Fifty years ago this month was the last time humans walked on the surface of the moon, during the Apollo 17 mission. NASA recently took the first major step in returning humans to the moon with the Artemis I mission.
With this mission, Canada is poised to embark on a new era of lunar exploration.
I am a planetary geologist who studies rocks from the Earth, moon and Mars in the quest to understand the origin and evolution of our solar system and of life itself, and provide geology training to the Artemis astronauts. I am also the principal investigator for the Canadian Lunar Rover Mission.
From Apollo to Artemis
While led by NASA, this return to the moon is very much an international endeavour, carrying on the spirit of the International Space Station. Indeed, even on Artemis I, a key contribution was the European Service Module, which provides power, oxygen and water to the Orion Crew Module.
Artemis I is an entire program dedicated to not only returning to the surface of the moon with humans (including landing the first woman and first person of colour astronauts), but to establish the first long-term presence on both the surface of the moon and via the Lunar Gateway, an outpost orbiting the moon.
With great foresight, Canada was one of the original eight countries to sign the Artemis Accords, a series of multilateral agreements between the United States and the governments of those countries wishing to participate in the Artemis Program. Since the initial signing in October 2020, a further 13 countries have joined this truly international effort.
The first Canadian to the moon
The second scheduled mission, Artemis II, will mark the first time in 50 years that humans will return to the moon with a flyby manoeuvre analogous to what the first Apollo mission, Apollo 8, did in 1968.
Canada has perhaps pulled one of the biggest coups in space exploration history by securing a seat for a Canadian astronaut on Artemis II, scheduled for 2024.
In addition to travelling farther from our planet than any Canadian has ever been, this mission, which will last up to three weeks, will test all the necessary technologies required for the subsequent Artemis III mission that will land humans on the moon.
This will make Canada only the second country in the world to send a human to deep space. For the first time in history, Canadian eyes will witness the iconic Earthrise as the spacecraft reappears from behind the moon in a lunar flyby.
Canada’s role in lunar exploration
As we wait for Artemis II and III to launch, there is an incredible amount of activity in Canada related to lunar exploration. Canada’s moon aspirations received a huge boost in February 2019, when the Canadian government announced new funding for the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). This funding supports Canada’s participation in the NASA-led Lunar Gateway and to establish the Lunar Exploration Accelerator Program (LEAP).
Canada’s main contribution to the Lunar Gateway is the Canadarm3, a robotic arm. This contribution, built by Canadian space technology company MDA, cannot be overemphasized: it is a critical piece of infrastructure, without which NASA and its other international partners would not be able to build or operate the Gateway.
Canadian space technology
On Nov. 14, the Canadian government announced that Canadensys Aerospace Corporation had been awarded a $43-million contract through the LEAP program to design and build a lunar rover. This will be the first Canadian-led rover mission to the surface of another planetary body.
The rover will study the geology in the south pole region of the moon and explore for water ice. As the principal investigator for this mission, I will be working with five universities and eight Canadian companies.
It’s important to highlight that designing this rover is one of the greatest engineering challenges that Canadians have ever taken on. I am incredibly proud of what our team has accomplished so far, but we have a lot of work to do to get ready for 2026.
In addition to needing to cram everything, including seven science instruments, into a tiny 30-kilogram package, we have to ensure that everything can survive a lunar night. By comparison, the Perseverance rover currently operating on Mars weighs in at a whopping 1,025 kilograms.
While this may not sound like much, a lunar night can last up to 14 Earth days and temperatures can plummet down to as low as −200 C. Achieving this could have implications for our long Canadian winters.
Thankfully, we won’t need to wait three years to see Canadian technology reach the surface of the moon.
On the same day the Orion capsule returned to Earth, the Emirates Lunar Mission launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. This mission is the future of global collaboration: an international micro-rover mission led by the United Arab Emirates, with a lander designed and built by the Japanese company ispace and a launch provided by SpaceX.
With funding through the CSA’s LEAP program, Ottawa-based Mission Control Space Services is developing deep learning software for lunar missions.
Canadensys is also developing an AI-enabled 360-degree camera onboard the lunar rover, and will be testing more technologies on three more lunar missions.
Space demonstrates what humanity can do when we work together to tackle seemingly insurmountable challenges. The images from Apollo and Artemis remind us that we are all passengers on spaceship Earth, a pale blue dot adrift in the vastness of space, and our only home that we must preserve and protect.