Canada Takes Another Step Towards Sending a Rover to the Moon

Canadensys (formerly ODG) lunar rover concept. Credit: Canadensys.

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) awarded another four contracts valued at $700,000 under the Flights and Fieldwork for the Advancement of Science and Technology (FAST) program, this time for research related to a possible future moon rover.

Last week the CSA in a separate announcement said it had awarded 31 grants totalling $6.2M as part of the FAST program.

This new FAST award is part of the CSA’s Lunar Exploration Analogue Deployment (LEAD) announcement of opportunity. The recipients of the four contracts are Western University, the University of Winnipeg and Canadensys Aerospace Corporation.

No decision has been made yet, if, when, or how a Canadian built rover might be headed to the moon, but these contracts are part of a de facto long-term strategy that’s been in place since 2009.

At that time, the Conservative government invested $110M over three years as part of their Canada’s Economic Action Plan for the CSA to develop prototype lunar and Mars rovers as well as next-generation space robotics systems and on-orbit servicing technologies.

The funding came at a time when Canada, like many other countries, was dealing with the effects of the U.S. and British financial crisis and an emerging recession. The investment was a stop-gap measure to try and spur innovation in these technologies. Of note, at the same time, the government was not buying into the CSA’s long-term planning and was in fact in the process of cutting the agencies base funding from $300M to $260M annually.

Since that time the CSA has continued to make small incremental investments in the development of these technologies with an eventual hope that a Canadian rover mission to the moon takes place.

The four contracts awarded are;

  • University of Western: CanLunar – A Canadian Lunar Sample Return Analogue Mission ($135,275).
  • University of Winnipeg: Exploring Geological Variations and ISRU Potential at the Lanzarote Lunar Analogue Site ($162,500).
  • University of Western: Field Deployment of in situ Learning Algorithms for Classifying Planetary Materials ($153,670).
  • Canadensys Aerospace Corporation: LEAD Capability Demonstration ($249,963).

The key technology contract here is the one awarded to Canadensys. The company has been quietly working on a variety of rover technologies for several years. In 2017 the company acquired technology and personnel from Ontario Drive and Gear. While the company is headquartered in Bolton, Ontario, their rover development factory is in Stratford, Ontario.

SpaceQ spoke with and exchanged email with Dr. Nadeem Ghafoor, Vice-President, Space Exploration at Canadensys on the work Canadensys has been doing with respect to rover development. He said “Canada has been preparing for the next phase of lunar exploration for over a decade, and the past ten years have seen a wide range of Canadian capabilities explored and advanced. Over the last five years, however, we’ve really been focusing in on the technologies with most enabling mission impact in the immediate term, and in particular ruggedizing modern, low-cost robotic and spacecraft technologies so that they can last for operationally useful periods and/or distances on the lunar surface. Part of this is done in the laboratory, where we validate, for example, robustness to lunar dust or the ability of systems to last the cryogenic effects of lunar night. But part of this is also operational, and field tests have always played a key role here.”

Dr. Ghafoor went on to say “we’ve been deploying medium and large systems in the field for many years, and indeed these continue to be developed for the mid-2020s. But a new breed of smaller platforms & payloads will dominate the near-term government and commercial space landscape, and these present specific challenges in delivering meaningful science and exploration services at this smaller scale. Our LEAD activities this year thus focus on the optimization of these smaller class systems for maximum utility in the next few years of the new lunar exploration era. The investigations we conduct will address key design decisions being taken in the coming months on Canada’s own micro and nano-class lunar systems, and will help ensure they can deliver maximum value in the upcoming wave of international and commercial missions.”

While Canada has verbally committed to participating in a U.S. led Lunar Gateway program, recent events in the U.S. have brought a level of uncertainty to the Lunar Gateway timeline.

The Trump administration has directed NASA to accelerate their moon plans so that American astronauts land on the moon within 5 years. NASA is currently working on a budget amendment to account for Trump’s wishes. It’s too soon to say what changes might happen with the Lunar Gateway program as the U.S. grapples with the wants of a President and the reality of the purse string holders in Congress.

For companies like Canadensys though, the whims of a President might not matter in this particular case. As Canada works with the U.S. on the Lunar Gateway, the Lunar Exploration Accelerator Program, a Canadian only program, might be in part what keeps Canadensys and other Canadian companies on track to participating in any future rover mission to the moon. And a rover mission to moon is quite possible within five years, possibly within 2-3 years. Such a mission would not be Canadian led.

A rover mission to the moon with Canadian involvement would still likely be in partnership with the U.S. The program that could facilitate such a mission is NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLIPS) program. It’s quite possible a Canadian micro or nano-class rover could hitch a ride. The CLIPS program, while a part of NASA’s overall lunar strategy, isn’t directly dependent on Lunar Gateway program funding or the humans to the surface program. It is actually intended as a precursor to these programs.

While it is possible the Canadian government could decide to take the lead on a moon rover and do such a mission on its timeline, that’s unlikely. It’s more likely that what the U.S. does, will dictate in part what Canada will do with respect to any moon missions as part of an overall international partnership.

For Canadensys and others in Canada’s space sector with lunar ambitions, patience and steady progress may eventually lead them to their goal. It is after all, a “long game”.

Canadian Space Summit 2019

About Marc Boucher

Marc Boucher
Boucher is an entrepreneur, writer, editor & publisher. He is the founder of SpaceQ Media Inc. and CEO and co-founder of SpaceRef Interactice Inc. Boucher has 20 years working in various roles in the space industry and a total of 27 years as a technology entrepreneur including creating Maple Square, Canada's first internet directory and search engine.