Canada is offering to help the United States save the failing Hubble space telescope, which earlier this year looked as though it was about to become another casualty of the Columbia shuttle disaster.
Sitting at MD Robotics in Brampton, Ont., is a space-certified two-armed robot called Dextre that is ready to be launched to the international space station. MD Robotics, which also built the two Canadarms for the space shuttle and the space station, is proposing to build a clone of Dextre that could be sent to refurbish Hubble and extend its useful life until 2011.
This technology is "definitely more flight qualified" than competing robotic systems, said Paul Cooper, MDR's vice-president of business development and research and development. "It's already been designed, tested and certified by NASA. It's basically ready to go."
The Canadian Space Agency, which owns Dextre, supports MDR's bid. CSA president Marc Garneau said the agency would consider lending NASA a "hot spare," a fully functional backup, of Dextre for ground-based testing if this would speed the development of a unit to do the Hubble repairs.
However, he said, the other space-station partner countries must be consulted, since the spare, like Dextre itself, is part of Canada's official contribution to the station and must be available as a replacement once Dextre is launched.
For months, controversy has whirled around plans to upgrade Hubble. Shuttle astronauts have performed four repair missions, but new safety rules established after the space shuttle Columbia was destroyed last year (because of damage to its heat-resistant re-entry tiles) preclude them visiting the telescope for the fifth and final mission, originally set for 2006.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration announced last January that it would abandon Hubble. However, the scientific community and the public made such an outcry that the space agency reconsidered.
Last week, NASA issued an official call for proposals for a robotic system to do the repairs. Bids must be submitted by mid-July, and NASA will select a system by early September. The space agency, as well as other U.S. political and scientific groups, will spend the summer evaluating the feasibility and cost of the proposed robotic mission.
NASA has already set aside $300-million (U.S.) to attach a propulsion module to the huge telescope to control its eventual return to Earth so it won't rain debris on populated areas. A servicing robot would piggyback on this mission, which might double the cost.
Some, however, are lobbying to reinstate the shuttle repair mission. Last week, 26 former astronauts wrote in a letter to the White House that robots cannot do as good a job as humans and that a robotic mission would be a waste of time and money.
The rescue must be completed before the end of 2007, when Hubble's batteries and gyroscopes, which keep the telescope accurately pointed, are expected to fail. Mr. Cooper said this is an "unbelievably short time to get a mission of this magnitude ramped up" but the tight schedule actually gives Dextre an advantage because it is space-ready.
He added that many of the tasks required for the repair mission are "things that we have either already done or will have done before the Hubble mission."
Hubble carries two fixtures that allowed the Canadarm to grab it during previous repair missions. Repair robots could do something similar, Mr. Cooper said. Rescuing Hubble will be complex and demanding, but Mr. Cooper said MDR is convinced that Dextre is up to the job.