By Tom Spears, The Ottawa Citizen June 13, 2012

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The rover is designed to look for and dig up soil rich in hydrogen near the moon’s north or south pole. Lunar soil is also rich in oxygen, so if future astronauts can extract both hydrogen and oxygen they can make their own water. The rover could also be adapted for a mission to Mars.

OTTAWA — Canada’s brand new made-in-Ottawa lunar rover was previewed for American eyes only this week, as the Canadian Space Agency and NASA showed off Artemis Jr. to U.S. media.

Never publicly unveiled in Canada, the four-wheeled rover is designed to help astronauts find water on the moon, on a future NASA mission or with the European Space Agency.

It’s built by a group of companies, with Ottawa’s Neptec Design Group as the prime contractor.

The remote-controlled prototype is on its way to Hawaii, where it will be tested halfway up a volcano in steep, rocky, moon-like conditions.

The rover is designed to look for and dig up soil rich in hydrogen near the moon’s north or south pole. Lunar soil is also rich in oxygen, so if future astronauts can extract both hydrogen and oxygen they can make their own water.

The rover could also be adapted for a mission to Mars.

Canada has already spent many years developing drills based on mining equipment to penetrate the surface of Mars, the moon or an asteroid to search for minerals or signs of ancient life.

Since it doesn’t need astronauts to operate it, Artemis Jr. could be flown to the moon within 10 years, as early as 2017, said Gilles Leclerc, the CSA’s director general of space exploration.

“It’s very much dependent on the availability of NASA’s space launch system, the heavy launcher that they are developing … That won’t be available before 2017 (or) 2018.”

Canadian Space Agency spokesman Daniel Lefebvre told reporters in Florida that the Hawaiian testing is crucial.

“We want to make sure that we’re ready to use these items in space when and if” there’s a mission, he said.

Controlling the self-propelled, robotic rover looks a little like playing a video game.

“It’s not like a video game,” Ewan Reid, a systems and electrical designer for Neptec, told U.S. media. “In a video game you have a certain number of lives, and you use them up and then you start a new game. Well we only have one life. If we make one mistake that’s the end of the mission.”

“It is exciting because you’re moving something and looking at all these monitors and you can see the displays.”

“In a sense it is similar (to a game) but you have to take it a little more seriously.”

The rover can pivot on one spot, moving the right wheels forward and the left ones in reverse. It has coarse treads that look like metal snow tires, and a solar panel that looks like a flat roof.

It’s designed for NASA’s Regolith & Environment Science and Oxygen & Lunar Volatile Extraction (RESOLVE) project, which involves heating the “regolith” (loose minerals on the moon’s surface) to extract gas.

Artemis Jr. is a scaled-down version of the Artemis rover also being developed by Neptec, which will carry astronauts or cargo.

Both rovers have another major Canadian connection: Ontario Drive and Gear of New Hamburg, Ont., builds parts that include the chassis and engines.

Neptec is a prominent space engineering company, supplying sensors and vision systems to the shuttles and the International Space Station. After the loss of Columbia, Neptec designed the laser scanner that checked for launch damage on the undersides of shuttles on all later flights.

Another Ottawa company involved in the rover is Provectus Robotics Solutions, which provided software.

The Canadian Space Agency didn’t tell Canadian reporters about the first look at their homegrown rover because it is planning an unveiling of this and other rovers next fall.

Leclerc said NASA arranged at the last minute to show it off at the Kennedy Space Center.

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