More below • Video: See a prototype moon rover in action
In a town famous for its Shakespearean offerings, engineers have turned a former luggage factory into a performance space that is out of this world.
Here, the stage consists of sand and rocks piled unevenly on a large concrete floor. A single powerful light illuminates the scene from one side, mimicking the low angle of the sun near the moon’s south pole.
With a loud electric buzz, a four-wheeled rover the size of a microwave oven trundles across the gritty surface before coming to rest. In a control room next door, Evaline Warmels looks at the images the small vehicle has sent to her computer screen and plans its next move. “We can select a speed in centimetres per second and a drive time. It’s up to us to determine how far we want to go,” says Ms. Warmels, an engineer with Canadensys, the Ontario-based company behind the prototype rover and the simulated lunar terrain used to test it.
In the coming days, the rover’s design could be selected for Canada’s first mission to roam the surface of another world. The project is part of the $150-million Lunar Exploration Accelerator Program (LEAP) that Ottawa rolled out in 2019 to support companies working on technologies for the moon.
It also reflects a broader trend. Space agencies around the world are looking to the moon as the next frontier in space. Industry contractors and private ventures are following suit. If the enthusiasm endures, the moon may be on the verge of becoming a permanent outpost, continuously occupied by robots that are operated from Earth and visited regularly by astronauts. It’s a lunar future that Canadensys would gladly help usher into reality.
“The centre of mass right now is the moon. It has very quickly become the dominant part of our business,” said Christian Sallaberger, the company’s president and chief executive officer.
A PhD engineer, Mr. Sallaberger founded Canadensys in 2013 after a stint at the Canadian Space Agency and a dozen years with MDA Ltd., the country’s largest space technology company, best known for building the Canadarm.
Now, with a relatively small but focused team (Canadensys has about 60 employees split between offices in Stratford and Bolton, Ont.), Mr. Sallaberger is doing business with a number of lunar missions that are under way globally.
Brian Gallant, chief executive officer of Space Canada, an industry association, said Canadensys is an example of how a Canadian company can realize commercial success in the space sector on the international front.
He added that the company is not alone in its lunar quest. At an industry gathering in Ottawa last month, a key takeaway was “the optimism surrounding the momentum building in lunar exploration.”
The most obvious example of that momentum is NASA’s Artemis program, which seeks to return astronauts to the moon for the first time in more than half a century. After a series of delays because of technical issues and Hurricane Ian, Artemis I is now set for a launch attempt on Nov. 14. The flight, which involves sending an uncrewed capsule around the moon and back, will be a crucial test. If all goes well, Artemis II is expected to make the same flight in 2024, this time with three astronauts aboard, including one from Canada.
But unlike the 1960s, when the United States and the Soviet Union were the only two contestants in a race to set foot on Earth’s distant satellite, the current lunar push features many players with a broader set of interests.
For Canadensys, this has translated into a busy lineup of moon-bound projects. The company is expecting to see its first pieces of lunar hardware head to space later this month in the form of cameras provided to a moon lander built by ispace, a private company based in Japan. The cameras will be used to capture key moments during the lander’s mission and provide its first images from the moon’s surface.
Meanwhile, a different lander, this one built by Intuitive Machines of Houston, is also carrying parts built by Canadensys. While that mission is not slated to launch until early next year, it is taking a more direct flight path to the moon and could arrive first.
Mr. Sallaberger said his company is also receiving orders for moon-ready hardware to be used on Earth-orbiting satellites. This reflects a desire on the part of customers to have the most robust components possible on their spacecraft.
“If you build something that will operate on the lunar surface and survive lunar night, you’re pretty much bulletproof anywhere else,” Mr. Sallaberger said.
While the moon is not the company’s sole focus, it remains central to its strategy. The chance to build Canada’s lunar rover, in particular, would be a substantial prize.
The only other competitor for the project is MDA, which earlier this year won a $295-million contract from Ottawa to design a next-generation Canadarm for the Lunar Gateway, a NASA-led station that will rely heavily on robotics and is intended to function like a flying moon base that enables and supports activities on the surface.
Canadensys has kept its eye on the lunar rover, which is a smaller piece of Canada’s overall moon effort – but one that fits with the company’s strengths. The 25-kilogram device is scheduled to launch some time in 2026, and will set down somewhere near the moon’s southern reaches, where remote sensing suggests that ice is present in areas that are hidden from sunlight.
“It’s not a huge platform but this will be a Canadian built and led mission,” said Gordon Osinski, a planetary scientist at Western University in London, Ont., who has partnered with Canadensys on its bid to achieve the country’s first foray outside of the bubble of satellites that orbit around Earth.
“I think what we’re all hoping is that this is the first of many as opposed to a one-off thing,” Dr. Osinski said.
By the time it reaches the moon, Canada’s rover will not be the only one busy prowling the lunar surface. But there is plenty of science to be done, Dr. Osinski said, and a potential for new discoveries to be made with every landing. This was underscored in September, when scientists in China reported the detection of a new mineral found in samples returned to Earth by the country’s Chang’e-5 mission.
Over the years, lunar science has sometimes suffered from a misperception that Apollo astronauts found everything there was to discover during the six moon landings that took place between 1969 and 1972. But while the Apollo samples were instrumental in establishing the moon’s origins and basic chronology, they still represent only a tiny snapshot – all of it confined to landing sites that were near the equator – of a highly varied surface geology.
Today there is more interest in the moon’s polar regions because of evidence that large, deep craters that are never illuminated by the sun act as cold traps where volatile gasses, including water vapour, form ice deposits. Water is a critical resource for future operations on the moon, both for life support and as fuel.
With its relatively small wheel base, Canada’s first rover is unlikely to be navigating down steep slopes to explore such deposits, but it may be in a position to investigate smaller permanently shadowed areas, called “micro-PSRs,” that measure tens of metres across, Dr. Osinski said.
Mr. Sallaberger said the hardest part about building hardware for such a mission is making sure it can transition from sunlight to darkness and back again.
“The cycling is what kills you,” he said, describing the problems that can arise when components with different thermal expansion properties are repeatedly subjected to the extremes of cold and heat in the airless lunar environment.
Together with other engineers at Canadensys, he has spent nearly a decade grappling with such challenges on paper and in simulations. Soon it will be time to see how the results bear up on the moon – first through the components that Canadensys has built for others and then, possibly, with its own rover design.
“Designing and building hardware and then seeing it fly to the moon is a dream come true and one of the most exhilarating experiences for a space engineer,” Mr. Sallaberger said. The only thing better, he added, is realizing that such contributions are part of a larger drama, one in which the scope of human activity “moves from being just Earth-based to encompassing the full Earth-moon system.”
Video: Watch the Canadensys lunar rover in action
Inside an industrial building in Stratford, Ont. is a small simulacrum of the lunar surface. Using sand and gravel, engineers at Canadensys test how their prototype rover handles rough terrain.
The Globe and Mail