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Our Place In Space

It seems every generation has at least one massive building project that involves more science and more technology than anything that came before. The desire to build it big and build it anywhere is behind everything from the Great Pyramids and Great Wall of China to the Taj Mahal and the CN Tower. It is also behind the International Space Station, a multi-billion dollar construction project that experts say would never have left the drawing board without Canadian expertise in robotics.

“The whole space station would not exist–they would not be able to build it–without the Canadian technology,” says Alain Poirier, director general of space systems at the Canadian Space Agency, CSA. The space agency was established in 1989 and derives its authority from the Canadian Space Agency Act. The agency has a status equivalent to that of a federal government department and reports to the minister of labour.

Kirsten Williams, a spokesperson for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA, says the CSA is an integral part of the team that is building “the largest and most complex international scientific project in history.” NASA says the station represents a move of “unprecedented scale off the home planet” that began in 1998 with the launch of the station’s first two components. Today, 16 countries are working toward a scheduled completion date of 2004. They are: Canada, the United States, Russia, Japan, Brazil and 11 member countries of the European Space Agency.

Canada’s involvement dates back to 1985 when it was invited by the United States to become a partner in the project. The total cost of the station will be an estimated $100 billion (all figures are in Canadian dollars). Canada’s contribution will add up to $1.4 billion. That money will come from the government and be spent on contracts with various private-sector firms. The U.S., meanwhile, will spend between $32 billion and $34 billion, and will kick in another $1.9 billion a year once the station is complete.

The European Space Agency partners involved in the project will spend $3.7 billion. Germany, France and Italy are contributing the lion’s share of those funds: $1.5 billion, $1 billion and $0.7 billion, respectively. Japan, another major partner, will contribute $4.3 billion by 2004.

When the construction is completed, the station will be more than four times as large as the Russian Mir space station. It will have a mass of approximately one million pounds and measure roughly 360 feet by 290 feet. The station will include six laboratories and living quarters for seven people, and the labs will run on power generated by an acre of solar panels.

Russia sent the first piece of the station–a navigation and communications module called Zarya–into space in November 1998. The following month, the U.S. linked its Unity module to Zarya. In total, more than 40 space flights will be needed to complete the job.

A robotics system called the Mobile Servicing System, MSS, will be Canada’s key contribution to the orbiting laboratory. Astronauts and cosmonauts will use it to build the station and to keep the facility running during the 10 years it is expected to be in use after 2004. The MSS consists of equipment and facilities located on the space station and on the ground. The on-station equipment will include the Space Station Remote Manipulator System, SSRMS, and its Mobile Remote Servicer Base System, MBS, and the Special Purpose Dextrous Manipulator, SPDM. Canada is also developing the Canadian Space Vision System, CSVS, that will allow astronauts and cosmonauts inside the station to see what the robot and the space arm are doing outside the station.

Meyer Nahon, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Victoria, has been watching the developments. “Without these robots, they couldn’t maintain the space station because it would cost too much…and it would be too dangerous.”

The SSRMS is a sophisticated, 17.6-metre-long space arm that can move objects as heavy as 125 tons. Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield is scheduled to help install it in April 2001. Its main advantage over the Canadarm is that it has a “hand” on each end. So unlike the Canadarm, which always works from a fixed base, the SSRMS can attach itself anywhere on the station. It can also “walk” over the station, hand over hand.

The MBS is a mobile platform that can support the SSRMS when necessary. It will run along a rail on the main part of the station and be used to move the space arm close to the required location.

The SPDM is a two-armed robot that the SSRMS will lift into place. It can do more precise work than the larger space arm, so astronauts and cosmonauts will use it for delicate tasks, such as changing batteries or using tools.

Poirier says Canada was chosen to provide robotics technology because it had developed expertise in the field by building the Canadarm that first flew in a mission in 1981. That device has flown on some 50 space shuttle missions and is still in use. “We are the world leaders in space robotics, so that was a natural contribution for us to make. We capitalized on the investment we had made in the Canadarm, and the knowledge and skills and the industrial capability that we have in Canada.”

Nahon says the space station was a vital opportunity for Canada to expand its expertise in the highly competitive robotics field. “Our participation has been a stroke of luck because a lot of companies in the States wanted to get involved in the robotics. We were extremely lucky to get to build a large chunk of the robotics.”

Poirier says the SSRMS–the new, double-handed space arm–is more rugged than its famous predecessor. “The Canadarm, when it goes to space in a shuttle, it only goes for 10 to 17 days. Then it comes back on the ground. The (new) arm, when it goes into space, will never come back. It has to be designed to survive the harsh environment of space for more than 10 years.”

NASA’s Williams says the MSS will reduce assembly time and increase safety. It will allow astronauts and cosmonauts to do a lot of the work from inside the space station, and that’s seen as a good thing because space walking is expensive and dangerous, not to mention time consuming. “The primary objective of the station is to do research,” adds Poirier. “We’re trying to minimize the time the astronauts spend doing things other than research, so that includes maintaining the space station.”

A number of Canadian high-tech companies have been awarded contracts. MacDonald Dettwiler Space and Advanced Robotics Ltd. of Brampton, Ont.,–formerly part of Spar Aerospace Ltd., and now also known as MD Robotics–is the primary contractor. The firm worked with companies from many parts of Canada to develop the robotic arm, including SED Systems of Saskatoon; CAL Corp. of Ottawa; CAE Electronics Ltd. of Saint-Laurent, Que.; FRE Composites of Saint-André, Que., and IMP Group Ltd. of Halifax.

