Canada Looks to the Future in Space

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When it comes to space, the first thing most people think of is NASA. Or Russia and the European Space Agency, or even more recently, countries like China and Japan. In the public eye, Canada has tended to be a bit farther down on the list. There is the Canadian Space Agency, but it is better known for developing space and satellite technologies, not awe-inspiring launches to the Moon or other planets, which naturally tend to get the most attention.

Canada has its own astronauts, too, but they go into orbit on the Space Shuttle or Russian rockets. Canada’s role in space should not, however, be underestimated. It was, for example, the first country to have a domestic communications satellite in geostationary orbit, Anik A1, in 1972. There is also the well-known Canadarm used on the Space Shuttle and Canadarm2 on the International Space Station, as well as the space robot Dextre on the ISS. Canada has also contributed technology to various robotic planetary missions as well.

But even in these times of budget constraints, new ventures are being planned, including a mission to place two video cameras on the International Space Station late next year, via a Russian mission.

The cameras will provide near real-time video broadcasting continuously in high-definition. The cameras are being developed by Urthecast, a Vancouver-based firm, which is investing $10 million in the project.

Like their American counterparts now, the investment and development of space technology is coming increasingly from the private sector instead of the government. In 1996, the Canadian government contributed 32% to domestic space revenue; in 2010, it was only 18% and it is estimated to drop again over the next three years.

Because of smaller budgets, the CSA focuses on assisting with larger missions from other countries instead of developing its own launch vehicles. According to Mark Burbidge, head of industrial policy at the CSA, the Canadian Space Agency doesn’t have the money for such projects. “That got our astronauts up there,” he says, referring to the Canadarm.

Another area that Canada may be able to contribute to is space tourism, a prime example of private companies becoming involved in the space business. Companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and Bigelow Airspace are changing the way that people will go into near-orbit and low-Earth orbit. No dependence solely on government dollars to finance their objectives such as tourist space flights, small orbiting hotels or launching commercial satellites.

At this stage, government funding is still often required, especially for smaller firms, but the future looks promising. Space companies are becoming gradually less reliant on the government for revenue growth. The investment return tends to be primarily a scientific one, according to Dr. Jean de Lafontaine, founder of space services company NGC Aerospace in Quebec, making space tourism more of an ideal option for private companies.

This would seem to be an optimum arrangement, allowing companies to compete in orbital missions and tourism, while government agencies like NASA, ESA, etc. are better able to invest in larger-scale planetary missions and other costly space projects (noting however that some commercial companies also have their eyes on the Moon and Mars).

Canada may not have its own rockets or grandiose space missions, not yet anyway, but it will continue to make important contributions to space exploration. And as a Canadian, I am very pleased about that!

Toronto Teens Launch “Lego Man in Space”

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Updated:Jan. 30

Two teens from Toronto,Canada have launched “Lego Man in Space” using a helium filled weather balloon and captured stunning video of the miniature toy figure back dropped by the beautiful curvature of Earth and the desolate blackness of space that’s become a worldwide YouTube sensation – over 2 million hits !

17 year olds Mathew Ho and Asad Muhammad lofted the tiny 2 inch tall Lego figure from a local Toronto soccer field up to a height of about 85,000 feet, or 16 miles (25 kilometers), where the 22 foot (7 m) diameter helium balloon burst in what is technically known as the stratosphere. The homemade styrofoam capsule – equipped with two video cameras and two digital cameras (Canon) – then parachuted back to Earth.

“We launched the project on January 7,” Mathew Ho told Universe Today.

“Altogether, we used 4 cameras, two cameras taking stills, and two taking video – Canon, Sony, GoPro – in the 1 cubic foot capsule,” Ho explained.

“After endless hours of hard work, we managed to capture stunning views of our atmosphere and put a ‘Lego’ man into near space!” said the ambitious teens who are 12th graders at the Agincourt Collegiate Institute.

The pair posted a YouTube video (below) documenting the entire voyage and some camera snapshots on their website on January 25.

Lego Man even snapped cool Moon shots – look closely at the video and photo below.

“Lego Man in Space” – The Video

The duo recounted the details of their sensational space tale of science on a shoestring for Canadian TV and newspapers.

