MDA discusses status, mission objectives of Canada’s LEAP lunar rover

by Nathan Barker & Chris Gebhardt

Humanity’s next steps in space exploration are focused on exploring like we never have before: returning to the Moon to establish a permanent, sustainable base as we move on to stepping foot on Mars — all of which the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) is actively participating in.

While the contribution to the upcoming Lunar Gateway in the form of — among other things — Canadarm3 has been in work for over a year at this point, the first flight contribution from Canada for the lunar settlement initiative is scheduled to come in the form of the Lunar Leap Accelerator Program (LEAP) rover to help better understand how we can maintain a continued human presence on these celestial terrains.

LEAP objectives and MDA

The LEAP rover will be approximately 24 kg and will be capable of surviving at least two lunar days and one lunar night, which is equal to 42 days on Earth. The rover will carry a minimum of two scientific payloads totaling 6 kg, one of which is sponsored by NASA.

The mission’s primary goal will be to test the integration of artificial intelligence with robotics as well as collect vital scientific data through partnerships with academia and industry.

MDA leads one of two teams down-selected to perform a Phase A study for the development of CSA’s first lunar rover. CSA will select one team in 2022 to build the rover.

Speaking with NASASpaceflight’s Nathan Barker and Chris Gebhardt, former Space Shuttle and long-duration International Space Station veteran, and now MDA’s Vice President of Robotics and Space Operations, Tim Kopra said: “What’s fascinating about this, about this entire program, in fact the overall effort to go to the Moon, is that we haven’t been there for a long time and there’s lots that we don’t know.”

The rover will explore the South Pole region of the Moon — particularly areas that remain in constant darkness — in search of lunar volatiles and water ice. The rover will also seek to gather better information on the environment’s obstacles, like radiation and thermal concerns as well as roving operations on steep terrain.

All vital elements of the puzzle toward creating a sustained human presence on the Moon.

“So what does it mean to have a sustainable presence on the lunar surface? We really don’t know,” said Kopra. “The last time that we went to the Moon, we went for very short periods of time. We collected rocks, soil. It was basically a touch base and come back.”

“What [LEAP] is an effort to do is to capitalize not only on the expertise that we’ve developed in the past for rovers and scientific instruments that have gone to Mars, and certainly what we do in low Earth orbit, but to expand that across Canada and across a whole series of companies.”

Part of the first step in the process of going back to the Moon, as Kopra sees it, is knowing where to land, ensuring that the place you send astronauts has the scientific targets to satisfy the mission’s objectives — an element LEAP is being built to help determine.

“We have a whole set of different organizations that are going to help us do that,” said Kopra. “York University, Western, Concordia. Even the University of Hawaii. So this is in partnership with US academic institutions and Canadian academic institutions.”

Canada will not just have a robotic presence on the Lunar Gateway and surface. A Canadian astronaut will fly to the Moon on the Artemis 2 mission — becoming the first non-American to do so — while Canadian astronauts will also land on our closest celestial neighbor on subsequent missions. (Credit: CSA)

But once at a location on the lunar surface, the ability to move around easily will be equally key to prolonged and sustained surface operations.

“When we went to the Moon before and we had the lunar rovers, it was all really flat and not really super challenging because it was our first effort at that. Now, we’re really interested in ‘what does it take to traverse over more challenging terrain?’ And what is also super interesting is the craters that have steeper slopes. What does that mean?”

“Once we know how this rover can operate [in those environments], it really sets the stage for both autonomous and human presence on the Moon when it comes to just being able to traverse, being able to rove. Which is non-trivial in this environment.”

And this is where the technology demonstration aspect of the mission comes into play — where elements such as wheel design, axle spacing, the type of wheel to be used, the type of driving mechanism, the type of suspension all need to be investigated and tested.

Moreover, the rover must also demonstrate — and its teams create — new autonomous operations procedures and software that will be vital for early and continued exploration of the Moon where communications are not always guaranteed.

