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Special issue of ‘Physics in Canada’ focuses on contributions by York’s space researchers

With the meteoric rise of companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, space science and engineering is back in the forefront of the public imagination.   York University has long been a leader in the field and is perhaps home to the country’s most active space research groups, including the Lassonde School of Engineering’s Department of Earth & Space Science & Engineering, the Centre for Research in Earth & Space Science, the Centre for Vision Research, and the School of Kinesiology & Health Science.

York’s strength in space research is immediately apparent in the latest space issue of the magazine Physics in Canada, in which Lassonde Professor Emeritus of space science Gordon Shepherd was invited to be guest editor. In addition to Shepherd, Professors Tom McElroy, Jim Whiteway and Mike Daly contributed articles to the issue. The magazine’s greatest contributor was the late Professor Jack McConnell, whose extraordinary achievements in space science were acknowledged by several of his peers in the issue. A long-serving professor at York University, McConnell, who died in July 2013, was acknowledged in four of the seven articles, a statement of his importance to space research in Canada. For this reason, says Shepherd, this special issue of Physics in Canada was dedicated to his memory. Although McConnell is no longer present, his legacy will live on in Canadian space research for years to come.   Below is Shepherd’s memorial to McConnell as it appeared in Physics in Canada’s December 2014 issue, “Space Science in Canada 2014: Accomplishments, Aspirations and Future Prospects.”  


John C. (Jack) McConnell (1945-2013)

On July 29, 2013, York University, and Canada lost one of its brightest stars to brain cancer, John C. (Jack) McConnell, just 67 years old. Jack graduated from Queen’s University Belfast and came to the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Tucson, Ariz., moving soon after to Harvard University. He was part of the team for the ultraviolet spectrometer that flew on the Voyager 1 spacecraft, which recently entered interstellar space. He arrived at York University in 1972 as an assistant professor.   His first activity was on the Canadian team proposing an experiment for the NASA Mariner 10 mission to Venus. It was praised, but not selected. Jack then turned to a more local activity: high-altitude, 1,000-kilogram balloon flights into the stratosphere, led by Environment Canada, becoming an expert on the stratosphere. In 1984, Marc Garneau, the first Canadian in space, operated an instrument called SPEAM, in which Jack led in the interpretation of the data. From this date forward, he became part of almost every subsequent Canadian atmospheric space mission.   The first of these was measuring carbon monoxide with what was called “Measurement Of Pollution In The Troposphere,” for which Jack developed the background science. Later selected by NASA, MOPITT was launched on Terra in 1999 and is still acquiring data. Soon after, Canada provided Sweden with a spectrometer for its Odin mission, and Jack played a significant role. The proposed  Optical Spectrograph and InfraRed Imaging System (OSIRIS) is described in this issue. The need for a Canadian atmospheric modelling capability had by this time become apparent and he created the chemistry component of the Canadian Middle Atmosphere Model (CMAM). The first all-Canadian science satellite since ISIS-II came with SCISAT/ACE, based on the Fourier Transform Spectroscopy technology developed by ABB as described in this issue. The principal investigator credits Jack with writing the science that made this a winning proposal.   From time to time, he returned to his planetary interests, with modelling of the Mars atmosphere based on the GEM model. He wrote the planetary science article in the Physics in Canada special issue on space in 2001. During the last years of his active life, Jack led the science objectives for the application of FTS technology in the proposed CSA PCW (Polar Communications and Weather) satellites described in this issue. At York University, he was an important individual in both the Centre for Research in Earth & Space Science and the Centre for Atmospheric Chemistry, leading a successful Canadian Foundation for Innovation proposal. He also led the founding of the Department of Earth & Atmospheric Science, of which he was chair in the early ’80s; this later became the Department of Earth & Space Science & Engineering. His contributions have been well recognized, such as by a Fellowship in the Royal Society of Canada, but the greatest tribute to his active life is the very many colleagues he shared ideas and energy with over a lifetime that was far too short. Besides his research colleagues, he had others with whom he interacted through sailing, scouting, the church or Irish dancing. Jack was first married to Wendy, with whom he raised daughters Deirdre and Alison, and later to Joan Sinclair, with whom he had a son, Andrew. He accomplished much but had much more to give, of which glimpses can be found in this special issue that is dedicated to him by the authors, with their enduring admiration and affection.


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