Western University is readying to deploy a vision system for future rover missions on the moon, building on to rover technology the Canadian Space Agency has been supporting for at least two decades.
The university’s $690,000 contract (one of seven awarded by CSA this week) calls for a concept study and developing an Integrated Vision System, using multi-wavelength LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) and a multispectral imager, which will be placed on a rover roaming the moon’s surface.
“The LIDAR is a very complementary imaging system to the multispectral cameras. It is something that we have been using for several years in analogue environments to collect science data,” said Gordon Osinski, director of Western’s Institute for Earth and Space Exploration, in an e-mail to SpaceQ.
In 2010, Ozinski led a paper in Planetary and Space Science proposing that lidar could be used for planetary exploration missions, which contradicted the thinking of the time, he said. Up until that point, LIDAR was envisioned as a tool for rover guidance and navigation.
“LIDAR has the benefit to regular cameras in being an active imaging instrument, which means it can image in the dark,” Osinski explained. “This will be important for imaging shadowed and permanently shadowed regions of the moon, where water ice has been proposed to exist.”
The Western initiative was one of several contracts announced by CSA on Tuesday (Feb. 27) in support of its Lunar Exploration Accelerator Program (LEAP), a $150 million initiative with the goal of bringing Canadian companies to the moon alongside NASA’s lunar push. The new contracts range between 20 and 24 months each, CSA said.
NASA has a goal of landing astronauts on the moon again by 2024, and then adapting the spacesuits, robots, landers and other technologies for future missions to Mars in the mid-2030s. Canada joined NASA’s Gateway lunar space station program a year ago by pledging to build a Canadarm3, equipped with artificial intelligence, to service Gateway.
The Gateway commitment will allow Canada to continue receiving space on human missions for astronauts and experiments, as it has for decades by providing hardware and services to NASA under the Canadarm, Canadarm2 and Dextre robotic programs.
The companies participating in the LEAP program (which was announced at the same time as the Canadian Gateway participation, in February 2019) may have the chance to land on the moon under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, which is tasking private companies with developing landers and robotics for exploration, CSA said in an interview.
CSA’s director of space exploration development, Erick Dupuis, recalled that he led a group that started a rover program at the agency roughly 20 years ago, to further develop the robotic expertise Canada had in robotic arms. Then a decade ago (in 2009), the CSA received stimulus funding to develop a fleet of rover prototypes. Dupuis said the prototype rovers from the 2009 funding cycle were “brought to a high level of maturity”, including testing with lunar soil, in lunar temperatures, in vacuum conditions. This work has paid off in at least a couple of concrete ways, Dupuis added.
The first is this set of contracts, which include several technologies – such as Western’s – that could deploy on a rover with CSA technology. (A full list of the CSA contracts is at the end of this story.)
The second payback was the selection of Canadian company MDA to provide a part of the locomotion subsystem for the European ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover, which should launch to Mars later this year.
“All of these investments in rover technology have actually prepared us for where we are today,” Dupuis said. “We want to take the extra step. We want to take what we have, and really bring it moon-ready, and launch it.”
Dupuis said that all seven selected LEAP contracts were attractive, because of their potential for use in future space missions. What CSA liked about Western, however, was the possibility of integrating rover operations and science in a single payload.
While Dupuis cautioned he does not have all the details of the Western lidar operations, he said it is possible to do multiple types of science investigations using the same sensors. One could combine functions such as navigation, finding rock chemical composition (like the NASA Curiosity rover’s ChemCam instrument), or examining the mineralogical composition of rocks surrounding the rover’s location.
“When you overlay all this information on top of each other, eventually you end up with a 3-D model that tells you where everything is in the environment,” Dupuis said. “So if you are [using] a rover on another planet, you look around, you see something that is really interesting from a chemical perspective, and you’ll be able to plan a path to get you to it.”
The goal of Western’s LIDAR will be to provide information about the lunar surface, and to help astronauts select which samples could be returned to Earth – where there are more tools available in laboratories for analysis than on the moon, according to press materials supplied by Western.
The multispectral LIDAR will be especially useful for the moon because it can work in all lighting conditions, including permanently shadowed zones where water could lurk. The multispectral imager and LIDAR working together could provide several applications for the mission, including navigation, guidance, control and science applications. The Integrated Vision System includes participation from MDA.
“This is a huge win for us, and for the Institute for Earth and Space Exploration. One of our major goals is to launch Western in to space. We’re working on high altitude balloons [and] CubeSats, and these larger instrument payload contributions are the next level up,” Ozinski said.
“We have 18 months for this contract, so we’ll need to hit the ground running. First up, the kick-off meeting with the CSA. Then we have to refine the concept for the LIDAR, and multispectral imagers.”