Humans have been exploring space for centuries. From peering into the heavens with ground-based telescopes to the last six decades of human and robotics space exploration, the cosmos continue to captivate and call us to visit.
This seventh decade of space exploration is already eclipsing the space race of the 1960s. Private companies have begun to make space flight more affordable – and 2022 will see dozens of launches from SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic.
Getting into orbit is one thing, but working there is another – and Canadian tech is continuing to lead the way. Earlier this year, the Canadian Space Agency announced its plans to send a robotic lunar rover to the moon in 2026. Brampton-based MDA, developer of the Canadarm, is conducting the initial design study and has enlisted the help of Kitchener-based Clearpath Robotics.
The Clearpath Robotics team uses its testing platforms to help MDA jumpstart research and development for the new lunar rover. Once construction starts on the rover, Clearpath’s technology will help develop the software that will drive the rover on the moon.
Clearpath President Bryan Webb said the entire team is excited to be part of the project.
“It’s Canada’s first lunar mission. The rover will drive around and explore the moon. Part of the mission is to go to the dark side of the moon, too,” Webb said.
The Canadian Space Agency is using the rover to gather samples and imagery from the dark side of the moon. Since it is tidally locked to Earth, we only ever see one side of it. Because of this alignment, the rover will need to operate autonomously since there is no way to get a signal there.
Webb said the Clearpath testing platform and developer tools are perfect for this project. MDA and Clearpath also have a long history of working together on robotics development.
“We have a long-standing working relationship with MDA on these types of projects. The Government of Canada has been awarding contracts to prepare for this mission and we have a reputation in the industry for this kind of thing. We’re the natural go-to people for this kind of work,” Webb said.
Using robots for research is part of Clearpath’s commitment to “Tech For Good.” They are also the company behind the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, an industry pledge not to use robots or robotics technology as weapons.
Webb said that being part of this project will put Clearpath in the history books — in Canada and across the world.
“It’s something our team is really proud of. We can look back and say that we were part of the Canadarm of our time,” he said.
In addition to the lunar rover project, MDA is also working on Canadarm3 for the Lunar Gateway station project. Webb said these projects are examples of the Canadian government’s push to make Canada a dominant player in the space economy.
“Canada sees how a byproduct of NASA’s space exploration has helped to create companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin that are creating a commercial market. They want Canadian companies to do that type of thing as well. Maybe not in the same way that U.S. companies are doing it, but in a Canadian way. They want Canadian companies to work on commercial applications of space technology,” Webb said.
As a robotics technology company, Webb said Clearpath is excited about the potential for more projects over the next decades.
“Mars and the moon are primarily inhabited by robots today, and I don’t think that’s going to change very quickly. Even when we do put people on Mars and the moon, either permanently or semi-permanently, they are probably going to have robots as a force multiplier because robots are naturally good at dull, dirty and dangerous jobs,” Webb said.
While the project is top of mind for the Clearpath team, Webb said they recognize the lunar rover project as a fantastic opportunity to be part of Canadian space history.
“It’s a little bit surreal. It’s like we’ve won the lottery. I think looking back, it’ll definitely be more real to us. We never dreamed of getting here, but now – wow, it’s actually happening.”