Canada Eyes Robotic Arm for Space Shuttle Successor
MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates artist's concept of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle with a Canadian robotic arm.
Credit: Space News Graphic

VICTORIA, British Columbia -- The Canadian Space Agency has given MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates seed money to examine the development of a new-generation robotic arm that could ultimately be used for NASA's Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle.

The as-yet unbuilt arm could be offered to the U.S. space agency in exchange for flying a Canadian astronaut on an Orion mission, according to officials with MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) of Richmond, British Columbia.

MDA was selected by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) last month to develop concept designs in support of an ongoing effort to plan Canada's future participation in joint space exploration endeavors with NASA and other international space agencies. MDA will study robotics for on-orbit servicing and a Canadian-led robotic lunar lander mission under a contract worth 1.8 million Canadian dollars ($1.4 million).

Steve Oldham, MDA's vice president in charge of robotics, said although the contract is small from a financial point of view, it has the potential to lay the groundwork for lucrative future programs. ?We're hoping it's the thin edge of a significant wedge as Canada moves more towards the next generation of its space exploration program,? he told Space News in a Feb. 19 interview.

The studies are intended to demonstrate what Canadian industry could hope to achieve in the areas of next-generation robotics for both rover missions and on-orbit servicing. While NASA is developing Orion first and foremost to provide crew transportation for Moon missions and jaunts to the international space station, the agency also has discussed other uses for Orion, including the servicing of future space telescopes.

Most of the technologies that are being looked at for development are ones that already have been discussed between the CSA and NASA, Oldham said. ?For example, on Orion we've had meetings with NASA where we've sat down with them and said, ?What kind of robotic capability would [you] want on Orion' and they've said we want A, B and C,? Oldham explained. ?So that's what we're developing here. This is a part of a coordinated international activity.?

The research work into next-generation robot technology builds on the strengths of Canadian industry, he added. Canada has been working in the area of orbital robotics for 25 years, with MDA producing robotic arms for the space shuttle and the international space station.

"One of the studies that we've got funding for is to look at the types of technology, how you can accommodate it [and] what requirements could be met on board Orion by a small Canadarm," Oldham said.

The other technologies being examined relate to rover mobility for the surface of the Moon or Mars. Oldham said the studies represent potential contributions that Canada could use to barter for astronaut time on international space exploration missions such as future Orion flights. The studies will be produced over the next six to 12 months, he added.

The Canadian government announced last month that it would provide 110 million Canadian dollars in new funding to the CSA for the development of new-generation space robotic and rover technologies. Steve MacLean, head of the Canadian Space Agency, said in a recent interview with Space News that such work would build on the expertise developed under the Canadarm and Dextre programs, although at this point the aim is to create terrestrial prototypes, not actual spaceflight hardware.

The proposed work also would include developing subcomponents of space robotics vehicles. Julie Simard, spokeswoman for the Canadian Space Agency in Saint-Hubert, Quebec, said there is no plan at this point to provide a robotic arm to Orion in exchange for having a Canadian astronaut on board the mission.

NASA spokeswoman Kylie Clem also said there are no current plans to include a robotic arm on Orion. She noted, however, that NASA has appreciated the contributions the Canadian Space Agency has made to shuttle and the International Space Station programs. "We expect some sort of cooperation in the future but not at this point on Orion," she said.

But Anthony Salloum, a space adviser for the Rideau Institute think tank in Ottawa, said that it would make sense for the CSA to eventually offer a new-generation robotic arm for Orion or other future U.S. manned spacecraft in exchange for flight time for Canadian astronauts.

"Canada used its contribution of robotic arms for the shuttle and the international space station in terms of a swap, if you will, of Canadian technology for the placing of Canadian astronauts on those missions," said Salloum. "I think MDA is sending a clear message that if the Canadian government hasn't yet thought about such an arrangement to secure a place on an Orion mission, it should consider it now."

Salloum noted that just last year the CSA launched a recruitment program for a new generation of Canadian astronauts. It is still determining who among those applicants will be future astronauts.