“That’s why an autonomous vehicle demonstration on the Moon is very important,” said Kopra. “We’re going to gather data on 2D imagery, 3D imagery — which helps us with autonomous navigation. And the thermal imagery, we’re really interested in that. We’re going to gather the data for the thermal imagery, which is important from the standpoint of identifying potential water resources. But also, that gives us the ability to gather data for the particulate size, understand exactly what this regolith is like.

Understanding the local regolith composition is key to understanding the most efficient way to drive on it — especially in steep terrain regions. And Kopra pointed out that while a few hundred kilograms of lunar samples were returned from the Apollo landing sites, they were not from the regions where Artemis’ international lunar efforts will focus.

“Just like on planet Earth, depending on where you are, [the surface composition] can be wildly different. And so that’s why it’s really critical for us to be able to gather what feels like really basic information but very critical for a more advanced design. There’s just so much to learn from this that we intend to capitalize on to get to the next phases.”

“So to be able to understand what we see from a 2D perspective, a 3D perspective, the thermal imagery — those are really important for us to be able to have a sustainable presence when we go back in earnest with astronauts and the first Canadian astronaut.”

Autonomous navigation, hazard avoidance, and sloping terrain navigation have already been demonstrated and tested on Mars, where rovers have to move independently of Earth-based commands due to the distance and therefore communication delay time between the planets.

“We have less of a time gap, obviously, because the Moon is closer, but there will be times where there is no means of communication. So the same is true for Lunar Gateway. That’s one of the aspects we’re very interested in perfecting: that is both autonomy and autonomous operations and the incorporation of artificial intelligence to fill in some of those gaps.”

Current status & partnership with industry

Presently, MDA and their team of industry partners are working through the initial Phase A contract for the rover issued to the company by the CSA in November 2021.

This part of the process involves defining the mission’s overall parameters, the rover’s design, and the instrumentation that will be incorporated into it.

But a robot moving around the Moon is not exactly what MDA is known for in the space world. Robot arms for the Space Shuttle orbiters, the Orbiter Boom Sensors Systems for the Shuttles, Canadarm2, Dextre (Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator), and the Mobile Base System on the station — those are the items for which MDA has a breadth of experience.

“Really, that’s 30 years in the making,” said Kopra. “We have a reputation that is unparalleled when it comes to just a really interesting combination of technical expertise and operational expertise in space.”

“And that’s one thing that we have really been able to demonstrate with our flawless performance on the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station, and what we continue to do today with the segment of my business that supports all the robotics operations that MDA constructed.”

“And I think as a consequence of that reputation we’ve established and earned, we’ve been able to have really good conversations with a rockstar team.”

For the LEAP mission, MDA has assembled a partnership across the two major disciplines of the mission: technology and science.

A Xiphos Q7-Based Camera Board-based Embedded Visual Odometry Unit on one of CSA’s Juno rovers. Juno rovers have been used in the past by NASA for field tests on the rocky slopes of a Hawaiian volcano to simulate missions to the Moon. (Credit: CSA)

The technology team includes Mission Control Space Services; CTA (Centre de Technologies Avancées BRP-UdeS); Institut national d’optique (INO); Clearpath Robotics; Kepler Communications; Xiphos Systems Corporation; Delton Innovations Ltd.; NASA Ames Research Center; University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies; and Carleton University.

The science team comprises York University; Western University; Concordia University; University of Hawaii; Stoney Brook University; Ingenium, Canada’s Museums of Science and Innovation; and the Natural History Museum. The team will be led by Professor Michael Daly of York University.

Joining those two teams is Felix & Paul Studios who will handle public outreach, education, and engagement as part of the mission’s goal to inspire youth to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics.

“Our goal is also to inspire all ages from this effort to demonstrate what you can do with technology,” said Kopra, “Having been someone who grew up in the space race and was really inspired by everything that the Apollo astronauts did, and all the follow-on astronauts, it changed my life. It inspired me to study hard in school and to work towards what seemed to be an unobtainable goal. We want to have that same level of inspiration for the youth across the planet.”

(Lead image credit: CSA)

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