By Tom Spears, OTTAWA CITIZEN | November 18, 2013

OTTAWA — Neptec Design Group of Ottawa is the front-runner to build the next moon rover — a travelling robot that will hunt for water on an unmanned NASA mission in 2017.

NASA has asked the Canadian Space Agency specifically for Neptec’s rover, called Artemis Jr., said Mike Kearns, president of space exploration with the Ottawa aerospace engineering firm.

It has chosen a Canadian drill and Canadian avionics, too.

NASA wants to explore the moon as a stepping stone for eventual human flight to Mars.

“One of the missions on that path is called RESOLVE, renamed by some people now as the Lunar Prospector Mission,” Kearns said.

“NASA, for funding reasons, has asked CSA to provide the rover and the drill. And they actually asked for our Neptec rover … and for the drill that is made by a company called Deltion.” (Deltion Innovations of Sudbury took over the design that originated with NORCAT. Its drill developed out of Canadian mining technology.)

What sealed NASA’s interest was a test drive of the rover prototype on the side of a Hawaiian volcano, in 2012. Chosen to simulate the harsh landscape of the moon and Mars, it provided a place for Artemis Jr. to drive, pivot and steer past obstacles using its vision system and navigation software. It passed nine days of tests.

It’s called “Jr.” because this is a scaled-down version of a Neptec rover designed to carry astronauts, called Artemis.

Searching for water in space is vital. Not only can astronauts drink it, but it can be broken down into oxygen and hydrogen, both used in rocket propellant. Artemis Jr. could also search for methane.

Neptec hopes the 2017 date will resonate with politicians who want some flag-waving in Canada’s 150th year.

“The question that always comes up is: That’s very nice but what’s the financial benefit? What’s the return to the taxpayers. And the answer is that … for every dollar that CSA gives us, we end up with $10, mostly in export sales. We sell those products around the world.”

While the Canadian Space Agency can open the bidding to include MDA, the Canadarm builders, Kearns says NASA’s preference gives his company’s Artemis Jr. rover a strong chance.

MDA officials weren’t available for comment Monday.

NASA is publicly leaning toward the Neptec team. In a description of the mission it writes: “RESOLVE is not just a NASA effort; the Canadian Space Agency provided Artemis Jr., which is the rover for the payload; the onboard drill and sample transfer system; as well as avionics microprocessors.”

Artemis Jr. is actually the product of a group of Canadian companies: Ontario Drive and Gear, from New Hamburg, Ont.; ComDev and Neptec from Ottawa; Deltion; and NGC from Sherbrooke.

The four-wheeled rover can pivot on one spot, moving the right wheels forward and the left ones in reverse. It has coarse metal treads for traction, and a solar panel on top.

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.

Coincidentally, a prominent Canadian space scientist called Monday for more space robotics.

Peter Brown, director of Western University’s Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration, asked for “firm, long term commitment by Canada to be involved in robotic/human exploration to an asteroid — the No. 1 priority at NASA, probably in partnership with NASA.”


Great Rovers in space history

Rovers and other landers change with every mission. Past notable ones include:

• Lunokhod 1, 1970. Soviet Union landed the first lunar rover, an unmanned, eight-wheeled, durable machine. It weighed 5.6 tonnes. Its twin Lunokhod 2 drove 37 kilometres — an off-planet record.

• Apollo Lunar Roving Vehicles, or moon buggies. Four-wheeled vehicles on the last three Apollo missions could hold two astronauts and equipment. The last one drove more than 30 km.

• Beagle 2, British Mars lander aboard a European Space Agency mission. It weighed just 33 kg and contact was lost on its arrival in 2003. Presumed destroyed.

• Mars Phoenix landed on Mars in 2008. It carried a Canadian instrument that found, for the first time, snow falling on Mars.

Unlike the Apollo buggies, Mars rovers are packed with equipment to do experiments. Phoenix found abundant water-ice. It weighed 350 kg and couldn’t travel; it sat on a tripod.

• Spirit and Opportunity. Twin NASA Mars probes landed weeks apart in 2004, and Opportunity is still running, having travelled more than 35 km. They are six-wheeled machines packed with cameras and weigh 185 kilos each. They also do soil sampling.

• Mars Curiosity: A much bigger rover, it weighs 899 kg, including 80 kg of instruments. It runs on non-fissile plutonium which produces electricity, and has six wheels. Landed in August, 2012. Still going strong.


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