s likely feasible if the will to spend it is there, he says.

“Is it a wise use of resources? That’s a good question.”


What’s next?

Moores’ future plans involve a very earthly molecule — water — although his role will be searching for it on other planets.

“The reason we chase water down is it’s one of these things that’s really important for life as we know it.”

Out on the moons of Jupiter there are huge bodies of water under the ice, he says.

“One of the questions is: is that the kind of environment where you could get life occurring?”

His work is trying to understand what kind of environment is out there on these distant moons and planets. Biology colleagues will then decide if they’re habitable and then maybe they’ll get to send a spacecraft out to investigate.



Moores makes it back to Newfoundland from time to time. As a co-professor at York University in Toronto, he says Lake Ontario can’t compare with the Atlantic Ocean.

As for whether he’d ever want to go where no Newfoundlander has gone before, Moores says astronauts don’t go nearly so far as the robots they send out there. But the robots don’t come home. Besides that, flying isn’t his thing.

“I’m not a big fan of even flying,” he says. “I’m quite happy to be working on the ground.”