In 2024, Canadarm 3, an artificially-intelligent robotic arm designed and manufactured in Canada, will move autonomously over the surface of a space station orbiting the moon. Designed to operate without human supervision, the arm, and the operating system that controls it, will be trusted with the maintenance of the Lunar Gateway, a deep-space orbital outpost designed by NASA to facilitate the next wave of space exploration.
The Canadian government’s plans to construct Canadarm 3 comprise the majority of Canada’s latest space strategy document, entitled “Exploration, Imagination, Innovation.” Released on March 6, the strategy joins an ever-growing international effort to engage in space exploration: China’s lunar exploration initiative, the Chang’e Project, saw its second successful landing of a robotic rover on the moon in December 2018. China currently plans to send a probe to Mars later this year. In 2014, India became the first country to succeed in its first attempt to land a module on Mars, and Luxembourg’s 2016 space resources law has made the country a pioneer in developing the space mining industry.
Canada’s new space strategy represents the latest chapter in the country’s extensive history of space technology, which began in 1959 with NASA’s agreement to launch the Alouette 1 research satellite. In the half-century since, Montreal and its surrounding regions have played, and continue to play, a significant role in Canada’s space activities.
With the launch of Alouette 1 in September of 1962, Canada became the fourth country, after Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom, to operate a satellite. Alouette 1, designed to study the properties of the outer ionosphere, proved immensely successful. Initially designed to be shut down after a year in orbit, the satellite operated for ten years and remains in orbit today as a ‘derelict’ space object. According to a 1966 article in LIFE magazine, Alouette 1 will continue to orbit the Earth for another 1000 years.
Montreal’s first major contact with the Canadian space industry occurred in 1974 when NASA awarded Canada the responsibility of designing and manufacturing a remote manipulator system for its space shuttle program. The contract, awarded to the Brampton, Ontario-based company Spar Aerospace, resulted in the construction of the iconic Canadarm, large portions of which were manufactured in Spar Aerospace’s Montreal factory.
The Canadian Space Program solidified its connection to Montreal and its surroundings with the completion of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) headquarters in Saint-Hubert in Longueuil in 1993. The building was officially designated as the John H. Chapman Space Centre in 1996 after the influential Canadian physicist. Chapman, who received a Master of Science and Ph.D in physics from McGill, served as the director of the Alouette 1 program and campaigned for the creation of the CSA.
Spar Aerospace was later indirectly involved in the construction of Canadarm 2, currently located on the International Space Station. The company was forced to sell its robotics division, including its Montreal facility, to Macdonald, Dettwiler, and Associates (MDA), now a subsidiary of U.S.-based Maxar Technologies. The Montreal facility, located on the West Island in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, remains the site of major developments in satellite technology.
In an interview with the Montreal Gazette in May 2018, Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen and Mike Greenley, group president of MDA, described the Montreal facility’s current activities.
“The Montreal site is primarily focused on satellite sub-systems, a lot of engineering and very impressive manufacturing, fourth-generation robotic-based manufacturing of super high quality satellite components that we sell to satellite manufacturers around the world,” Greenley said. “We’re talking about the antennas on the satellites, the electronics in the satellites and the payloads in the satellites that will allow it to communicate, or sense the earth or look at the earth. All those pieces come from here.”
MDA is currently developing three satellites, which, once in orbit, will provide services related to Earth Observation (EO) like maritime surveillance, crop information for agriculture, and ecosystem monitoring to assess the impacts of climate change. Collectively known as the RADARSAT Constellation, these satellites feature prominently in Canada’s new space strategy. Though they were set to launch on board SpaceX corporation’s state-of-the-art Falcon 9 rocket in February, they have now been delayed after a failed Falcon 9 landing in December. According to the CSA website, the RADARSAT Constellation is currently set to launch from Vandenberg, California between May 16 and 22.
According to a statement that Canadian Minister of Innovation, Science, and Economic Development Navdeep Singh Bains included in the strategy document, the activities of private-sector companies like MDA are crucial to Canada’s future in space. Where the ‘space race’ of the 1950s and 1960s occurred almost exclusively between nations, firms, and corporations are playing a larger role in recent space exploration and technological development.
“It has been estimated that the global space economy will triple in size over the next 20 years,” the statement reads. “This growth will be driven by a radical shift in the sector, whereby commercial firms are investing heavily in and benefiting significantly from their own space activities. [...] This shift means that space will play a central role in the new digital economy and in developing and supporting emerging technologies.”
“It has been estimated that the global space economy will triple in size over the next 20 years,”
Furthermore, according to an article published by the CBC on March 6, MDA has been awarded the contract to design the Canadarm 3, which will launch as part of NASA’s Lunar Gateway.
According to the space strategy, Canada’s contribution to the Lunar Gateway project will provide security in the coming decades for its astronaut program, which currently relies on NASA’s facilities and programs for training. Three McGill alumni have been astronauts, including Julie Payette, the current Governor General of Canada.
