Peter Bernath is the instigator of one of Canada's most important current scientific missions. In 1997, he proposed SCISAT to the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). It is one of two scientific satellites built by Canada after more than 30 years. Peter Bernath is a professor of physical chemistry at the University of Waterloo, and this was hardly his first success: that same year, he was a member of the team of scientists who confirmed the astonishing discovery that water exists on the sun.
But how did he end up studying atmospheric chemistry? Dr. Bernath completed his doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His research areas include molecular astronomy and atmospheric science. “My background and training is in molecular spectroscopy. The Earth's atmosphere provides some of the most interesting and beautiful spectra. It was the recording and interpretation of these spectra that attracted me to the field.”
But like other scientists, he faces some difficulties in studying the atmosphere. "From a scientific perspective, atmospheric variability is a major problem. The atmosphere is such a complex system that real progress requires a combination of many instruments plus the use of sophisticated mathematical models. All of this often implies the use of large interdisciplinary teams."
Dr. Bernath thinks it is very important for Canada to launch its own science satellites." Canada is a consumer of science—science originating from outside the country. It is crucial to national interests that Canada contributes and generates its own science. Many of CSA's projects ultimately have policy implications (for example, the Montréal Protocol) and it is important to have some control and expertise in these areas. Only by launching our own satellites can we achieve this.
Moreover, the technology developed by Canadian companies in these projects can be sold to other customers and be very beneficial for our economy."
These beliefs led Dr. Bernath to conceive a new scientific mission for a Canadian-built satellite. "The mission began in 1997 when CSA sent out a call for proposals for SCISAT. At the time, I was on sabbatical leave in Belgium. The proposal for a mission that we call the Atmospheric Chemistry Experiment (ACE) was selected for a preliminary study to demonstrate its scientific and technical feasibility. In 1998, ACE was selected for flight after a rigorous evaluation by a panel of experts. What followed was a whirlwind of work and meetings in Ottawa, Québec, Montréal, Colorado, Winnipeg, Toronto, and Waterloo! SCISAT was launched in August, 2003, and the time between selection and launch was relatively short, compared to other satellite missions."
What's next? "SCISAT-1 is producing fabulous results. The analysis of the data is still at an early stage, but the first dozen or so papers are already in preparation." But the future doesn't end there for Dr. Bernath. "We are working on a CSA-funded project to develop a mission to monitor greenhouse gases from space. We also would like to send an ACE-like instrument to Mars." We can't wait to hear more on that!