British Columbia
— The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) is exploring the possibility of building a man-size lunar rover and has awarded study contracts for two such systems.

Design Group of Ottawa has received a concept study contract for an excavation rover while MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates of Richmond, British Columbia, is working on a design intended primarily as an astronaut transport.

“The man-lunar mobility contract we’ve been awarded is not going to be building hardware, although it will be developing concepts which could be prototyped in a follow-on phase,” explained Christian Sallaberger, MDA’s vice president and director of space exploration. “There’s contractual provisions there for a follow-on phase.”

MDA has 10 industrial partners and 10 university partners working on the project.

said MDA also has several other contracts from the Canadian Space Agency to build prototype rover hardware. It is building a six-wheeled chassis that would carry science instruments or equipment such as drills. Other contracts cover rover guidance, navigation and control as well as related sensor systems.

is also working on its own design for a scaleable lunar rover, which could be adapted to carry astronauts or be used in a smaller, unmanned configuration for such tasks as lunar mining. “We have a concept that we think is very good for a general rover design and we also have this new contract to refine that to look at the resource extraction vehicle design,” said Iain Christie, Neptec’s president.

The work is being fueled by a series of small contracts issued by the Canadian Space Agency. All are worth around 1 million Canadian dollar ($806,400) or less.

The Canadian Space Agency has yet to commit to building a lunar rover but both Sallaberger and Christie say indications are that
will eventually field its own rover. Developing such a system is well within the capabilities of the country’s space industries as such work builds on
‘s historical technological strengths in producing mechanical robotic devices, they note.

Canadian firms are also working on subsystems that could be used on a future NASA lunar rover.

‘s Northern Centre for Advanced Technology, in conjunction with the Canadian Space Agency, developed a lunar sample coring drill designed with NASA’s rovers in mind. Neptec also developed a night vision camera called TriDAR for the rover’s navigation and drill site selection, again with support from the CSA.

In addition, Sallaberger noted that
has committed to the European-led ExoMars mission and that MDA will be involved in contributing to the rover for that program.

Christie said if a permanent human presence is established on the Moon there will be a need for a variety of rovers, ranging from those capable of transporting astronauts to robotic utility rovers that can do various tasks such as mining or carrying scientific instruments.

Christie said rovers, while important, no longer carry the same symbolic importance as they did during the Apollo program, when images of
astronauts tearing up the regolith were broadcast around the world. “People might wonder why the
United States
would give a centerpiece of a mission to another country,” he said. “But I don’t think the next time we send people to the Moon that we’re necessarily going to have that situation; there’s going to be lots of different robots and I think it’s entirely reasonable to think that Canada will produce some of them.”

Whether working prototypes will eventually emerge from the concept and design contracts will all depend on the Canadian Space Agency.

Christie said the firm is waiting to see how the Canadian Space Agency earmarks the 110 million Canadian dollars in extra funding the agency will receive from government. A certain amount of that money, to be allocated over a three-year-period, will be set aside to develop rover prototypes, he added.

Steve MacLean, head of the CSA, has said the funding would allow
to move forward with new-generation robotics. The funding is specifically aimed at building hardware to be tested here on Earth, he added.

Christie said any schedule for a Canadian-built lunar rover would be driven by NASA’s timetable for returning to the Moon. “We’re talking three years to get to an engineering prototype and then another five to seven to get on to the surface of the Moon, based on what everybody’s plans are right now,” he said.