In addition to Payette, two astronauts currently involved in the Canadian Space Program have connections to the university. Jennifer Sidey-Gibbons, who was recruited into the Canadian Space Agency’s (CSA) astronaut program in 2017, completed an engineering undergraduate degree at McGill University before pursuing combustion research at Cambridge University. David Saint-Jacques, who is currently carrying out NASA Mission 58 onboard the ISS, is an adjunct professor of Family Medicine at McGill. Saint-Jacques was flown to the ISS on Dec. 3, 2018 and is scheduled to return to Earth in June.
Expedition 58’s connections to Montreal extend beyond Saint-Jacques. Saint-Jacques’ space suit, known as Astroskin—composed of an experimental smart fabric capable of relaying live physiological monitoring to mission control—was designed by Montreal-based smart clothing startup Hexoskin.
As the Canadian government races into its next space age, the project it has committed to is not without its detractors. NASA has been criticized, most prominently by its former administrator Mike Griffin, at a Nov. 2018 meeting of the U.S. National Space Council Users' Advisory Group, for prioritizing the wrong projects in pursuing the Lunar Gateway international collaboration. In a statement quoted by Ars Technica, Griffin claimed that, in undertaking the project, NASA would be skipping crucial steps toward lunar exploration, namely, the development of its capacity to extract lunar resources.
"The architecture that has been put in play, putting a Gateway before boots on the Moon is, from a space-systems engineer's standpoint, a stupid architecture," Griffin said. "[The Lunar] Gateway is useful when, but not before, we are manufacturing propellant on the Moon and shipping it up to a depot in lunar orbit. We should be, with all deliberate speed, returning to the Moon and learning how to utilize the resources of our nearest Earth-orbit object."
"The architecture that has been put in play, putting a Gateway before boots on the Moon is, from a space-systems engineer's standpoint, a stupid architecture,"
Other concerns related to a proliferation of space-related activity are the subject of an ongoing, international investigation spearheaded by the McGill Centre for Research in Air and Space Law. The Manual for International Law Applicable to Military Uses of Outer Space (MILAMOS) is a law manual project launched in 2016 with the goal of investigating how, and to what extent, current international laws apply to military activities in space. Consisting of over 30 researchers from seven institutions around the world, the MILAMOS project has held six workshops around the world, with the seventh scheduled for May 2019.
In an email to McGill Tribune, MILAMOS editors Jam Rakhu and Kuan-Wei Chen argued that as more countries invest, their developments in militarized space technologies could lead to international conflict in space.
“[Military developments in space] have been highlighted by the recent steps that are being taken by the United States in establishing ‘Space Force’ to assert American dominance in space, which has been designated by the US as warfighting domain,” Rakhu and Chen wrote. “[A similar] development occurred barely a week ago, on 27 March, when India successfully tested its first antisatellite system by destroying one of its own micro satellites [.... This] propelled India to become the fourth country to possess what is called ‘counter-space capability.’”
The MILAMOS project seeks to abate the risks of these developments by studying how existing international laws apply to space.
“The mission of [MILAMOS] is [to make] states, space stakeholders and the general public [sensitive of] the dangers of unilateralism and lawlessness in space,” Rakhu and Chen wrote. “Identifying and clarifying customary rules applicable to military uses and applications in space will strengthen the very legal framework that has served to preserve peace and prosperity for over half a century of space exploration and use.”
Space research thus extends beyond the boundaries of the McGill Space Institute (MSI), which held its official launch October 28, 2015. Located at 3550 University Street, the Institute was launched as an initiative to overcome departmental barriers between McGill faculty whose research relates to space, including topics like the early universe, dark matter, exoplanets, and galaxy evolution. In the three years since, researchers at the MSI have attempted to detect the thermal radiation of Planet 9, the hypothetical ninth planet in the solar system, and conducted prevalent research into the phenomenon of ‘Fast Radio Bursts,’ mysterious bursts of radio waves emanating from deep space and believed to be linked to young neutron stars.
In a statement in the MSI’s first annual report, Victoria Kaspi, the Director of the institute, outlined the importance of overcoming traditional faculty barriers in the MSI’s vision.
“Universities are traditionally grouped into departmental constructs that, while efficiently categorizing people for administrative purposes, ultimately limit the potential intellectual vision of their inhabitants, forcing them and their ideas into artificial knowledge ‘silos,’” the statement reads. “Given the many responsibilities university faculty have, it is only natural that emergence from one’s silo is difficult. Yet the reality is that the natural world represents an amazing continuum of phenomena; progress in many of the most interesting scientific problems demands breadth of expertise unhindered by artificial, bureaucratic barriers.”
As the second space race gains velocity, Montreal and McGill continue to play a central role in defining Canada’s place in space. Whether it is in the development of state-of-the-art satellite components or fabrics, in leading research in astrophysics, or in the legal implications of a militarized future in space, Montreal remains the source of some of Canada’s most prominent assets in the nation’s efforts to explore space.