MONTREAL - Canada could play a key role in a new international space race, with the next sprint to the moon gearing up as an extra-terrestrial gold rush.
Industry insiders will be watching closely this week as the heads of the world's five biggest space agencies get together in Quebec City, where the partners on the International Space Station will discuss more than just the future of the orbiting lab.
They will also address an idea gaining currency in business and scientific circles: that within human reach lies an unfathomable wealth of resources, some of them common on Earth and others so exotic that they could change the way we live.
Canada could figure prominently in any discussion about lunar exploration, with nearly one-quarter of the world's top mining companies headquartered here and this country also known for robotics like the famous Canadarm.
Several countries, including China, have expressed a desire to start mining the moon's resources. The mining industry is now waiting for the Canadian Space Agency to make its intentions known, while the agency awaits direction from the federal government.
"When members of the international space community decide to go to the Moon or Mars, the CSA and Canada will be ready to contribute," the agency told The Canadian Press in an email last week.
The CSA has already begun developing a number of prototype lunar rovers, in co-operation with NASA and several Canadian firms.
The testing of these prototypes on Earth, with special drills for excavating, has already begun and more tests are planned this summer in Hawaii. The next phase would involve building space-bound rovers — but the CSA can't move forward without federal approval.
"They're not headed for the moon, yet, although we have hopes for sure," Iain Christie, the president of Neptec Design Group, maker of one of the excavation rovers, said in an interview.
"We're making, I think, a contribution to what Canada's future space program might look like."
Ottawa-based Neptec made the laser-camera system that was used to inspect for damage on the exterior of the recently retired U.S. space shuttles.
For Christie, Canada's post-shuttle vocation is a no-brainer.
Of the top 40 global mining companies, with combined assets approaching $1 trillion, nine are Canadian, according to a 2011 study by PricewaterhouseCoopers.
"On this planet, we are amongst the leading nations in figuring out how to extract resources from underneath the ground (and) we're also one of the leading countries in space exploration," he said.
Christie added that putting those two together makes a lot of sense: "It appears to me, at least from doing a quick survey of what other nations are doing, that it's also a niche that other countries might be prepared to let Canada excel at."
The moon is home to a number of compounds that are not readily available on Earth — like Helium-3, a gas that could potentially fuel future nuclear-fusion power plants. Such a development would hold drastic implications for human activity, beginning with energy consumption. The moon also contains gold, platinum-group elements, and rare-earth elements.
Drilling for lunar resources may not be that far off. Some predict it could start by the end of this decade.
Since 2004, Neptec, NASA, the Canadian Space Agency and the Northern Centre for Advanced Technology (NORCAT) have all been working on a drilling project, called RESOLVE, which involves water ice on the Moon.
"It's a very wet place and water is the Holy Grail for space exploration," said Dale Boucher, a senior developer at NORCAT, said in an interview from his office in Sudbury, Ont.
"Water provides life support and, when you break it down into hydrogen and oxygen, it will provide fuel for ascent and even fuel for electric power generation, like in a fuel cell."
With hydrogen, the moon could hold the energy necessary to launch flights into deeper space. Several countries are even looking beyond the moon for possible mining sites, to Mars and also to asteroids.
Creating a permanent lunar outpost would be a precondition for any such projects. The Russians have already been talking about establishing a moon base by the year 2020.
But there's a slight chicken-and-egg connundrum: Boucher says there can't be a long-term lunar presence without water. And before water can be produced on the moon, there would first have to be some kind of mining.
Producing lunar H2o is necessary — because to ship up the water required to sustain human life, there would be an out-of-this-world price tag.
"The average cost right now is estimated at a quarter of a million dollars for a one-litre bottle of water soft-landed on the Moon," Boucher said.
He believes Canadian mining expertise will prove to be "our toe in the door."
"I think we're kind of on the threshold of a mining boom on the moon and I think that we're very close," Boucher said.
"I think it's the next great activity similar to the Canadarm."
Space mining is not new to NORCAT, which develops new technologies for the mining industry. Boucher said the company has been building drills for NASA and the CSA since 1999.
The lead scientist on NASA's RESOLVE drilling project, Tony Colaprete, was also the principal investigator for LCROSS, the 2009 lunar probe that found a significant amount of water ice on the moon.
Colaprete says the next step is to find the veins of water on the moon and map out its distribution. That's where RESOLVE would go to work, drilling for samples and analyzing their components.
He says the equipment will be ready to be flown to the moon at the end of 2014. He adds that people are already interested in flying it, both commercially and within NASA.
One missing piece is a rocket to get RESOLVE to the lunar surface.
The United States is now focusing its attention on developing a heavy-lifting rocket known as the SLS, which will replace the shuttle program, but Colaprete says it isn't due to launch until 2017. The SLS, or Space Launch System, is a heavy-launch vehicle being designed by NASA and is expected to be the means of transportation for the RESOLVE payload.
That means the soonest there could be a rover driving around on the moon with RESOLVE is likely around the end of the decade, if all goes well with SLS.
"I think you can say certainly something could occur within a decade — where we're driving on the moon, finding exactly where the water is, and sampling and tasting it, so to speak," Colaprete said.