Space exploration is entering a new era. In this truly international endeavour, Canadian engineering plays a critical role.
If you have a $5 note in your wallet, you’re carrying around a potent reminder of Canada’s leadership in space. Released in 2013, the $5 banknote in the Frontier series, in blue polymer, was first unveiled on board the International Space Station (ISS) by Colonel Chris Hadfield — an icon of Canadian space exploration. Extending purposefully across the length of the bill is an illustration of Canadarm2, the space station’s instantly recognizable robotic arm that has been critical to so many orbital missions.
As Canada continues to tackle challenges beyond the bounds of the atmosphere, the Canadian engineering brilliance that gave the ISS its reach will be tested once again. And, with an expansive new $100-million global headquarters, MDA, the company behind Canadarm, is more than ready.
Over five decades of Canadian space innovation
Canada’s MDA is a leading provider of boundary-stretching and capability-defining technologies for governments and commercial customers worldwide. For as long as Canada has been a spacefaring nation, MDA and its predecessor companies have played a role in that mission. The company currently has a workforce of over 2,400 employees in Canada, the U.S., and the U.K. Soon, at its new purpose-built 200,000-square-foot global headquarters and Space Robotics Centre of Excellence in Brampton, Ont., the facility’s growing team of over 700 specialists and engineers will continue to develop the new vision for space exploration in the decades to come.
The facility, supported by a $25-million grant from the Ontario Ministry of Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade, is currently under construction and is expected to be operational in 2023 — and not a moment too soon. The company has completed work on both Phase 0 and Phase A of the new Canadarm3 project for the NASA-led Gateway Moon-orbiting space station and has recently announced $269 million in funding from the Canadian Space Agency to continue with Phase B of the design.
“This is another important milestone for MDA that demonstrates our ability to execute in the rapidly-accelerating global space economy and further reinforces our role as a worldwide leader in robotics and space operations,” says Mike Greenley, CEO of MDA. “MDA now intends to leverage our world-class engineering capabilities, mission expertise, and cutting-edge Canadarm3 technology with an eye toward commercializing space robotics products in the years ahead.”
The first components of the Gateway space station are planned for launch to lunar orbit in late 2024, and the station will provide an essential base of operations for continued space exploration, including serving as an intermediary for missions to Mars and beyond. Canadian technology and know-how, particularly evident in the Canadarm3 robotics system, will be instrumental in achieving those goals.
Putting boots (and buggies) back on the Moon
MDA’s tech is also slated for a debut on the lunar surface. NASA’s Artemis program aims to return humans to the surface of the Moon by 2025, and MDA is working with one of the teams looking to provide mobility services on the Moon — a serious model upgrade from the rover that astronauts Scott and Irwin drove on the Apollo 15 mission. The new human-rated lunar mobility vehicles are being developed by Lockheed Martin and General Motors. They’re designed to be permanently stationed on the surface of the Moon for ridesharing by both private and government space initiatives. Earlier this year, MDA announced a partnership to bring its robotic arm technology to these cutting-edge lunar vehicles.
“We’re thrilled to be collaborating with industry stalwarts Lockheed Martin and General Motors on this first-of-its-kind initiative to equip its lunar rovers with commercial robotic arms from MDA,” says Greenley. “We believe this collaboration will enable all three companies to continue to define the art of the possible, push the boundaries of space innovation, and provide the world’s astronauts with the technology they need to reach further than they ever have before.”
Space exploration is everyone’s business
It seems like a new commercial venture is testing a rocket or other piece of space tech every week, and MDA has recently confirmed its first sale of Canadarm3 technology for use in commercial space operations aboard Axiom Station. The station, a project of Houston-based Axiom Space, is set to be assembled and attached to the ISS, and will separate to become its own independent space station when the ISS is decommissioned.
And, just as commercial entities are joining in on the next chapter of space exploration, it’s important to remember that the developments and innovations that are driven by those ventures also provide untold benefits for those of us with our boots stuck squarely on Earth. From camera phones to prosthetic limbs and robotic biopsies and from memory foam to cochlear implants, technologies that were first developed for space travel often find their way back into our terrestrial lives. In fact, if you take your Canadarm $5 bill to the convenience store and buy yourself some potato chips, chances are the bag they come in is made of the same metallized polyethylene that was developed to shield the Apollo lunar lander.
We’re a nation of explorers and inventors. And space, like Canada, is enormous. The possibilities for discovery and innovation above are endless, just as the practical and economic benefits for Canadians are limitless. We should be proud that Canadian engineering is leading the charge to explore new frontiers and overcome new challenges on Earth, in orbit, on the Moon, and beyond.