An Overview of the Canadian Space Agency Exploration Core Program

By Marc Boucher
October 20, 2010
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Jean-Claude Piedboeuf Head of Exploration Planning at the Canadian Space Agency

At the recent 61st International Astronautical Congress in Prague, Jean-Claude Piedboeuf, Head of Exploration Planning at the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), provided an overview of Canada’s preparatory exploration activities. While Canada has been involved in exploration activities for 25 years with its contributions in robotics, science and astronaut core, it wasn’t until 2007 that the CSA created the Exploration Core Program to unify the activities within the agency.

The Exploration Core Program was conceived to better prepare Canada for future space exploration activities which could see more International collaboration than the past taking into account shared exploration goals. Canada having established itself over the years as a reliable, stable partner providing expertise in a few critical and highly visible areas such as robotics exemplified by the Canadarm program, cast itself as the small agency that has “niche” expertise. With a small budget, but with some highly visible activities, the buzzword “niche” became the mantra of the CSA when defining what Canada could bring to, what at the moment, appears to be a more international collaborative approach to space exploration in the future.

This is reflected in the release in May of 2007 of the document, “The Global Exploration Strategy (GES): The Framework for Coordination” by 14 space agencies representing their countries including in alphabetical order: Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, Russia, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United States and the European Space Agency.

According to the Global Exploration Strategy “The Framework for Coordination presents a vision for robotic and human space exploration, focussing on destinations within the solar system where we may one day live and work. It elaborates an action plan to share the strategies and efforts of individual nations so that all can achieve their exploration goals more effectively and safely.

While the Global Exploration Strategy promotes coordination of space exploration activities among the participating nations, it is not a space program. Each nation has its own strategic space exploration goals, programs and cooperates as much as it wants. Russia, China and India for instance have participated only a little so far in the Global Exploration Strategy. The United States meanwhile, under the leadership of former NASA administrator Michael Griffin was not a strong advocate of the Global Exploration Strategy until the Obama administration came to power.

As result of the new Global Exploration Strategy, the International Space Exploration Coordination Group (ISECG) was created in November of 2007. The group, made up of representatives from each space agency who wish to participate, meets on average every 8 months. The meetings provide agency representatives the opportunity to exchange information regarding their current interests and activities in space exploration and to work together to strengthen both individual exploration programs as well as the collective effort.

The Canadian Space Agency sees the Global Exploration Strategy and its participation in the ISECG as an important component of its emerging exploration plan known as the Strategic Exploration Plan which forms the basis of the Exploration Core Program.

The Exploration Core Program was originally funded at a very modest level of around $15 million per year according to Piedboeuf but received a significant boost in money when the government allocated $110 million to the Canadian Space Agency in economic stimulus funds over three years in the 2009 budget. This allowed the new program to fund an initial 40 to 50 activities according Piedboeuf.

It is important to note that the CSA Exploration Core Program has strong roots in the “The Global Exploration Strategy (GES): The Framework for Coordination” document. The document states that “With increasing intent and determination, we are resolved to explore our nearest companions – the Moon, Mars and some nearby asteroids. Our goal is not a few quick visits, but rather a sustained and ultimately self-sufficient human presence beyond Earth supported by robotic pathfinders.” So as the CSA follows the framework with Canada’s “niche” expertise in mind, the goal is for Canada to contribute to International missions to the Moon, Lagrange points, asteroids, Mars and its moons as described in the framework document. As well the CSA sees more work for Canadians at the International Space Station, space robotic servicing and participating in more space astronomy exploration. This context is important as you follow the path the CSA has laid down as the Exploration Core Program has evolved.

Niche expertise areas Canada wishes to contribute include:

– Advanced rovers and autonomous electric vehicles.

– Excavation and drilling technologies for science and in-situ resource utilization.

– Active vision systems for orbital and landing operations, surface navigation, and science.

– Robotic manipulators and advanced tools.

– Communication technologies to facilitate the operation of equipment on planetary surfaces.

– Life support technologies for long-duration human spaceflight.

– Crew medical systems to maintain the health and well-being of astronauts on long-duration

– Science instruments in areas of Canadian expertise such as planetary science,
life science and astronomy.

– Ground control and support for human spaceflights.

The Exploration Core Program Activities

The Exploration Core Program engages in three types of activities: Requirements development, prototyping and deployment and building and maintaining operational infrastructure required to support prototype integration and deployment.


The first step in developing the Exploration Core Program was the requirements development whereby the CSA did a a data analysis of past and current missions including the development activity of other space agencies which resulted in requirements for possible future missions, systems or sub-systems. The CSA identified six technology fields that would play a key role in future exploration missions. They are; surface mobility systems, in-situ resource utilization systems, manipulators and tools, vision and sensing systems, communication systems, and operations centres.

