LONGUEUIL, Que. - Move over Canadarm: the rovers are coming! the rovers are coming!
The Canadian Space Agency held a news conference on Friday to roll out a fleet of about a half-dozen prototype rovers that are the forerunners of vehicles that may one day explore the moon or Mars.
The agency said the terrestrial rovers bring it one step closer to developing the next generation for space exploration.
Some are knee-high mini-rovers that can work side-by-side, helping astronauts to dig or scout out small spaces like caves.
Then there are larger rovers, like a six-wheeled lunar exploration version, which can be upgraded to transport astronauts around the moon.
Gilles Leclerc, the agency's director-general of space exploration, said it could be at least eight years before the final versions of the robotic workhorses head for distant destinations.
"The horizon we're looking at in terms of taking the technologies on these terrestrial prototypes and transferring them into a real space mission to the moon or Mars is about 2020," he said.
Leclerc said the lunar and Martian space rovers now in development put Canada in a good position and he pointed out that NASA is already knocking at the door.
"In fact, we have an invitation right now from NASA to start working on advancing these technologies and taking them to flight for eventually a mission," he said.
Leclerc said Canada has a long legacy of developing technologies for the mining industry and that those technologies would be useful in space exploration.
"A large chunk of the activities we are going to do on the moon and Mars are related to geology and mining," he noted.
Leclerc said "Artemis," a lightweight four-wheeled rover, and the larger six-wheeled "Lunar Exploration Light Rover" are good candidates for the moon.
Iain Christie, president of Neptec, the prime contractor for Artemis, said Canada is "as far advanced as anybody certainly for the next round of lunar exploration."
"NASA has an experiment that they have been considering...that involves digging up lunar soil and making hydrogen and oxygen out of the soil," he said in an interview.
Industry Minister Christian Paradis, who attended the news conference along with space agency president Steve MacLean, said the technology being developed creates economic spinoffs.
One example shown to the media was an electric all-terrain vehicle developed by Bombardier Recreational Products.
"We were able to transfer that technology and create a new vehicle completely electric and we are now distributing and manufacturing it in Sherbrooke," spokesman Pierre Pichette said.
MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associated (MDA) and Neptec Design Group are the prime contractors on several of the rovers.