By IVAN SEMENIUK
Friday, July 12, 2019
Next month, Christy Caudill, a doctoral student at the University of Western Ontario, will be playing the part of a robot as she picks her way across a rock-strewn terrain of hardened and broken lava. She and her team will carry a set of scientific instruments built to examine the geology of another world. At the same time, in a mission control room in London, Ont., other colleagues will study the images and data streaming in from those instruments, as though they are receiving them from the Schrodinger basin, a 320 kilometre wide impact crater on the far side of the moon that has attracted the attention of planetary scientists because of its intriguing volcanic features.
For two weeks, both sides of the exercise will be immersed in a simulation called CanMoon, designed to test procedures for operating a Canadian-built lunar rover. Only after a 10 hour shift each day will Ms. Caudill and her colleagues allow themselves to remember that they are on Lanzarote, one of the Canary Islands, which features some of the same rock types as the rover's potential landing site.
"It's all about gaining insight into how people think when they're seeing through the rover's eyes and to really discern what's going on as they try to meet their mission goals," said Ms. Caudill, a veteran of several previous simulations. "As far as I'm concerned, we won't be on Lanzarote, we'll be on the moon."
That sense of actuality reflects the moon's recent return to prominence as a destination for space explorers, almost 50 years after Neil Armstrong and Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin stepped and hopped across its surface.
For Ms. Caudill, who has participated in real-life robotic missions to Mars, there is a certain wistfulness in this. As a scientist, Mars is undeniably her destination of choice, she said. But human missions to Mars remain a distant goal fraught with unsolved challenges, including what to do about the heavy doses of radiation astronauts will be exposed to during a long interplanetary flight.
The moon has the advantage of being Earth's celestial companion. While it is still a thousand times farther than the International Space Station (ISS), it presents more manageable risks for humans and a genuine business case for entrepreneurs looking for a stake in the next phase of space exploration.
Already this year there is a sense of acceleration toward the moon. In January, China became the first country to place an unmanned lander on the moon's far side, another step toward its own manned mission. In June, India launched its first lunar lander. And in April, SpaceIL, an Israeli non-profit, narrowly missed becoming the first privately funded organization to successfully place a spacecraft on the moon's surface. All of this suggests that after years of uncertainty about where deep-space exploration is heading, the extraterrestrial compass needle is swinging back toward Earth's nearest neighbour. And unlike what happened after the Apollo program ended, the politics, economics and technology of space are lining up for something more permanent.
"The way in which it continues to be discussed is that we're not going to go back to visit, we're going to stay this time," said Mike Greenley, president of MDA, which built and supports the Canadarm 2 aboard the ISS.
MDA is now part of Coloradobased Maxar Technologies, the company recently tapped by NASA to supply the first component of a smaller orbiting space station called the Lunar Gateway.
In February, Canada became the first country to commit to the Gateway as an international partner. MDA is a leading contender to build Canada's contribution: a more autonomous, artificial-intelligence-guided version of the arm that currently appears on the back of the $5 bill.
But while the Gateway - like the ISS before it - is expected to grow gradually through international agreements between national space agencies, the real catalysts in the new push toward the moon are the increasing ranks of private companies looking to do it for themselves. "As the Earth's economic sphere grows, people are realizing the moon is an asset," said Christian Sallaberger, president and chief executive of Canadensys Aerospace, a space-technology company based in Bolton, Ont., that has seen moon-related projects taking up a growing share of its business.
LESSONS LEARNED Poets and engineers alike have reflected on the enduring allure of the moon. Once a metaphor for the unattainable, it became an ever-present focus in the early days of space flight, as the United States and the Soviet Union vied to be the first to land humans on the lunar surface. So intense was the race that it's hard to imagine how the first chapter of space exploration would have unfolded had fate not provided Earthlings with such a visible and tantalizing prize.
As the U.S. Apollo program wound down after six manned landings from 1969 to 1972, NASA moved on to the space shuttle and then the ISS. The new theatre of operation was low Earth orbit, and the new paradigm was all about making space routine accessible to many more individuals from many more countries, including Canada. Over the years, this second chapter of space history had its share of tragedies and setbacks. Yet, its outcomes have included almost two decades of continuous human presence in orbit, along with some key lessons about how the next chapter is likely to unfold.
The first lesson is about the importance of robots. This comes courtesy of the Canadarm 2, which has become indispensable to operations on the ISS. When the arm was still on the drawing board in the 1990s, some were skeptical that it would be of much use after the station was complete. Now, it seems to be used for almost everything, including catching visiting spacecraft. According to MDA, the past three-month period has been among the busiest in the Canadarm's history.
"We've learned a lot of things operating a robot on the station for the past 18 years," said Gilles Leclerc, director-general of space exploration for the Canadian Space Agency.
Canada's track record with the arm has set the stage for its contribution to the Lunar Gateway.
