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Space Café Canada by Dr. Jessica West Recap: Is the Future of Space Exploration Robotic?

Timothy Kopra; Credits: MDA/ Robert Markowitz

During the second Space Café Canada event, host Jessica West of Project Ploughshares sat down with Tim Kopra, Vice-President of Robotics and Space Operations at MDA, to talk about the role of robotics in Canada’s space program and in the future of space exploration.

MDA is one of Canada’s most successful space technology companies and is behind many of Canada’s signature programs in space including the famous Canadarm on the Space Shuttle and International Space Station, and the Radarsat series of Earth observation satellites. It’s also central to Canada’s future space activities which continue to prioritize the development of space-based robotics and radar capabilities. Before joining MDA, Mr. Kopra had a remarkable career beginning with the U.S. Army, where he rose to the rank of Colonel. As an engineer and astronaut with NASA Tim flew twice to the International Space Station, the second time as Commander.

How does MDA lead the development of space technology in Canada?

MDA is at the centre of Canada’s burgeoning space industry with expertise in robotics, satellite systems, and geo-intelligence. With a new contract to develop and operate the Canadarm3 robotic arm on the upcoming Lunar Gateway space station in cis-lunar orbit, MDA has a prominent role in the future of Canada’s space exploration program.

As a core developer of the Canadian government’s space-based capabilities through prominent public-private partnerships, the company made history in 2008 when it became the first private Canadian company that the government blocked from a foreign takeover. Today MDA is owned by a group of Canadian investors, and recently celebrated a new milestone, becoming a publicly traded company on the Toronto Stock Exchange, which speak to the pace of growth and development within the Canadian space industry. New programs such as Artemis are a “shot in the arm” for industry because it means that “countries will be investing in space.” The national impact on countries such as Canada will be amplified as leading space companies such as MDA continue to invest in developing supply chains and national expertise.

Spaceflight is hard. How does robotics help?

Humans have an unmatched ability to think and process information, but we aren’t optimized for space exploration: we have to eat, we breathe oxygen, we consume products, and we create waste. And of course, all of this takes place in a very harsh environment. Finding ways to automate some activities that don’t require a human – or that can be done in conjunction with a human – helps. Canadarm2 is a prime example.

“On the International Space Station, the hardware that we supply and the operational expertise that we apply to that set of robotics is absolutely vital for maintaining that space station.”

Going forward, the need for robotics capabilities to maintain future space stations, including new commercial ones, and to keep them operational, is going to increase.

What is it like to be in space, working with a giant robotic system such as Canadarm2?

Watching the Canadarm2 grabbing enormous pieces of hardware out of the payload bay to be installed on the International Space Station like huge pieces of Lego is like participating in a science fiction movie.

“It’s surreal, because you’re doing something that you’re trained to do, but not in that environment.”

Is the Lunar Gateway a game-changer?

Much in the way that the International Space Station has been built piece-by-piece, the Lunar Gateway program is a building block to the return of humans to the Moon, part of a long history of experimenting and learning how to support human life in outer space.

In the beginning, “we weren’t even sure if you could swallow in space. When we first landed something on the Moon, we thought maybe it’s going to land in 30 feet of dust and disappear….we knew nothing.”

Now, we will be taking what we learned on the International Space Station – which orbits 400 km from the Earth – and applying it to the Lunar Gateway 400,000 km away.

What new capabilities will Canadarm3 bring to this effort?

Unlike the ISS, the Lunar Gateway will not be permanently crewed. That means that we have to design it in such a manner that allows a lot of autonomous operations, may of which will be external to the station. Canadarm3 will take our existing robotic operations a step further to include artificial intelligence capabilities required for greater autonomy, as well as a second, smaller arm to maintain the larger arm, creating a complete ecosystem of end-to-end logistics.

These capabilities will have wide commercial applications that make MDA not only a leading robotics company in Canada but in the world.

“We’ve established over the last few decades over 3-million hours of operations dedicated to on-orbit, robotic space operations; that’s a legacy that we’re very proud of, and really one that no one else can brag about at this point.”

How do these investments in space-based robotic capabilities translate to our lives on Earth?

The contributions of space activities are so much more than Velcro, Teflon, and Tang.

“Right now, people might be texting on their iPhone, which has technology that came from our space program, and driving in their car, being navigated by the GPS, which is part of our space program, and using miniaturized electronics, which comes from our space program…and what many people just aren’t aware of is that what we do on the International Space Station is the basic and fundamental scientific research that will have the nominal impact to how we live on planet Earth.”

But these contributions are not linear: they are building blocks that move science along. You learn how people and things work, which advances a whole range of applications on Earth including medicine.

The Canadarm2 was recently pierced by a piece of space debris. How big is the debris problem for space exploration?

The Canadarm2 is designed to be very robust and it can withstand a pretty significant hit and remain 100% operational. The Space Station is also equipped with a debris shield to protect from the impacts of debris the size of a marble or smaller. But we see debris impacts on the space station all the time, including on the solar arrays that power it, and we have to be aware of the danger. Sometimes the space station has to be moved because of a possible conjunction event with a bigger piece of debris, or if there isn’t enough time to move, then the crew have to shelter in place.

“It’s not possible for us to know every little piece of debris in space. And that is a danger and it’s a future worry as we expand the number of satellites in space. How do we do this in a very responsible way?”

We need better solutions.

What are the possible solutions?

Technical capabilities for services such as debris removal and satellite servicing are advancing rapidly, and MDA is interested in being a leader in this market. But the solution to space debris has to be regulated so that there is a business case to make these services worthwhile.

“I think one of the most important development is a requirement for anybody that puts an object in space – in order to have access to the spectrum needed to operate it – to have to demonstrate that they have the capability to get that satellite out of orbit.”

You can also envision a future at some point in time when there is liability established as part of a burgeoning insurance industry that requires an ability to deorbit. Because a collision in space doesn’t just disable a satellite: it creates more debris. And we don’t want to wake up to a dystopian future in the workable space around our planet. If we wait for an accident to happen, it will be too late.

Many advanced robotics capabilities in space are dual-use. How does the industry think about this?

MDA is focused on opportunities for cooperation and collaboration in space through the Canadarm3. The new Artemis Accords are also important and are really a means to extend the kind of cooperation that we have seen on the International Space Station, which has been key to developing trust.

People in the audience are asking about future robotics cooperation with China. Is that in the cards?

“It’s in the interest of both a country and a company to maintain their intellectual property, and to partner with people where you can have confidence and trust in that partnership…and trust is built over time. And it’s possible to erode trust based on actions. So whoever we partner with, has to have demonstrated that they’re a good actor in the space community.” You have to be able to trust that your technology is safe with that actor.

Do you have a wish list for Canadian space policy and regulatory frameworks?

We don’t want regulation for regulation’s sake. What is needed to optimize a free market in space is regulation to make sure that negative impacts of activities such as space debris are minimized, while working to help people work well, and companies work well with each other. This fosters growth and translates into high technology jobs here in Canada. Doing this internationally requires leadership.

“Canada has an opportunity to be a leader, in many ways. It would be really cool to watch Canada take the lead on how to maintain this environment in space that allows us to have a burgeoning market there.”

To listen to this Space Café insight into the space industry, you can watch the full program here:

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