Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Canadian Government Funds Proposed Lunar Drill

          by Brian Orlotti

The Artemus Jr. lunar rover. Photo c/o CSA.
Deltion Innovations Ltd. of Sudbury, Ontario has been awarded a contract from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) to develop a drill for a proposed US moon mission that could kickstart an off-world mining industry.

Of course, there are many, mostly political, issues still to be overcome before the mission will move forward. The February 4th, 2014 article "Is NASA really returning to the Moon?" mentioned two, when it stated that the proposed US mission is "currently unfunded" and would require a "landing vehicle," which the US would first need to design, fund and then construct. 

But despite all that, as outlined in the February 1st, 2014 Canadian Press article "Drill developed by Canadian firm for moon would kick-start space mining industry," NASA has invited Canada to provide a lunar drill and rover for its upcoming Resource Prospector Mission (RPM) and the CSA has offered up an undisclosed amount for design and testing.

Currently proposed for a 2018 launch, the $280 million USD RPM will be NASA’s first attempt to prove the feasibility of in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) beyond Earth. RPM will deploy a drill-equipped rover to the Moon’s polar regions to seek out areas with large amounts of subsurface hydrogen (a telltale sign of water’s presence) and extract samples for analysis. The ideal find would be actual water, but the mission will also have the equipment to combine oxygen from the lunar soil with hydrogen to make water on-site. 

The discovery (or manufacture) of water would be a major milestone in the economic development of the Moon. Lunar water could provide oxygen (for breathing and for rocket fuel), methane, and liquid hydrogen. The discovery of water would enable fuel depots to be built which would enable spacecraft heading to and from the Moon (as well as the rest of the solar system) to carry less fuel and more cargo. Lunar water could form the foundation of a lunar economy.

The vanguard of lunar development could take the form of the Artemis Jr. lunar rover, built by a group of Canadian firms including Ontario Drive & Gear of New Hamburg, Ont. (chassis & drivetrain), Neptec Design Group Ltd of Ottawa, Ont. (LIDAR and other sensors), and Provectus Robotics Solutions Inc. of Ottawa, Ont. (control and operator interface software).

Born of the Harper’s Government’s 2009 Economic Action Plan, Artemis Jr was one of several rovers developed by Canadian companies via a $57Mln CDN CSA grant program. In May 2010, then-CSA President Steve McLean proposed increasing the CSA’s budget by $2 billion and in July 2011, ex-CSA President Marc Garneau called for an all-Canadian robotic mission to Mars and a doubling of the CSA’s $425-million annual budget over the next decade. 

But both men’s sentiments rang hollow with the Harper Government and, as outlined in the December 5th, 2011 Commercial Space blog post "Canadian Space Rovers on the Chopping Block," funding for the Canadian rovers ran out on March 31st, 2012. At the time, the program’s end left the Canadian space sector in the unenviable state of a surplus of rovers with no buyers. The NASA Resource Prospector mission, however, offers the hope of better times ahead.

Artemis Jr. measures 1.5 m long by 1.6 m wide and weighs about 270 kg, with a payload capacity of up to 125 kg. Capable of remote-controlled or autonomous operation and equipped with onboard cameras and LIDAR, the Artemis Jr was field tested in Hawaii in July 2012 as part of NASA’s Regolith and Environment Science & Oxygen and Lunar Volatiles Extraction (RESOLVE) project (since renamed to Resource Prospector Mission).

The tip of the lunar vanguard’s spear could be the ‘DESTIN’ drill, built by Deltion. Originally a part of the Sudbury, Ont-based Northern Centre for Advanced Technology (NORCAT), Deltion drew on its extensive mining expertise to design a drill that could stand up to the harsh and unforgiving conditions of the Moon. Mounted on the Artemis Jr. rover, the DESTIN drill will be tested in late summer or early fall of this year at NASA Glen Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio.

Brian Orlotti.
The NASA Resource Prospector mission represents a key opportunity for the Canadian space sector. The successful discovery (or manufacture) of water on the Moon will give further credibility to the idea of lunar resource extraction. Such credibility will give investors (be they governments or private capital) the confidence to increase the flow of funds into lunar development. Canadians have a second chance to blaze a trail to the Moon.

Brian Orlotti is a Toronto-based IT professional and the treasurer of the Canadian Space Commerce Association (CSCA).

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