For the various countries involved in the project, the payoff will be access to unique research opportunities. One of the key attractions is the opportunity to do experiments in low gravity. “As you can imagine, it’s very expensive to build a space station or even to do research in space. So it’s important that we are exploiting the uniqueness of the space environment,” Poirier explains. “That’s why we’re focusing our research on materials or phenomena that are unique to the microgravity you find in space.”

In keeping with this, the CSA launched the Microgravity Space Program to help corporate and university researchers learn how to build equipment and design experiments for the space station. The program gives specialists access to research time in microgravity facilities in other countries.

Meanwhile, scientists are excited about the possibilities of conducting medical research in the space station. For instance, scientists need to study proteins to develop new drugs, and to study them properly they need to crystallize them. Then they can X-ray the crystals to learn more about their structure. “The bigger the crystal, the sharper the image. The problem is, on the ground they were not able to grow the crystals bigger than a millimetre in size,” Poirier explains.

However, the lack of gravity and convection in space means researchers can grow some protein crystals 10 to 50 times larger than they could on the ground. The space station will have an X-ray machine that will allow researchers to study these large crystals in space.

Another area of research will involve osteoporosis. Because astronauts and cosmonauts lose bone mass in microgravity–as much as 10 per cent in one month–scientists have developed medications and training programs to help them cope. By testing these drugs and exercises in the space station, the astronauts will help scientists refine ways to prevent and treat osteoporosis. Already, says Poirier, “we have a much better understanding of how we can fight osteoporosis, and this is being used on the ground to deal with this situation that’s affecting a significant fraction of our population.”

Medical science is just one of many fields that will be explored. Astronauts and cosmonauts will study the behaviour of fluids that act differently in microgravity. This type of research could lead to more efficient power plants or to buildings better able to withstand earthquakes. By studying the properties of materials away from the effects of gravity, they may discover information that will help specialists on the ground develop tougher, better consumer products. And photographs of Earth taken from the space station will help geographers, geologists, weather researchers and others understand global phenomena, including air pollution.

In addition, the technology developed to build and run the station will have applications back here on Earth. Canadian companies are already adapting CSA robotics innovations for use in industries as diverse as hazardous waste management, food inspection, television broadcasting and agriculture. “I think it’s clear that the expertise that’s gained will pay off,” says John Tsotsos, a computer science professor and director of the Centre for Vision Research at York University in Toronto. “There are all sorts of domains where it’s relevant to know how you build robots that can function in these extreme environments.”

MD Robotics has already developed commercial applications for its new technologies. “Our robotics have been used for waste (treatment) and for nuclear reactors. We also did a robotic dinosaur for Universal Studios,” explains company spokesperson Lynne Vanin.

Up in space, Canada’s contribution will give us an unusual advantage over most of the other participants in the project. Most countries are supplying a particular lab where their researchers can work. American researchers will have 51 per cent of the access to all the non-Russian labs on the station, because NASA is coordinating the whole project and supplying much of the money. Each partner will have most of the rest of the access to its particular space lab. But because Canada is providing a vital part of the station’s infrastructure, rather than one particular lab, it will be given a little more than two per cent of the access available in all the non-Russian facilities on the station.

If any of the other partners wants to use lab space in another country’s module, “they have to strike special agreements with that partner,” Poirier explains. “Canada doesn’t have to do that. We have, as part of the original partnership, access to all of those other labs…. It’s a very good deal for Canada.”

In addition, Canada’s contribution gives us the right to send one astronaut to the space station for three months every two years.

Besides developing essential equipment, Canada is operating facilities on the ground to support the project. The MSS Operations Complex at the CSA’s headquarters in Saint-Hubert, Que., includes facilities for planning and monitoring missions, and for training astronauts. When it is fully staffed, closer to the completion date of the space station, it will employ roughly 100 people.

Every astronaut destined to go to the space station must take a two-week training course at Saint-Hubert to learn the basics of the robotics systems. This is because the technology is of vital importance to the station’s daily operations. The first trainees at the complex, two U.S. astronauts, “graduated” in March 2000. “The space station is a very, very complex system. The astronauts must learn every single system, and the robotics system is just one of them,” Poirier explains.

The centre must sometimes train people with no previous robotics knowledge and make them experts in just 14 days. “We knew in order to do that, we had to use the latest in multi-media technology,” he says.

Simulators at the complex recreate the space environment as closely as possible. For instance, a virtual reality system will train astronauts on how to use the robotic arm in three dimensions. Just like a driving instructor teaching teenagers how to position a car in the middle of a lane, this system will help astronauts judge the space between the arm and the space station itself. The system includes hand controls, headgear that gives trainees a stereoscopic image of the simulated operation, and associated hardware and software.

Once the station is up and running, astronauts and cosmonauts will need to use their precious time there carefully. Unlike the pyramids, the Taj Mahal or the CN Tower, the space station is not designed to last forever. But in that one vital decade, the countries of the world will co-operate and use the orbiting laboratory to expand the frontiers of human knowledge–and Canada’s technology will help them do it.

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