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Yukon Fieldwork Tests the Performance of Airborne Radar in Preparation for a Mars Mission

isaac yukon field work

Three York University graduate student collect ground penetrating radar (GPR) data at one field site in Yukon Territory. Four GPR datasets were collected by equipment that was dragged in a sled. Credit: Isaac Smith.


PSI Research Scientist Isaac Smith led a project into the Yukon to quantify the accuracy of airborne radar by comparing it with ground-based surveying. The 12-day expedition to Tombstone Territorial Park, along the Dempster Highway, comprised seven scientists. This was a grant from the Canadian Space Agency’s Flights and Fieldwork for the Advancement of Science and Technology (FAST) program. 

Smith’s team laid out ground-based radar surveys in a grid that were later compared to results from overhead airborne radar. 

“The purpose is to characterize the performance of the airborne radar with ground-truthing. We went with ground penetrating radar (GPR), lidar, and a coring rig to determine the depth to ground ice and buried glacial ice,” said Smith, Principal Investigator on the project. “Then, we will compare with airborne data (also collected in April 2023) to assess how well L-band radar can find these ices. The ices are analogues for what we expect to find on Mars, and the project is designed to help determine how well the International Mars Ice Mapper Mission will perform.” 

Ground truth, as used in geography and environmental sciences, designates the information provided by direct observation – usually at the level of the literal ground, the surface of the Earth – in relation to maps, models, and remote sensing technologies. 

“The stunning beauty of a landscape covered by snow was very memorable. Because we were at about 3,000 feet elevation, the tree line was below us in several cases, which meant the snow was unbroken for many miles,” Smith said. “It was almost Moon-like in the smoothness. It also made gauging distances difficult because there was nothing to use as a guide – also similar to the Moon. I really enjoyed being remote and away from cell service most of the day – it gave more time and focus to take in the surroundings.”

Smith Yukon fieldwork

Above, Drone-based photograph of the field site “Corehaven” looking south towards the Blackstone Range along the Dempster Highway. Long lines in the snow correspond to GPR tracks that were made by dragging the sled. Snow depths were hip-deep, and snowshoes were required to walk. Credit: Isaac Smith. 

Below, The Field Team. Five members were from York University, and two were from University of Ottawa. Back row: Mike Daly, Isaac Smith, Adam Gaudreau, Chimira Andres, Abi Lee. Front row: Denis Lacelle, Ivan Mishev. Credit: Isaac Smith.

Smith Yukon adventure group shot


May 28, 2023

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