Monday, December 05, 2011

Canadian Space Rovers on the Chopping Block

According to the December 2011 Space Quarterly article "Canada's Fledging Rover Program Is Facing A Rocky Future," the space rovers being constructed under contract to the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) by Kanata, Ontario based Neptec Design Group and BC based MacDonald Dettwiler (MDA), utilizing a variety of subcontractors and partners such as Quebec based MPB Communications, are facing a hard deadline of March 31, 2012 when everything is supposed to be finished.

After that, the CSA funding ceases. The projects are then expected to wind down as the project teams are laid off or reassigned.



This is because the rovers presently have no mission or any real expectation of finding one before the deadline is reached. The article quotes Neptec President Ian Christie as stating:
Neptec has spent time, money and much effort developing an expertise in rover exploration – all finite resources for which the company seeks a return. Now, it is at risk of letting rover employees go or reassigning them after the funding ends, losing the expertise the technicians built up during the last two years.
Three CSA contracts awarded to Toronto based Engineering Services Inc. (ESI) in 2010 to develop robotic arms, control stations and exploration tools for integration into terrestrial prototypes of lunar or martian rovers (as described in my October 25th, 2010 post "Overnight Success Plus IP Rights") also have no follow-on programs and are likely to wind down at the same time.

Which all sounds really sad.

However, as explained most recently in my April 9th, 2011 edition of "This Week in Space for Canada," the CSA rover contracts were always intended simply to "position" Canada in such a way that if Canada's space exploration partners ever get around to agreeing on a rover mission to the Moon (or Mars), then Canada could potentially contribute.

Of course, that positioning seems not to have worked in this case and so the program is winding down.


It's worth noting that multiple martian rovers have been developed and (usually) successfully deployed by a variety of international players over the last forty years, so the technology can hardly be considered cutting edge. These include:
  • The unsuccessful 1971 Soviet Union Mars 2 and Mars 3 missions, which both utilized a Prop-M rover. Mars 2 crashed into the Martian surface and Mars 3 failed less than a minute after landing.
  • The Sojourner rover, aboard the Mars Pathfinder mission, which landed successfully on July 4th, 1997 and functioned until September 27th, 1997.
  • The Spirit or Mars Exploration Rover A (MER-A), which landed successfully on January 4th, 2004 and functioned for nearly six years before its wheels were trapped in the Martian sand. Communication was lost with Spirit on March 22nd, 2010.
  • The Opportunity or Mars Exploration Rover B (MER-B), which landed successfully on January 25, 2004 and is still operational.
As well, there is the NASA built Mars Science Laboratory (known as Curiosity), which launched on November 26th, 2011 and is expected to land on Mars between August 6th - 20th, 2012 and the ExoMars rover, designed and developed by the European Space Agency (ESA), which is expected to launch for Mars in 2018.

There are also several successful lunar rovers going back to the first use of a manned rover as part of the US Apollo 15 mission in 1972 and the 1973 unmanned Soviet Lunokhod-1 and Lunokhod-2 rovers.

In 2014, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) plans to land two motorized lunar rovers (one Indian and one Russian built) as part of its second Chandrayaan mission. No Canadian input is expected for this mission.



Even the Google Lunar X Prize, a competition offering a $30 million award for the first privately funded team to land a robotic probe on the Moon and then travel across its surface to send back specified images and other data, will likely not be utilizing any CSA built rover technology.

As noted in my July 4th, 2011 post "Ground Control to Marc Garneau," our erstwhile ex-CSA president and current MP for the riding of Westmount—Ville-Marie, along with quite a few others associated with the CSA, have been publicly advocating the building of Canadian rovers for at least the last ten years.

But the Garneau rover plan wrapped the little machines around a proposal to double CSA funding and use this extra money to develop an all-Canadian robotic Mars mission which would actually use the developed rover technology.

The new mission was also intended to "stimulate the country's space industry during uncertain times for North American space programs" and develop new, follow-on applications for the rovers after their usefulness and functionality was demonstrated by the Mars mission.

But without an appropriate budget, the CSA is forced to flail about seemingly without direction by implementing a rover development program under the assumption that some one else has a scheduled mission to Mars or the Moon, but has forgotten to build their own rovers.

Since this doesn't seem to have happened, we're going to need to either let this specific program die or try building something else.

Or maybe, just maybe, we could find our Canadian rovers a proper Canadian mission to accomplish. We have until March 2012 to decide.
Innovative wheel assembly for Google Lunar X-Prize competitor Plan-B, an initiative from privately funded Canadian company Adobri Solutions Ltd.

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