Astronaut’s Mission Is To Snatch A Dragon Without Crashing The Canadarm

When there’s a Dragon spacecraft coming your way at the International Space Station, you’d better be ready to grapple it with a robotic arm. For if there’s a crash, you will face “a very bad day”, as astronaut David Saint-Jacques points out in this new video (also embedded below the jump).

That’s why the Canadian (along with European Space Agency astronaut Andreas Mogensen) was doing robotics training this month at the Canadian Space Agency headquarters near Montreal. The most terrifying thing for astronauts must be the limited view as they do delicate maneuvers with the multi-million dollar Canadarm2.

“All you’ve got, really, while you’re working, is this workstation,” Saint-Jacques said. “You’ve got a couple of camera views to work from. You’ve got your hand controllers to move the arm, and you’ve got some computer displays, and a bunch of switches here on the left.”

“That’s all you’ve got,” he added. “You’ve really got to think ahead: how you’re going to maneuver this arm without crashing into anything.”

The video is the latest in a training series by Mogensen, who will go to the International Space Station in 2015. Saint-Jacques — a fellow 2009 astronaut class selectee — has not been assigned to a flight yet (at least publicly).

The first Canadarm, which cost about $100 million in late 1970s dollars, flew on the second shuttle flight in 1981. Canadarm2 was constructed for space station construction in the 2000s, and is still used today for spacewalks.

Berthing spacecraft is reportedly not what it was originally designed for, but the robotic arm has proved an able tool to pick up the Dragon spacecraft and other visitors to the station.

Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques at the simulator used to train astronauts on Canadarm2, a robotic arm used on the International Space Station. The facility is located at the Canadian Space Agency near Montreal, Canada. Credit: Andreas Mogensen/YouTube (screenshot)
Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques at the simulator used to train astronauts on Canadarm2, a robotic arm used on the International Space Station. The facility is located at the Canadian Space Agency near Montreal, Canada. Credit: Andreas Mogensen/YouTube (screenshot)

Robots And Astronauts Feature In First Glimpse of Canada’s New Space Policy

About six years ago, the Canadarm — Canada’s iconic robotic arm used in space — was almost sold to a company in the United States, along with other space technology from MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates. The Canadian government blocked the sale and swiftly came out with a promise: a space policy to better support Canada’s industry.

That promise was made in September 2008. “Time is of the essence,” then-Industry Minister Jim Prentice told reporters upon announcing a space policy would be created. Today, 65 months later, the government released the high-level framework of that policy. Astronauts, telescopes and yes, the Canadarm are all prominently mentioned in there.

A lot has happened in six years. Policy-makers used to cite successor Canadarm2’s role in space station construction. Now the arm also does things that were barely imaginable in 2008 — namely, berthing commercial spacecraft such as SpaceX’s Dragon at the International Space Station. It shows how quickly space technology can change in half a decade.

At 13 pages, there isn’t a lot of information in Canada’s framework yet to talk about, but there are some statements about government priorities. Keep the astronaut program going (which is great news after the success of Chris Hadfield). A heavy emphasis on private sector collaboration. And a promise to keep funding Canada’s contribution to the James Webb Space Telescope, NASA’s next large observatory in space.

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield prior to his world-famous Expedition 34/35 mission in 2013. Credit: NASA
Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield prior to his world-famous Expedition 34/35 mission in 2013. Credit: NASA

These are the Top 5 priorities listed in the plan:

  • Canada First: Serving Canada’s interests of “sovereignty, security and prosperity.” As an example: The country has a huge land-mass that is sparsely populated, so satellites are regularly used to see what ship and other activity is going on in the territories. This is a big reason why the Radarsat Constellation of satellites is launching in 2018.
  • Working together globally: Canada has a tiny space budget ($488.7 million in 2013-14, $435.2 million in 2014-15 and $382.9 million in 2015-16), so it relies on other countries to get its payloads, astronauts and satellites into space. This section also refers to Canada’s commitment to the International Space Station, which (as with other nations) extends to at least 2024. That’s good news for astronauts Jeremy Hansen and David Saint-Jacques, who are waiting for their first trip there.
  • Promoting Canadian innovation: The James Webb Telescope (to which Canada is contributing optics and a guidance system) is specifically cited here along with the Canadarm. Priority areas are Canada’s historic strengths of robotics, optics, satellite communications, and space-based radar, as well as “areas of emerging expertise.”
  • Inspiring Canadians: Basically a statement saying that the government will “recruit, and retain highly qualified personnel,” which in more real terms means that it will need to keep supporting Canadian space companies financially through contracts, for example, to make this happen.

That last point in particular seemed to resonate with at least one industry group.

