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Space exploration and research make a comeback as federal funding priority

The government has promised billions of dollars for research and development to support future moon missions, with a long-term goal of sending people to Mars.


Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen will lift off next year on a 10-day mission to orbit the moon, the latest step in an ambitious international project to return people to the lunar surface after more than 50 years since the last crewed flight.

The announcement in April that Col. Hansen had been selected as one of four crew members on Artemis II, the NASA-led mission to test a new rocket and spacecraft system, grabbed headlines around the world. But it is only the most visible sign of Canadian involvement in the resurgence of moon exploration and research.

“Canada wants to be a big part of future missions to the moon,” said Edward Cloutis, director of the Centre for Terrestrial and Planetary Exploration at the University of Winnipeg. “We want to be part of, let’s call it, the moon rush.”

Canada is spending billions of dollars over several years on lunar research and exploration. Part of that investment is funding basic science missions to answer questions about the moon’s origins, the resources it contains, and how humans could live there.

The Artemis I flight test.
The Artemis I flight test took place at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida last November. It was the first phase of a deep-space exploration program that will soon send a Canadian astronaut to the moon. Photo courtesy of NASA/Bill Ingalls.

The Artemis missions mark a renewed emphasis by NASA on human planetary exploration. The agency will use crewed moon missions to develop technologies that will eventually send people to Mars, a much harder challenge due to its greater distance from Earth. Future missions will see crews build a space station, called Gateway, while in orbit around the moon, land people on the moon’s surface, and eventually build an inhabited moon base.

Canada sees contributing to the missions as a way of expanding its own space program. In a 2019 strategy document, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) committed to participating in the missions, saying they would help build scientific excellence and ensure that Canada continues to have a presence in space. Canada is already one of six partners in the International Space Station, and will also spend $1.1 billion over the next 14 years to continue in that role.

Aside from being a stepping-stone to Mars, the moon holds an interest for scientists all its own, said Gordon Osinski, a professor of earth sciences at Western University. Because the moon’s surface is relatively stable, it still contains information from the early days of the solar system that has been erased from Earth’s more active surface.

“It’s got a record of the entire four and a half billion years of the solar system,” Dr. Osinski said. “It’s actually going to help us understand when life could have originated on Earth. So there’s a whole bunch of cool new science to be done.”

Funding Artemis and beyond

As a partner in the Artemis program, Canada will spend $1.9 billion over two decades on a new AI-enabled robotic arm, the Canadarm3, that will be used on the Gateway space station.

That commitment entitles Canada to have an astronaut on two crewed missions.

In the 2023 budget released this past March, the federal government also promised $1.2 billion to develop a robotic lunar utility vehicle for future missions, $76.5 million for science experiments on the Gateway space station, and $150 million over five years to research and develop new Canadian space technologies through the Lunar Exploration Accelerator Program (LEAP).

Through LEAP, Canada is also spending money on lunar research not directly related to the Artemis program. The most ambitious of theseu projects so far is the $43-million Canadian lunar rover being built by Canadensys Aerospace Corp. (not to be confused with the CSA’s lunar utility vehicle) that’s set to launch as early as 2026. “This is the first time that Canada will be leading a planetary exploration mission,” said Dr. Osinski, who is the principal investigator on the project.

The rover will launch from a NASA-led spacecraft and land near the moon’s south pole. It will gather geological information, with a specific goal of identifying frozen water that may be there. Inhabitants of a moon base would need water for drinking, growing crops, and making oxygen and fuel.

The rover, about the size of a washing machine and weighing 30 kilograms, will carry six scientific instruments, five of them designed and remotely operated by researchers at Canadian universities, including Simon Fraser University, the University of Alberta, Université de Sherbrooke, U of Winnipeg and Western.

Researching space by LEAPs and bounds

Behraad Bahreyni, a professor of mechatronic systems engineering at SFU, received a LEAP grant to explore building a very small, very sensitive gravimeter that can be carried by a lunar rover to detect what’s underneath the moon’s surface. “We know a lot about what is [happening] on the surface of the moon, but we don’t really know what is going on beneath the surface,” Dr. Bahreyni said.

Often used in resource prospecting, a gravimeter detects tiny changes in gravity caused by differences in density below the surface. To be useful on the moon the instrument will have to survive the forces of launch from Earth, fit in a small package, use very little electricity, and operate under temperatures between 100 C and -200 C.

“It’s a huge ask for a tiny piece of machinery,” Dr. Bahreyni said. But along with a team of researchers from the University of Manitoba, McGill University and Polytechnique Montréal, he thinks it can be done, and will soon apply for more funding to build the instrument.

LEAP is also funding the possible development of a Raman spectroscope that could be mounted on a rover. Raman spectroscopy uses a laser to determine the chemical composition of a sample. Dr. Cloutis at U of Winnipeg said his team, which included researchers from York University, found that the instrument could eventually be built and used, despite the challenges of operating equipment in lunar extremes.

“One of the challenges has always been to design an instrument that can survive those extremes of temperature. And that’s in addition to the fact that you’re in a vacuum,” Dr. Cloutis said.

Only a relatively small amount of the billions the CSA will spend goes directly to academic researchers. Space travel is expensive, and most of the money goes to industry partners who design and build the equipment needed to travel and operate there, said Martin Bergeron, director of space exploration development at the CSA. But even though the work is done by industry, it often includes partnerships with Canadian academics.

“There’s tons of science that make those engineering achievements possible,” Mr. Bergeron said.

Nevertheless, CSA is also making sure to fund basic science directly, he said. This includes the lunar rover mission, a new competition for lunar science instruments that opened in May, and the millions earmarked for Canadian research on the Gateway space station, he said.

Dr. Cloutis said that Canada has expertise in space and planetary research at universities around the country. Generally, he says, they probably get less funding than their U.S. counterparts.

“You know, if you ask an academic if they’ve got enough research money, the answer is inevitably no,” Dr. Cloutis said. “But we’re pretty effective users of the money. … I think we do a damn fine job with the resources that we have.”

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