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One of the first images taken by NASA's Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars the evening of Aug. 5. (Associated Press)
One of the first images taken by NASA's Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars the evening of Aug. 5. (Associated Press)

TECHNOLOGY

Life on Mars: Rover landing gives boost to Canadian tech sector Add to ...

Roughly 248 million kilometres away on the dusty, barren surface of Mars, Canadian technology is thriving.

There, far from the high-profile difficulties of Research In Motion Ltd., a car-sized rover called Curiosity will soon be rolling safely through the giant Gale crater with the help of hazard-avoidance cameras carrying advanced image sensors built by Teledyne Dalsa, which is headquartered in RIM’s hometown of Waterloo, Ont.

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The point of this NASA mission is to discover whether Mars can support life. And that task will depend heavily on the Rubik’s-cube-sized Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer, which can determine the composition of rocks and dirt. The device’s construction was funded by the Canadian Space Agency and built by MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (MDA), the Canadian firm behind the Canadarm.

Although it’s not a for-profit enterprise, the mission – like other high-profile, government-funded interplanetary science projects – can help companies like MDA and Teledyne Dalsa mobilize resources for new technologies. For space-related technology in particular, an industry with high-paying jobs that has seen 40-per-cent revenue growth over the past five years, it is also an attention-getting way to show off their products’ commercial applications.

“We’re doing all we can with Earth-based imaging, and we’re starting to move under water, but certainly the sky’s the limit,” says Patrick Myles, vice-president of business development at Teledyne Dalsa in Waterloo.

“You mention ‘Mars rover,’ and people’s eyes open. It opens up doors to both commercial and government projects,“ Mr. Myles said.

The Waterloo research and development office of Teledyne Dalsa has gradually shifted from more industrial projects toward space-based ones over the past few years, Mr. Myles says, as the firm manufactures high-resolution image sensors that are loaded onto satellites. The company, which was acquired for $337-million last year by Teledyne Technologies Inc., also produces the complicated sensors for plane-mounted cameras that take the images responsible for intricate but wide-scale mapping projects such as Google Earth.

“A big part of Canada’s future is in space-related projects,” Mr. Myles says, noting that space-hardware manufacturer Com Dev International Ltd. is located nearby in Cambridge, Ont.

For MDA, which long ago acquired the company responsible for the first Canadarm and most recently spent $875-million (U.S.) to acquire the satellite manufacturing division of Loral Space and Communications Inc., space is now big business. But in 2008, the company tried to sell its space division and found itself prevented from doing so by the Canadian government, which blocked the $1.3-billion sale to U.S.-based Alliant Techsystems. The deal for Loral should give MDA a solid foothold in the U.S. market, and tilts the company further away from government contracts toward the lucrative commercial satellite industry.

Christian Sallaberger, vice-president and director of strategic development at MDA, maintains that high-profile government missions like the one to Mars are still important for generating technology that can be used in commercial applications.

“Projects such as this one serve as an excellent catalyst to develop world-leading technology which MDA intends to apply in future commercial and government programs, both in space and on the ground,” Mr. Sallaberger said.

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