Canada Joins NASA's Lunar Gateway Station Project with 'Canadarm3' Robotic Arm

NASA's Lunar Gateway space station project has secured its first international partnership. Canada pledged to contribute a "Canadarm3" smart robotic arm to repair and maintain the Gateway, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Feb. 28 at an event attended by several ministers and astronauts. The contribution follows in the path of Canadarm2, Canada's arm aboard the International Space Station, and Canadarm on the space shuttle.

Canadarm3 will include a main arm to do large-scale work for repairs and spacewalks, much like Canadarm2, and a smaller arm that will carry out more dexterous robotics tasks, similar to Canada's Dextre robotic "handyman" on the space station. Canadarm3 will also operate autonomously, since Gateway is supposed to continue operations even when humans are not on board the new complex.

Canada pledges to spend 2.05 billion Canadian dollars ($1.56 billion) on this project during the next 24 years. This will include development and operations for Canadarm3 as well as a Lunar Exploration Acceleration Program to encourage small- and medium-size Canadian businesses to develop lunar technologies in robotics, artificial intelligence and health.

Related: Canada Eyes Deep Space with Next-Generation Robotic Arm

The Canadian Space Agency has joined NASA's Lunar Orbiting Platform Gateway project for moon exploration with its Canadarm3 robotic arm.

(Image credit: Canadian Space Agency)

In attendance at Canadian Space Agency (CSA) headquarters near Montreal was Marc Garneau, who was Canada's first astronaut in space 35 years ago and today serves as Minister of Transport. While Garneau's purview does not include the CSA, he often appears at Canadian space-related announcements, due to his experience in the industry.

"It will constitute, really, the next phase of our exploration in space. It's tremendously significant to Canada to be taking this next step in space exploration," Garneau said in a phone interview with Space.com.

Navdeep Bains, who oversees the CSA as minister of innovation, science and economic development, also attended the announcement. In a statement from the prime minister's office, Bains said Gateway would allow Canada to "capitalize on our world-leading expertise in AI [artificial intelligence], and health."

Years of negotiations

Canada's pledge comes three months after NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine visited Ottawa (Canada's capital) and publicly asked Canada to participate in Gateway, which is expected to start in the 2020s. The Trump administration tasked NASA in late 2017 with returning to the moon before making a push for human exploration of Mars. 

Garneau added that the negotiations for future Canadian-U.S. collaborations began before Bridenstine's visit, as Garneau and others were in conversations with Bridenstine's predecessor, former NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (who resigned in January 2017). But when Bridenstine came to Ottawa in November, both Garneau and Bains met with the NASA administrator to discuss Gateway in some detail.

Canada is already a noted leader in space robotics despite its relatively small space budget compared with NASA, the European Space Agency and other space powers. Its robotics started with Canadarm, which was used on the space shuttle. The Canadian-built robotic arm flew during one of the shuttle's first missions in 1981, and so impressed NASA that it invited Canada to start an astronaut program. Canadarm continued service through the remainder of the shuttle program until the shuttle was retired in 2011, and its technology inspired successor Canadarm2. Garneau himself operated the Canadarm during his last two missions in 1996 (to retrieve a small satellite called Spartan) and 2000 (to help install the solar arrays that generate electricity for the space station).

"I did have the opportunity to operate the Canadarm, which was a real treat for me," Garneau said, adding he was very proud of Canada's contribution, since the arm worked flawlessly for 30 years. "But this [Canadarm3] is the next generation. This is a piece of technology that will be on a space station orbiting around the moon, quite far away from Earth in, I would say, a more hostile environment because of radiation. [The arm], we expect, will be doing all sorts of [new] things that require its artificial intelligence."

The announcement came less than a day after Canada's former attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould, made headlines nationwide alleging that senior government officials (including Trudeau himself) pressured her to interfere with the criminal prosecution of Quebec engineering company SNC-Lavalin, which is facing corruption charges for contracts in Libya. (Trudeau has denied Wilson-Raybould's allegations, which come a few months before the Canadian federal election in October.) 

Garneau argued that the space announcement timing was coincidental because the busy schedules of Trudeau and current Canadian astronauts Jeremy Hansen, Joshua Kutryk and Jennifer Sidey-Gibbons (as well as numerous past astronauts) needed to be coordinated weeks ahead of time to make it possible for them to attend the announcement. "Besides," he added, "we're doing the business of government, and this is part of the business of government, and we will continue to do the business of government. We have a responsibility to Canadians."

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