But the second lesson to come from the space-station era, the expanding role of the private sector as an accelerator of space exploration, is having an even
larger impact. The trend began in 2006, when NASA, already looking to decommission its fleet of space shuttles after two disastrous accidents, began inviting industry players to take over the job of ferrying supplies to the ISS.
This opened the door to a new cadre of space service companies, including Elon Musk's SpaceX.
Using the same blueprint, NASA recently awarded contracts to three companies to carry scientific payloads to the moon in the next two years. One of them, Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic Technology, has also inked an agreement with Canadensys to send some of the Ontario company's gear to the lunar surface. The developments are a further sign that the envelope of commercial activity in space is expanding and that entrepreneurs are getting serious about developing their lunar strategies.
DOUBLE VISIONS Canada's decision to join the Lunar Gateway project came after months of lobbying from the industry as well as from NASA chief administrator Jim Bridenstine. Yet, within weeks of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announcing the commitment, the White House appeared to upend the entire plan by declaring that it wanted American astronauts walking on the lunar surface again by 2024 - the final year of what would be U.S. President Donald Trump's second term.
The announcement caught even NASA by surprise and it raised questions in Canada about whether the Gateway had effectively been sidelined by politics.
Last month, NASA unveiled a retooled moon program to follow through on the Trump directive.
Symbolically dubbed "Artemis" - the twin sister of Apollo in Greek mythology - the plan explicitly includes landing the first woman on the moon as part of its inaugural crew. The news immediately attracted more attention than the Gateway, which is designed to operate for long stretches without any human presence.
Despite this split objective, Mr.
Leclerc said the message from NASA is that Canada's contribution to the Gateway is still needed by its originally planned 2025 delivery date - and sooner if possible. One reason is that it still requires a significant amount of energy to fly straight to the lunar surface and back. In such a mission scenario, even the fuel for the return trip has to be brought down to the landing site and lifted back up again. Apollo missions got around this by sending a combined lander and an orbiter to the moon. For Artemis, the plan includes docking with the Gateway as the transfer point for astronauts en route to a lunar landing.
There are serious questions about whether NASA can make the 2024 deadline for its U.S.-only lunar landing. For one thing, the lander itself has not yet been designed and tested. And it is easy to imagine how budget battles with Congress or a change in administration could delay the plan.
The Gateway also has its detractors, but proponents say that if the overarching goal of the lunar program is establishing a long-term presence beyond low Earth orbit, then an orbiting platform that can serve as a test bed for deep-space missions is the way to go. That perception is reinforced by expectations that Europe, Japan and Russia will join the United States and Canada as partners in the Gateway, which would make the project harder to kill.
"History has shown that international collaboration fosters a more persistent activity," MDA's Mr. Greenley said.
WHEELS ON THE GROUND At the same time, businesses that are looking to the moon as an economic opportunity are not waiting for the Gateway to be built and are not thinking only of lunar orbit. For example, next month, Canadensys will begin road-testing a wheel designed for a lunar rover. The test involves hours of rolling the wheel on a turntable covered with simulated lunar soil. Similar projects are under way by aerospace companies looking to develop moonready hardware, including cameras, sensors and drills.
To boost Canada's presence in the expanding moon market and its technological spinoffs, this year's federal budget included a $150-million injection dubbed the Lunar Exploration Accelerator Program (LEAP). In the first stage of the program, Mr. Leclerc said that as of last month, the space agency had received more than a hundred pitches from various companies and collaborations, of which a smaller number will be invited to submit formal proposals.
Scientists, too, are anticipating new opportunities for lunar exploration. While the moon is not Mars, it is full of mysteries that have lingered since the Apollo era. Over the years, researchers have developed long lists of possible landing sites they would like to explore - with both robotic and manned spacecraft. The missions would combine two research goals: studying the moon's long-preserved geologic record for clues to the deep history of Earth and the rest of the solar system; and sussing out resources that could be valuable to an expanding lunar community, including ice near the moon's poles and gases such as hydrogen and oxygen, which could be trapped in minerals and used for energy and life support.
This is why next month's CanMoon simulation in Lanzarote, run jointly by Western and the University of Winnipeg, was designed with a specific mission opportunity in mind. That mission, known as Heracles, would be a combined European, Japanese and Canadian effort to put a small lander with a rover on the moon in the coming decade, once the Gateway is in place.
For Cassandra Marion, a PhD student at Western who is managing the simulation, the exercise is not just about developing technologies and procedures, but above all about producing a cohort of Canadian-trained scientists who are qualified to run lunar missions.
Whether those missions are done in partnership with other countries or as private ventures, she said, "we'll have people to donate to the cause." Join science reporter Ivan Semeniuk and a panel of experts for a live discussion about Canada's future on the moon, this coming Monday at 7 p.m. (ET) at The Globe and Mail Centre in Toronto (free for subscribers). Register at tgam.ca/experiences.
Top: This lander model will be part of a joint European, Japanese and Canadian robotic mission, Heracles, going to the moon in the next decade.
Tuesday, July 16, 2019
A Friday news feature on the moon landing incorrectly said India's first lunar lander was launched in June.