“Upon launch we were very relieved. But we had a lot of anxiety on launch day because there were high winds when we were going up after all the hard work,” said Ho in a studio interview on Canadian TV (CTV).

“We were also scared because now we would have to retrieve it back after it came down,” Asad chimed in.

“We had no idea it would capture photos like that and would be so good,” said Ho. “We were blown away when we saw them back home.”

The toy Lego astronaut is seen standing atop a thin runway protruding precariously from one end of the small, box shaped capsule as though he was walking the plank and about to plunge into the ocean of space. All the while, cameras were aimed directly out towards him recording the entire rollicking journey from liftoff to the stratosphere to landing, with a constantly changing Earth in the background.

Altogether they netted two videos and 1500 photos.

Lego Man in Space shoots the Moon !
Credit: Mathew Ho and Asad Muhammad

Coincidentally, several Lego toys are constantly flying even higher above the Earth at this very moment aboard the International Space Station as part of an educational outreach effort by NASA and Lego. And 3 more Lego figurines are speeding to Jupiter aboard NASA’s Juno orbiter.

Legoman’s spectacular journey lasted some 97 minutes. He’s beaming proudly throughout the video while holding the Canadian National flag – the Red Maple Leaf. The rollercoaster-like scenery may well challenge the stomachs of those with fear of heights.

The tumbling Lego Man in Space capsule upon the violent descent captured the moment before the parachute was activated. Credit: Mathew Ho and Asad Muhammad

Mathew and Asad worked over about four months one day a week on Saturdays to assemble the rig in Mathew’s kitchen and successfully accomplished the feat on a shoestring budget of merely 400 dollars. They used GPS trackers to locate “Lego Man in Space” and recover the intact capsule holding the imagery.

After the balloon burst at 85,000 feet, the parachute assisted descent back to Earth took about 32 minutes. Winds aloft caused the capsule to drift some 76 miles (122 kilometers) away from the launch site before landing at Rice Lake in one piece.

Lego Man in Space capsule after landing 76 miles (122 kilometers) away from the Toronto soccor field launch site. Credit: Mathew Ho and Asad Muhammad

“We were jumping for joy when we saw the capsule and the parachute. We were ecstatic when we found it,” said Ho.

“We have a long history of passionate building and working together,” Ho told CTV.

The project began after they saw that MIT students had sent a camera to the edge of space with a balloon and captured stunning views.

“We were inspired by videos and pictures we had seen online two years ago and we began working on this in the Fall of 2011. In total the project cost about $400 Canadian,” Ho told me.

“We hope to publish more pictures and video to our Facebook page and website soon,” Ho added.

And now we know another truth about Lego’s – Not only can they withstand the destructive forces of kids, but outer space too !

Gallery: 10 Years of Canadarm2, Construction Crane in Space

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On April 19, 2001, space shuttle Endeavour’s STS-100 mission launched to the space station, and in the payload bay was Canadarm2, a larger, more robust successor to the shuttle’s Canadarm. The Space Station Remote Manipulator System (SSRMS) is a sophisticated “construction crane,” and is responsible for much of the successful building of the ISS — module by module — in space.

“She is without a doubt one of the most critical components on board station having participated in the construction of the spacecraft that is on orbit today,” said Mike Suffredini, Program Manager of the International Space Station. “Twenty-nine missions have been supported by Canadarm2, two of them capturing and berthing the HTV vehicle, and in all that time with absolutely flawless performance. Without her we couldn’t have gotten to where we are today.”

See a gallery of images of Canadarm2’s 10 years in the space construction business.


April 22, 2001 – History is made. Canadian Space Agency Astronaut Chris Hadfield, attached to Canadarm, installs the next-generation Canadarm2 to the International Space Station during Shuttle Mission STS-100. Credit: NASA

Canadarm2 was installed on the ISS by astronaut Chris Hadfield during the first spacewalk by a Canadian. Canadarm2 has unloaded hundreds of tons of equipment and supplies ferried by the shuttle and assisted almost 100 spacewalks. Endeavour’s last flight later this month will mark Canadarm2’s 28th Shuttle mission.

