Research has place in putting ‘final frontier’ first

Western leaders see the Lunar Gateway project as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Canadian universities to let their research expertise soar as Canada moved today to put ‘the final frontier’ first.

Fifty years after the first Moon landing, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau today announced Canada’s new partnership in the NASA-led Lunar Gateway – a project that will see humans return to the Moon and set the stage for further exploration to Mars.

A Moon outpost, the Gateway will provide living space for astronauts, a docking station for visiting spacecraft, and laboratories for research. Canada will develop and contribute a smart robotic system – Canadarm3 – that will repair and maintain the Gateway.

“Western applauds the government’s vision and investment to secure Canada’s place in the burgeoning space economy,” Western President Amit Chakma said. “Space exploration entails overcoming a plethora of scientific and technological challenges, particularly with regard to robotics and artificial intelligence – areas of proven Canadian strength that we can capitalize on.

“University researchers across a wide range of disciplines see projects like the Lunar Gateway as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to apply their expertise to an exciting collaborative project with truly global implications and potentially astronomic economic benefits.”

The Government of Canada will invest $2.05 billion over 24 years for Canada’s space program, including $150 million over five years to support a new Lunar Exploration Accelerator Program. That program will help small- and medium-sized businesses develop new technologies to be used and tested in lunar orbit and on the Moon’s surface in fields that include artificial intelligence, robotics, and health.

The commitment was also welcomed by Gordon Osinski, Director of Western’s Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration (CPSX) and a member of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) advisory board. “Pure excitement. Absolute exhilaration,” he said.

The news means Canada has committed to a long-term investment in the Canadian space program and to a long-anticipated human return to the Moon, Osinski said. “We’ve been talking about this day for years.”

Osinski, NSERC/MDA/CSA/CEMI Industrial Research Chair in Earth and Space Exploration, said Western is ideally placed to help lead this research. Already home to CPSX, Western is also the only graduate program in space exploration, and the Canadian Lunar Research Network. Several graduate students already conduct lunar research here.

The importance of collaboration, though, cannot be overstated, as late last year NASA administration came to Canada to explicitly ask space researchers here to come to the table.

While the commitment is long-term, the funding support will also begin flowing in the near future, Osinski expects. “The first concrete steps are happening in the next year or so.”

The Thursday announcement from the CSA in Longueuil, QC, featured astronaut David Saint-Jacques from the International Space Station, in orbit around Earth. Saint-Jacques lauded the opportunities this will usher in for young researchers in all science disciplines. “Canada is inviting you to dream big.”

Not so long ago, Trudeau said, our ancestors used stars to navigate, the sun to tell time and the moon to dock boats. But, he said, Canada has been not only a partner but a leader in space research, including lunar innovations such as Woodstock/Sarnia engineer Owen Maynard’s design of the Apollo lunar module.

The original Canadarm (now retired) was installed on each Space Shuttle and returned to Earth. Canadarm2 stays permanently on board the International Space Station and performs station maintenance, moves supplies and equipment and helps grapple visiting vehicles so that they can be docked to the International Space Station. Canadarm3 will be a vital research tool for the lunar gateway.

“Our work in space is perhaps the best example of Canadian ambition,” Trudeau said. “They showed Canadians that the sky was not, in fact, the limit.”

Canada’s space sector employs 10,000 people and generated $2.3 billion for Canada’s economy in 2017, and over $2.1 billion in export sales.

The Government of Canada has invested more than $550 million since 2015 in Canada’s space sector, extending our participation in the International Space Station, providing funding to the Canadian Space Agency to test technologies in space, and helping Canadian companies scale up through the Strategic Innovation Fund. This funding includes an investment of $100 million over five years in Budget 2018 to leverage Canada’s expertise in satellite communications technologies for space and advance these promising technologies to create economic and social benefits for Canadians.

“Canada punches well above its weight in space,” said Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation Science and Development.