VICTORIA, British Columbia — The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) will receive a significant funding boost over the next three years to do more work in the development of terrestrial prototypes for space robotic vehicles.

The Conservative Party government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper will provide an extra 110 million Canadian dollars ($89.5 million) over the next three years to the agency. The funding starts in the new fiscal year, which begins in April.

Julie Simard, spokeswoman for the Canadian Space Agency in Saint-Hubert,
, said specific areas of research have not yet been identified. “At this point the money has not been committed,” she said. “We’ll be working with partners in government, industry and academia to see what are the needs and the priorities in terms of robotics research and development. There’s not a definite project yet.”

The current CSA budget is 350 million Canadian dollars. More details on the budget for the fiscal year 2009-2010 are expected to be released sometime next month.

But the Canadian government in its Jan. 27 budget statement noted that the 110 million Canadian dollars will allow the CSA to “contribute to the development of terrestrial prototypes for space robotics vehicles, such as the Mars Lander and Lunar Rover, and for the further development of other technologies and space robotics.”

Marc Garneau, the former head of CSA, said putting additional funding into robotics makes sense. Canada is well-known for its robotics expertise. The CSA’s primary contribution to the international space station, for example, is Canadarm2, a larger and more advanced version of the robotic arm Canada built for the U.S. space shuttle. A robotic hand, known as Dextre or simply the Canada Hand, was delivered to the space station in 2008 where it recently completed a series of tests as it prepares for its on-orbit duties.

“There’s no question whenever there is international cooperation that our partners tend to assume that if we’re going to participate we can make a contribution in robotics,” said Garneau, now a member of Parliament for the opposition Liberal Party. “They actually depend on us because that is one of the areas we have focused on and have been extremely successful in.” Garneau is the party’s industry, science and technology critic.

He said although there are no details yet it is likely the new money will be tied to “a future project, possibly in co-operation with NASA and other countries.” Garneau said space robotics will play a key role into complex international missions aimed at Mars or the Moon.

has already contributed a meteorological station to NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander, which completed its mission late last year. In addition, Canada’s Northern Centre for Advanced Technology, in conjunction with the Canadian Space Agency, developed a lunar sample coring drill for a lunar rover prototype NASA tested in Hawaii in November. Neptec of Canada also developed a night vision camera called TriDAR for the rover’s navigation and drill site selection, again with support from the CSA.

The CSA also provided NASA with a utility support vehicle from Ontario Drive Gear to evaluate mobility attributes for future human and project-related lunar mobility platforms.

Anthony Salloum, space advisor for the Rideau Institute, an Ottawa-based think tank, said the 110 million Canadian dollars in new funding was significant. “This is the first major increase of the agency’s budget in a very, very long time,” he noted.

said the funding increase is a signal that the Canadian government is starting to take investment in space technology seriously. He said that a wakeup call for the government in regards to space came last year when AlliantTechsystems of
, announced it would buy the space assets of MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) of
British Columbia

MDA dominates the country’s military and civilian space market, providing the robotic arm for NASA’s space shuttle, as well as Dextre. It is also the prime contractor for
‘s Radarsat-2 Earth observation satellite.

The proposed sale prompted a public backlash over concerns the deal would devastate
‘s space industry and transfer ownership of the country’s main surveillance satellite to a foreign firm.

In response, the Canadian government in April 2008 blocked the sale of MDA. Jim Prentice,
‘s industry minister at the time, said he did not “see net benefits to
in this transaction.”

‘s prime minister since 2006, said “no one should doubt the determination of this government to protect this country’s interests.”

said AlliantTechsystem’s interest in MDA and the Canadian public’s angry response to the proposed sale appeared to change the government’s attitude toward investing in space technology. “I think that was a real eye-opener for the Harper government about the importance of the country’s space capabilities and the need to support that,” he said.

said while the extra funding is welcome and a good start, more money is needed to sustain the CSA over the longer term and further develop technology for lunar or martian exploration.