How Canada Is Quietly Playing a Key Role in the Return to the Moon

A Canadian software company is developing key technologies for future Moon missions.

The Canadian Space Agency is hoping to help Canadian companies reach the final frontier through its own version of NASA’s CLPS program. Thilina Kaluthotage/NurPhoto via Getty Images

NASA and other government-led space agencies around the world share a common goal: establishing a sustained human presence on the Moon. After all, the Moon has precious resources that could help enable future deep-space missions and is the perfect test bed for one day putting humans on MarsTo help lay the foundation for sustained human presence on the Moon, and in an effort to help kickstart a lunar economy, NASA has created a public-private partnership called the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program to help private-sector players send payload to the Moon at a reasonable cost. 

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But NASA is not the only space agency trying to support a burgeoning lunar economy. The Canadian Space Agency (CSA), which is known for developing crucial robotic platforms, like the Canadarm-2, is hoping to expand its influence and help Canadian companies reach the final frontier through its own version of the CLPS program.

To that end, CSA has created the Lunar Exploration Accelerator Program (LEAP) to help Canadian companies develop and test out lunar technologies. “This is an exciting time in space exploration as commercial companies are at the beginning of creating a new market and economy on the moon,” CSA President Lisa Campbell said at the 39th Space Symposium in Colorado this week. “LEAP was created to provide this wide range of opportunities for Canadian science and technology activities in lunar orbit, on the moon’s surface and beyond.”

During a panel on April 9, Campbell and officials from Canadian software company Mission Control Space Service and Pennsylvania-based Astrobotic announced a joint American-Canadian mission that is expected to launch to the Moon sometime late this year. The mission will launch on Astrobotic’s Griffin lunar lander, which will carry a multitude of payloads to the lunar surface, including a rover for NASA. Of particular interest for both Mission Control and Astrobotic, however, is a small shoebox-sized rover called CubeRover. 

According to Mike Provenzano, vice president of advanced development programs at Astrobotic, CubeRover will test out Spacefarer, a specialized remote control software developed by Mission Control. The Spacefarer software will help teams on Earth control the tiny rover remotely. Spacefarer is a cloud-based tool designed to provide easy access to telemetry and other data. It can also command a spacecraft or other vehicle through a point-and-click interface, explained Ewan Reid, founder and CEO of Mission Control. 

“We chose to work with Mission Control because of the extensive capabilities that they have in Spacefarer and also the very simple interface they built,” Provenzano said on the panel.

The upcoming mission is neither company’s first foray into space. Astrobotic launched a smaller lunar lander called Peregrine in January. Its journey was unexpectedly cut short as a leaky valve spewed precious fuel into space, rendering the lander incapable of reaching its destination. 

Mission Control flew a version of its Spacecarer on another doomed lunar lander. Last year, Japanese aerospace startup, ispace, attempted to launch a lunar lander called HAKUTO-R M1, which ultimately crashed into the lunar surface. According to Reid, the software that flew on that mission was a bit different than the version that will fly on the CubeRover. The ispace version did not have any command capabilities, but would have been able to receive and analyze data. “On this mission, we will be focusing on classifying the terrain in front of the rover to better understand and identify what kind of terrain it is, and then use that to make informed decisions about where we can drive safely,” he said. 

Reid said Mission Control’s ultimate goal is to use the Spacefarer software to operate multiple robotic platforms and vehicles on the Moon, in low Earth orbit, and even on future deep-space missions. And the upcoming mission is an integral first step to making that a reality.

How Canada Is Quietly Playing a Key Role in the Return to the Moon