Having identified key technology areas in the requirements phase the CSA then completed 18 preliminary concept studies in 2008 and then nine advanced concept studies between December 2008 and January 2009. These studies included:

– Moon Mobility System: Canadian Contribution to Human Lunar Missions.
– Extraction Vehicle for In-Situ Resource Utilization.
– Vision Systems for Mars Sample Return.
– MEMS LIDAR for JAXA Selene-2 Mission.
– A Canadian Science Lander for the International Lunar Network.
– Robotic Orion/Orbital Service Module.
– Lunar Origins and Resource Explorer using spectrometers and a micro-imager.
Hyperspectral and Luminescence Observer for Mars.
– A Solar Occultation Spectrometer for a Mars Science Orbiter.

It should be noted, of the nine advanced concept studies, the last one, a Solar Occupation Spectrometer for a Mars Science Orbiter has been selected as a Canadian contribution to the MATMOS instrument for the joint ESA-NASA ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter scheduled for launch in 2016. Additionally the CSA awarded two advanced concepts studies in early 2010 to study active vision systems as a possible contribution to a Russian lunar rover.

Following the initial requirements development the CSA then began early prototyping in selected key technology areas. In the fall of 2008 five contracts were awarded. Two of the contracts focused on developing a navigation system for rovers that had a human driver or without. The contracts were the Rover Operator Situational Awareness Navigation Aid to support astronauts, and Autonomous, Intelligent and Robust Guidance Navigation and Control for Next Generation Planetary Rovers for advanced autonomy.
A third contract was to develop a ruggedized breadboard (prototype) version of the European Space Agency ExoMars rover and was developed by MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd (MDA) to be used in terrestrial analogue missions starting this fall. The final two contracts targeted in-situ resource utilization and tested in an analogue mission deployment and are the; In Situ Resource Mobility Platforms, and In Situ Resource Utilization Operational Capabilities.

The CSA ExoMars prototype.

The Government Stimulus Money

In 2009 the federal government provided a $110 million in stimulus money to the CSA which was allocated to two projects within the Exploration Core Program, Exploration Surface Mobility (ESM) and the Next Generation Canadarm. The money invested into these two projects was designed to accelerate development of already identified key technologies.

The money invested in the Exploration Surface Mobility project allowed the CSA to significantly ramp up their efforts in building rover prototypes including targeted sub-systems. Two rovers prototypes were identified for development, the Lunar Exploration Light Rover (LELR), of which two models are being built and the the Mars Exploration Science Rover (MESR).

The two lunar rovers primary focus is on In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU). The rovers are tele-operated and semi-automous but should be also be designed for future upgrades that would include unpressurized crew transportation for two astronauts. The Mars rover is to be designed for science operations and to collect samples tele-operated and semi-automous.

Sub-systems technology being developed includes;

– A standardized command and communication solution for all ESM systems. This system will become the standard interface for all Exploration Core systems.

– Three dimensional exploration multispectral microscope to be mounted on a manipulator.

– A mini-corer system as a payload for a manipulator.

– Next generation communication tools for a lunar local area network.

– Next generation rover advanced power system.

– Small manipulator arm including visual serving.

– Two micro-rovers as scouting platforms.

– Two advanced vision systems combining active and passive vision to be used for rover navigation and scientific investigations.

– A multi-purpose medium arm manipulator that can be used to manipulate large and small payloads or for ISRU type activities.

The Next Generation Canadarm project builds on a heritage that has gained Canada international recognition for our expertise in robotics. Being a very visible technology used first on the Space Shuttles with the Canadarm-1 and then the International Space Station with the Mobile Servicing System which consist of a mobile platform, the Canadarm-2 and the Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator (Dextre), it makes sense to continue development in this field.

The Next Generation Canadarm is eventually seen as a robotic system that will be used in Earth, Lunar or Martian orbit to service space exploration spacecraft or satellites. Currently MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (MDA) began work in 2009 on building ground prototypes that will be used to verify concepts, designs and demonstrate to potential partners the capabilities being developed to perform on-orbit servicing. The initial project should be completed by mid-2012.

The Next Generation Canadarm testbeds.

Exploration Core Infrastructure

After determining the requirements for the Exploration Core Program and while starting the prototyping the CSA also started to build its infrastructure base for the program. Based on the requirements the CSA determined it needed to develop and support analogue sites that reproduce planetary exploration conditions, develop and support CSA laboratories for integration and initial testing and develop and support a CSA operations centre that will allow the command and control of the various prototypes in conditions similar to real planetary exploration scenarios.

Having decided that it needed to develop and support analogue sites the CSA needed to identify sites within Canada. Ongoing research in several sites across Canada made the task of identify sites much easier. In the high-arctic researchers from McGill University have been going to Axel Heiberg Island for 51 years and the Haughton Crater on Devon Island is the home of the Haughton-Mars Project and other researchers. They along with Pavilion Lake in British Columbia became natural selections. Recently the Mistastin Crater in Labrador has also been identified as possible analogue deployment site.