July 15, 2001 – Canadarm2 performs its first official task, attaching the Quest Airlock to the Unity module of the International Space Station during Shuttle Mission STS-104. Credit: NASA

The Canadian Space Agency says that Canadarm2’s role on the ISS will expand as the orbital lab nears completion: in addition to performing routine maintenance, the robotic arm will make more frequent “cosmic catches,” where it will capture, dock and later release visiting spacecraft, as it has done with the HTV. When the space shuttle retires, reusable commercial spacecraft, like SpaceX’s Dragon and Orbital’s Cygnus, will be used to bring supplies and equipment to the ISS. Canadarm2 will capture each of these visiting vehicles. In late 2011 and early 2012, Canadarm2 will capture a series of 6 commercial spacecraft in just 7 months, beginning with the Dragon spacecraft, currently scheduled to arrive in October 2011.

How the ISS looked back in 2001, with Canadarm2 showing prominently. Credit: NASA
June 15, 2007 – Shuttle Mission STS-117 continued assembly operations that featured more work on the Station’s solar arrays. In this image, NASA astronaut Jim Reilly, attached to Canadarm2, and NASA colleague John “Danny” Olivas, are folding up an older solar panel so that it can be stowed and moved to another location on a future shuttle mission. Credit: NASA
November 3, 2007 – Canadarm2 played a big role in helping astronauts fix a torn solar array. The arm’s reach was extended by the Orbiter Boom Sensor System, and here, allowing astronaut Scott Parazynski analyses the solar panel while anchored to the boom. Credit: NASA
February 12, 2008 – Here, Canadarm2 has a firm grip on the European Space Agency’s Columbus module, which it grappled and attached to the station. Credit: NASA

More info on the SSRMS and how it was built:

The Expedition 27 crew on board the ISS pay tribute to 10 years of the SSRMS:

See more images and info at CSA’s website.

Oh Canada! Hadfield Named First Canadian Commander of ISS

Congratulations to one of our favorite astronauts, Chris Hadfield from Canada. Today NASA and the Canadian Space Agency announced Hadfield will be heading to the International Space Station in 2012, serving as Flight Engineer for Expedition 34, and then transitioning to Commander midway through his 6-month stay when Expedition 35 begins. Hadfield will be the first Canadian to serve as Commander for the ISS. His ebullient style and passion for space exploration — evident in the video above from today’s announcement (Hadfield speaks in both French and English, so don’t worry if you’re not fluent in one or the other) should make for a lively and enlightening time on the ISS.

“This honor is beyond words,” Hadfield said at today’s announcement. “To have this opportunity is extremely challenging, extremely exciting and extremely rewarding. It still is two years away, I still have to pass two more of the toughest physicals on Earth before they’ll let me get in that Soyuz and dock with the space station… To be trusted … with the entire station on behalf of all the world’s space faring nations, but specifically Canada is a tremendous honor that we all can share.”

While there have been several great ambassadors for the wonders of space exploration who have served on board the ISS, Hadfield is one astronaut who can truly share what the experience of spaceflight is really like. See our interview with Hadfield where he describes what it is like to go on a spacewalk. (Or you can listen to the interview on the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast here.) He also has a great description of how to go the bathroom in space.

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Above is Hadfield’s mission patch, in the shape of a guitar pick, which is symbolic of Hadfield’s musical interests with an emphasis on science and art, a distinguishing feature of Expedition 34/35, says Robert Pearlman from collectSPACE.

Joining Hadfield will be US astronaut Tom Marshburn, and Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko will also serve as flight engineers for the Expedition 34 mission. Astronaut Kevin Ford and Russian cosmonauts Oleg Novitskiy and Evgeny Tarelkin were previously announced as the other crew members for Expedition 34, which begins when Soyuz 31 undocks from the station in October 2012.

Expedition 35 will begin with the undocking of Soyuz 32 in March 2013. At that time, Hadfield will serve as station commander, with Marshburn and Romanenko continuing as flight engineers. The three additional crew members for Expedition 35 have yet to be assigned.

Hadfield and Marshburn have already completed an expedition together on the NEEMO (NASA’s Extreme Environment Mission Operations) underwater habitat, so they should make a great team in space. You can read Universe Today’s interview with them during their mission under the sea.

Sources: NASA, SpaceRef, CSA