Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Canada's participation in the NASA-led lunar Gateway program Feb. 28 during a speech at Canadian Space Agency headquarters in Quebec. Credit: Adam Scotti, Prime Minister’s Office.

VICTORIA, British Columbia — Canada has become the first nation to formally commit to NASA’s lunar Gateway project with a financial contribution to cover a 24-year period and the development of a new generation robotic Canadarm.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made the announcement Wednesday that Canada would be partnering with NASA and spending 2 billion Canadian dollars ($1.4 billion) over 24 years on the Lunar Orbital Platform Gateway program, a human-tended facility in orbit around the moon, as well as other space programs. The announcement included funding of 150 million Canadian dollars over five years for a new Lunar Exploration Accelerator Program to help small and medium-sized businesses develop new technologies to be used and tested in lunar orbit and on the moon’s surface in fields that include artificial intelligence, robotics and health.

Canada will develop and contribute a smart robotic system – Canadarm3 – that will repair and maintain the Gateway, Trudeau announced. “Canada’s historic investment will create good jobs for Canadians, keep our astronaut program running and our aerospace industry strong and growing, while opening up a new realm of possibilities for Canadian research and innovation,” he said. “With the Lunar Gateway, Canada will play a major role in one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken.”

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine thanked Trudeau in a statement that highlighted Canada’s past support for the U.S. space program. “We look forward to our deepening partnership with Canada, and the support of the many other nations I am confident will join us and help strengthen our progress on the challenging goals we’ve set in space,” he added.

An artist’s concept of Canada’s smart robotic system located on the exterior of the Gateway, a small space station in orbit around the moon. (Credits: Canadian Space Agency, NASA)
An artist’s concept of Canada’s smart robotic system located on the exterior of the Gateway, a small space station in orbit around the moon. (Credits: Canadian Space Agency, NASA)

Canadian aerospace firms have been lobbying the federal government for years for a fresh influx of funding for space programs. In the fall of 2018 a coalition of space-related organizations, led by MDA which developed the Canadarm, launched a public relations and government lobbying campaign to highlight the need for more space funding and participation in the Lunar Gateway project.

MDA, a Maxar Technologies company, has already conducted early concept studies for the Canadian Space Agency on the Lunar Gateway robotics system. It has also conducted a survey of Canadian firms that could be used to deliver the capability and last year held its own industry day to meet with key suppliers.

MDA says the Canadarm3 robotics on the Lunar Gateway will be essential for critical operations and maintenance for the new international space station, on both the outside and inside of the station. It is expected to consist of a larger manipulator arm and a smaller dexterous arm, the firm noted.

Mike Greenley, group president of MDA, said over 500 Canadian firms participated in the company’s robotics program for the International Space Station. “We expect a similarly robust and diverse pan-Canadian supply chain will form to execute Canada’s commitment to the Lunar Gateway, including Canada’s strong AI community,” he added in a statement Wednesday.

Greenley, in a previous interview with Space News, noted that a new generation of Canadarm would also provide a highly visible and critical component to Lunar Gateway operations, including the assembly of the Gateway itself and its ongoing maintenance, the capture of visiting spacecraft.

NASA and the Canadian Space Agency have been in discussions to examine a Canadian contribution to the Lunar Gateway. Bridenstine met with Canadian Space Agency President Sylvain Laporte in September at NASA headquarters for talks on the project and other potential programs.

Bridenstine noted at a Sept. 7 forum at the Wilson Center in Washington that, “We need to take advantage of some of the great capabilities that Canada has developed.”

He suggested that capabilities, such as a version of the Canadarm2 robotic arm on the International Space Station, could for the Gateway, be used to help maintain it when astronauts are not on board. “Hopefully, maybe one day we can have an agreement where we can have a Canadarm on Gateway,” Bridenstine said at the time. “Not only on the outside but on the inside, and have it more robust than ever before so that it can, in fact, help manage the space station when it is uncrewed.”

David Pugliese covers space policy and developments in the space industry in Canada. He has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and a degree in journalism from Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario.