An artist's concept of Canadarm3, Canada's smart robotic system, located on the exterior of the Gateway, a small space station in orbit around the Moon. (Canadian Space Agency, NASA)

Canada is all-in on the next lunar leap

Canadian Space Agency announces another round of LEAP projects awarded a total of almost $3 million

Canada has taken another step in lunar sciences, awarding nearly $3 million to foster development of six projects as part of the Lunar Exploration Accelerator Program (LEAP).

In a press release November 27, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) announced it had awarded the contracts following a summer request for proposals for the development of potential Canadian lunar science instruments.

According to the CSA, LEAP’s $150-million, five-year budget will “support technology development, in-space demonstration and science missions.” Focused on innovation, the program’s goal is to “help Canadian companies become an integral part of the growing new-space economy.”

CSA director in space exploration development Erick Dupuis told SkyNews that among many research topics, Canada’s space science community showed interest in studying the Moon’s geological record and whether there is enough water ice on the Moon to sustain human presence.

“More than 50 years ago, the Apollo missions opened the doors to many science discoveries,” he said. “We are now entering a new era in which we will visit different locations on the Moon, generating new science breakthroughs.”

LEAP awarded other contracts in 2020 to businesses and universities, including one to Magellan Aerospace to develop inexpensive impactors that would blow out below-surface lunar material to allow for easier characterization and possible in-situ resource usage. The agency is also looking for proposals to develop a mini-rover that could fly as soon as early next year, and has already earmarked money for this goal.

The latest projects

Two of the six new contracts have gone to post-secondary institutions. The University of Winnipeg will develop a lunar Raman spectrometer, while the University of Alberta will work on the Lunar Lander Sweeping Energetic Particle Telescope.

Mission Control Space Services — a space exploration and robotics company based in Ottawa, Ontario — will pioneer a project called Intelligent Sensing and Perception in Infrared (I-SPI), while MDA is set to develop an X-ray spectrometer. Canadensys Aerospace Corporation received two awards, one for studying the feasibility of lunar agriculture and another to help with studying ice and regolith.

Edward Cloutis is a professor of geography and director of the planetary spectrophotometer facility at the University of Winnipeg. Working with York University and a team of more than a dozen students, Cloutis is leading an effort called “LunaR,” which will adapt existing technology for a prototype Raman spectrometer for lunar surface exploration. A Raman spectrometer measures how samples scatter radiation in order to determine the sample’s composition, and it has to be deployed near the surface it is analyzing. While there is one on the Mars Perseverance rover, a Raman spectrometer has never been used on the Moon.

“We could fly the first or second one,” Cloutis said, adding that it will be compact enough for small rovers.

University of Alberta physics professor Ian Mann, a LEAP-awardee, said Canadian participation in the international space exploration roadmap is focused on a return to the Moon. He said their study focuses on the deployment of a Canadian radiation telescope on a lunar lander, one that could operate on the Lunar Gateway or other future planetary space exploration missions.

Mann said radiation is “one of the largest risks for future human space exploration.”

“Direct exposure to intense space radiation and additional secondary radiation impacts inside spacecraft and habitats, requires new measurements in deep space,” he said. “The flight of our radiation telescope will ensure Canada plays a key role in understanding space radiation and mitigating the risks for future exploration of deep space at the Moon, Mars and beyond.”

Kaizad Raimalwala is Mission Control Space Services’ manager of product and business development. He said thermal infrared cameras, like I-SPI, are incredibly versatile instruments.

“Beyond its primary design purpose to identify water ice in lunar cold traps, I-SPI can offer night vision useful for rover navigation, and it can also be useful for planetary remote sensing and spacecraft/Gateway health monitoring,” he said.

“I-SPI represents a paradigm shift in instrument development, with AI technologies integrated to enable autonomous decision-making,” added Melissa Battler, Mission Control chief science officer and I-SPI science team lead. “This will be very useful for maximizing science return in highly constrained lunar missions.”

University of Guelph associate professor Ralf Gellert, working with MDA, said their LEAP grant will help researchers “tweak and update” an X-ray spectrometer like those used on Mars missions “to get specific lunar geology information on upcoming Moon and possible other space mission to asteroids or planets.”

Canadensys’ vice-president of space exploration Nadeem Ghafoor emphasized that the company’s focus on projects like regolith and ice characterization and planning for sustainable, nutritious lunar agriculture is “preparatory.” He praised LEAP as an important catalyst in Canadian science and engineering for lunar exploration and development over the next few years, which he said would “get crazy exciting.

“It really fosters the expansion of the Canadian space sector,” Ghafoor said.

Christopher Cokinos is co-editor, with Julie Swarstad Johnson, of Beyond Earth’s Edge: The Poetry of Spaceflight, just out from the University of Arizona Press. His astronomical articles, essays and poems have appeared in such venues as Scientific American and the Los Angeles Times. He’s working on a book about the Moon and divides his time between northern Utah and Tucson, with telescopes in each locale.