As Canada pushes for its first-ever human Moon mission and lunar rover in the coming few years, a new research unit in “lunar engineering” at Polytechnique Montréal aims to boost Canadian resources and infrastructure in that field.
Canadian Space Agency (CSA) astronaut Jeremy Hansen has a seat aboard the Artemis 2 round-the-Moon mission in 2025 due to Canada’s commitment to fund robotics (specifically, Canadarm3 by MDA) for NASA Moon programs, among many other lunar-facing programs the CSA is working on. It must also be remembered that recent funded challenges in food, health and “connected modules” for deep space may be beneficial for Moon exploration as well.
Canada is an early signatory of the Artemis Accords for the NASA-led Artemis program for Moon exploration, assuring future seats for astronauts after Hansen as well. CSA’s Lunar Exploration Accelerator Program (LEAP) is funding a bundle of payloads and science that may have future opportunities to land on the Moon. Additionally, a CSA-funded rover mission by Western University would see a Canadensys machine explore the surface as early as 2026.
So Polytechnique’s new Astrolith program, co-founded by Pooneh Maghoul and Giovanni Beltrame, will dive deep into a quickly expanding lunar research field attracting government, companies and academics alike across Canada. The 18 faculty members in Astrolith so far, according to Ph.D.-track graduate student Zaid Rana, will “contribute to the development of cutting-edge technologies and training the next generation of engineers and scientists to ensure Canada’s presence in space and on the Moon,” Rana wrote on LinkedIn.
Working on the Moon has challenges akin to working in remote environments, such as Indigenous communities in the far north or isolated seniors. So the CSA stresses that the technologies it is funding to, for example, make portable and nutritious food for astronauts could easily be repurposed for Earth uses. So it’s no surprise that Polytechnique has similar aims, according to Rana: “This research unit also aims to address critical needs of our planet in climate change, resource management and sustainable development,” the post added.
According to a Polytechnique press release announcing Astrolith, three major objectives are planned: supporting “exploitation of cislunar and space resources,” focusing on “economic and environmental aspects of space technology,” and creating “knowledge in the space sector” by training graduate students, for example.
“The research unit’s founding members are already involved in developing technologies in various areas related to space and extreme environments,” the press release added. Examples include “design of resilient habitats and infrastructure for remote regions, to deployment of cislunar communications technologies, to development of advanced robotics systems for prospecting and mining, among many others. Their work is bolstered by contributions from specialists in life-cycle analysis, sustainable development and space-related policy development.”
The research unit is also seeking deep relationships to government programs, as it is attempting to align itself with Canada’s most recent space strategy along with action items in our country’s critical minerals strategy and small modular reactor action plan.
“Research objectives will include supporting the goals of Canada and the Canadian Space Agency in advancing knowledge relative to exploration of the Moon and cislunar space, … propelling Canada as a world leader in the lunar and space industries (and) envisioning major projects with international partners,” the release added.
Beltrame will head the unit; he is a full professor at Polytechnique in computer engineering and software engineering and used to be a microelectronics engineer with the European Space Agency. The other co-founder, Maghoul, an associate professor in civil, geological and mining engineering. You can read more about the participating research team at Polytechnique in the news release, and more about the organization on their website.
Astrolith is also backed by an advisory team with many names well-known in the Canadian space community: Gilles Leclerc of Canadensys (formerly a long-time senior manager at CSA); Marie-Josée Potvin, who manages engineer development at CSA; Bob Anderson, group supervisor of geophysics and planetary geosciences at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory; Myriam Lemelin, a veteran of numerous lunar missions and assistant professor at Université de Sherbrooke; and industry representation from AECOM and MDA.