Following up after the Hawaii deployment and with respect to analogue sites the CSA is issuing four contracts for terrestrial analogue mission deployments and the development of science instruments:

– Impact and Ice – Lunar Sample Return for the moons South Pole Aitken Basin to investigate impact craters.

– An Analogue Mission to Discover the Genesis of Methane on Mars – Investigation of methane seep on Axel Heiberg Island using a rover.

– Mars Methane Mission – Using a micro-rover for atmospheric studies of methane, water and carbon dioxide.

– Mars Analogue Research – Signature of life in freshwater environment to advance understanding of search for life on Mars.

Aside from the terrestrial analogue sites the CSA identified, they also built a Mars analogue yard at the CSA headquarters in Saint-Hubert, just south of Montreal. Recently the yard has seen a large expansion and a section has been created to reproduce lunar terrain characteristics. The yard is used to test different prototype rovers. The CSA is also planning to convert a building near the yard into an integration and testing laboratory for the rover prototypes.

In 2008 the CSA started developing a dedicated Exploration Development and Operations Centre (ExDOC) to support their terrestrial analogue missions. This is in essence Mission Control for all its analogue missions. As well the CSA is building a mobile control centre that can be deployed anywhere including areas where the public can participate and view the ongoing activities.

ExDOC in use for the February, 2010 Hawaii deployment.

Rover Prototype Field Deployments

The CSA has participated in several deployments of some of their prototype rovers. Most notably the February CSA-led deployment performed jointly with the NASA RESOLVE (Regolith and Environment Science and Oxygen and Lunar Volatile Extraction) Team in Hawaii where the two agencies successfully collaborated and complemented each other. This deployment was coordinated and controlled using ExDOC.

The deployment was used to demonstrate the In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) mobility platform and autonomous cooperative ISRU activities including landing pad site surveying and selection, verification and construction involving the developed mobility chassis, payloads, sensor suites, control architecture and vision system (TriDAR). The TRiDAR is an active vision system combining a thermal imager, a Lidar (Light detection and ranging) and a triangulation system. The TriDAR was flown on STS-128 and STS-131 successfully demonstrating rendezvous with the International Space Station. The CSA now has six medium-sized prototype rovers, named JUNO, as a result of this activity. All are being upgraded for future Exploration Surface Mobility deployments.

The CSA also has scheduled this fall a smaller deployment where the ExoMars breadboard rover is to be tested with some integrated sub-systems. By next March all completed sub-systems technology developments will be integrated on the JUNO and ExoMars prototype rovers for initial tests at the CSA’s new integration site. Two other deployments are also in the planning stages. In mid-2012 the CSA will once again perform a deployment centered on ISRU technologies integrated in the rovers. This deployment could once again be in Hawaii and discussion about a joint deployment are underway with NASA. The other scheduled deployment, the largest to date using all the rovers would happen in the summer of 2013.

The CSA prototype rovers in use in Hawaii.

The Future

The stimulus money provided by the government has indeed accelerated the pace of the CSA’s Exploration Core Program and there is no question its stakeholders have benefited. The government also hopes that the money spent on technology development will encourage more Canadians to choose careers in engineering, science and technology. It hopes that this will build on Canada’s reputation as a reliable partner. It hopes it will attract more talent to Canada. The benefits to Canadian will hopefully include spin-offs that improve our quality of life.

But what of the future? Once the stimulus money is gone the CSA budget, which is at a high right now of $390.8 million for 2010-2011, is projected to drop to $312.7 million for 2012-2013 as outlined in this years Report on Plans and Priorities 2010-2011. The stimulus money provided a three year infusion to the program. Is it enough to sustain the technology developments made? And more importantly will the technologies be used?

The CSA has positioned itself well, it appears, to play an important and visible, albeit small role, in potential future international exploration missions. However there is there is no guarantee that technology developed by Canada will be used on International missions. While the Global Exploration Strategy is a commendable initiative, it is strictly voluntary and is susceptible to individual nations programs changing. NASA, the leader in space exploration, is at the whim of the President and Congress. When administrations change, policy changes. While the U.S. administration is currently in favour of international cooperation, there’s is no guarantee it will remain that way. One factor in Canada’s favour right now is that U.S. economy is hurting and that has made the policy of having more international partners contribute to missions more likely as funding is tight.

Next March the CSA will have completed its Strategic Exploration Plan which outlines the future of the Exploration Core Program. The plan will be submitted to the government for review and it’s up to the government to decide if this is the plan it wishes to follow. It is also up to the government to decide if it wishes to release the plan to the public.

The strategy pursued by the Canadian Space Agency is risky, but what choice does it have? The CSA does not have a budget that would allow it to do full missions on its own. Therefore it has no choice but to partner with other agencies. The good news though, is that the technologies under development by the CSA and it’s industry partners will be needed whatever the near-term destinations are. This in effect allows Canada to be at the table should opportunities arise, which they should.

SpaceRef co-founder, entrepreneur, writer, podcaster, nature lover and deep thinker.