Exploring the Moon's South Pole a Canadian Objective

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) has spent the past three years putting "considerable emphasis" on lunar exploration technologies, according to the paper Advanced technology Development for Space Exploration at the Canadian Space Agency being presented at the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group this week.

Adds CSA official Jean-Claude Piedboeuf, a co-author of the paper, most of the niche activities Canada are developing directly apply to other industries, and include considerable involvement from Canadian space companies, academia and government officials.

The technologies include the usual suspects - vision systems, robotics and mining - and also branch out into newer areas such as lunar rovers.

"Through the International Space Exploration Working Group, we are apprising our plans with the other space agencies to make sure that what Canada is developing would be a welcome contribution to any other agency," Piedboeuf said in a SpaceRef interview. Among those activities is the use of analogue sites to test out these technologies in areas similar to the moon.

In Canada, areas such as the Canadian Shield or the Arctic - most famously represented by a Mars analogue base on Devon Island - are considered areas that are similar in terrain to what is on the lunar surface.

According to the paper An Analogue Mission in Support of MoonRise and Other Sample Return Missions to the South Pole-Aitken Basin also being presented at the same conference, the lesser-known Mistastin Crater in Labrador could be the staging ground for an analogue lunar mission in the near future.

Gordon Osinski is the lead author of a LEAG paper examining the framework for getting Moonrise - a mission to the moon's South Pole-Aitkin Basin - off the ground, a process that will include analogue simulations at either Mistastin or a similar site in Germany.

"What we're focusing on and what the Canadian Space Agency wants to do is a return operation, science-driven, with an emphasis on site selection - just like a mission to the moon," said Osinski, who is a member of the Canadian Lunar Research Network at the University of Western Ontario.

Moonrise is a proposed robotic lander, backed by NASA and including CSA-funded instruments, that would collect regolith samples from the moon's south pole and then bring them back to earth. Currently Moonrise was selected as one of three finalists as part of NASA's New Frontiers Program. NASA has allocated approximately $3.3 million in 2010 to conduct a 12-month mission concept study that focuses on implementation feasibility, cost, management and technical plans.

Canada and the United States have never developed a sample-return mission before, noted Osinski, although many in the science community consider it a good idea. It allows samples to be analyzed in a laboratory, much as what is being done right now with the asteroid samples that the Japanese Hayabusa mission returned to earth earlier this year.

"We are not in spacesuits or anything like that; the goal is not to simulate that kind of thing," said Osinski of the analogue mission, whose exact date has not yet been set. "We are using the rover platforms and all the instruments that we would use on such a mission, and the focus is more on using off-the-shelf but realistic instruments."

More work on finalizing the site selection will take place this month; meanwhile, the CSA is turning its attention to other niche projects.

One of the highlights is a $6 million robotic Mars testbed rover - the request for proposals was closed and completed this summer - that will likely be tested out in an analogue site close to the CSA headquarters in Saint-Hubert, Quebec.

Similarly, the agency issued a tender for two $11-million test robotic lunar rovers that could be upgraded to carry humans. These rovers were funded out of $110 million in stimulus funds the CSA received in 2009.

Other projects being examined, according to Piedboeuf, are space communication systems to communicate between the moon and earth, developing spectrometers and other instruments that can be used in-situ on the moon's surface, and working on an "active vision system" to map out a 3-D image surface for a lunar lander.

The latter project is being worked on with the European Space Agency and would likely include elements of the Canadian LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) advanced system being developed by Cambridge, Ontario's Com Dev.

Piedboeuf said the agency's work is being well-received in other space agencies. "We are trying to focus on areas where we have already been well-established - for example, manipulators, or some area we think has potential for Canada, like rovers," he said.

"This has been well-received (because) we make sure we have a strong expertise in Canada before proposing them."