James Webb Space Telescope. Image credit: NASA/JPL
James Webb Space Telescope. Image credit: NASA/JPL

“A long-term strategic plan for Canada’s space program is critical for our industry. In order to effectively invest in innovation, technology and product development, we rely heavily on knowing what the government’s priorities for the space program are,” stated Jim Quick, president of the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada (a major group that represents the interests of private space companies.)

While we wait for more details to come out, here’s some valuable background reading. The space-based volume of the Emerson Report (the findings of a government-appointed aerospace review board listed in 2012) called for more money for and more stable funding of the Canadian Space Agency, among other recommendations.

And here’s the government’s point-by-point response in late 2013. In response to funding: “The CSA’s total funding will remain unchanged and at current levels. The government will also leverage existing programs to better support the space industry.” Additionally, the CSA’s space technologies development program will be doubled to $20 million annually by 2015-16, which is still below the Emerson report’s recommendation of adding $10 million for each of the next three years.

What are your thoughts on the policy? Let us know in the comments.

Speedy Spacewalkers Ahead Of Pace As Next Repair Moved To Tuesday

The ghosts of spacewalks past did not haunt the quick-working pair of astronauts who began replacing a faulty ammonia pump on the International Space Station today (Dec. 21).

Unlike a difficult spacewalk to do a similar repair in 2010, NASA astronauts Rick Mastracchio and Mike Hopkins were so far ahead of schedule that they began doing tasks scheduled for the second in their expected trio of spacewalks.

In better news yet for the spacewalkers, a water leak in Hopkins’ spacesuit this past July — one that sent astronauts scrambling back to the airlock for safety — did not happen again, showing that the part replacement NASA directed had worked. An unrelated water issue in Mastracchio’s suit, however, made agency officials decide to delay the next spacewalk one day to Dec. 24.

The pump replacement is needed to put the space station at full fighting weight. Since Dec. 11, science experiments and other non-critical systems have been offline since a valve in the pump broke. While the astronauts are in no immediate danger, one of their two cooling loops is shut down and there is not a big margin of safety if the other loop fails.

Since this is NASA’s first spacewalk since the leaky suit was last used, the agency emphasized two new measures it has to protect the astronauts if another leak occurs. The first is a new helmet absorption pad (HAP) to soak up any water in the helmet. The second is a pipe — a snorkel — that would let astronauts breathe air from another part of the suit, if required.

But with every “HAP check” that CapCom and astronaut Doug Wheelock called up to the astronauts today, they reported that the suits were dry and everything was fine. The new water issue happened after the spacewalk, while the astronauts were repressurizing the airlock. In a statement, NASA said water could have entered Mastracchio’s suit sublimator and decided to switch him to a backup suit as a precaution.

The spacewalk tasks themselves, however, went far more swiftly than problems Wheelock experienced in 2010, such as when an ammonia line on the pump refused to unhook as required and caused a lengthy delay. NASA made some changes (such as lowering the pressure on the lines, as Wheelock told Universe Today), and this time, Mastracchio powered through the line and electrical removals. The astronauts quickly moved 1.5 hours of schedule and then beyond. A few stray ammonia flakes hit Mastracchio’s suit, but not enough to cause concerns about contamination since the traces of substance baked off in the sun as he worked.

“I don’t know if you believe in miracles, but I got it on the first try,” Mastracchio radioed early in the spacewalk as he got a tricky part of a Canadian robotic arm foot restraint threaded. Mastracchio rode the arm for much of the spacewalk while Hopkins was the “free floating” colleague hovering and doing other tasks nearby.

NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio (right) pulls an 800-pound ammonia pump module out of its spot on the space station Dec. 21, 2013. At left is fellow NASA astronaut and Expedition 38 member Mike Hopkins. Credit: NASA TV
NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio (right) pulls an 800-pound ammonia pump module out of its spot on the space station Dec. 21, 2013. At left is fellow NASA astronaut and Expedition 38 member Mike Hopkins. Credit: NASA TV

The most spectacular television shots occurred towards the end of the five-hour, 28-minute spacewalk when Mastracchio carefully wrestled the 800-pound ammonia pump module out of its spot on the space station while riding aboard Canadarm2. (Controlling the arm was Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, guided by CapCom and fellow Japanese astronaut Aki Hoshide on the ground.)

After he stowed the module, Mission Control gave the astronauts the go-ahead to put in the spare. Mastracchio, however, said he felt it was best for the astronauts to leave it for next time. While the pair have three spacewalks (including today’s) slated to finish the task, it’s possible they could wrap it up in two — but only if things go as smoothly as this time.

The next spacewalk will take place Dec. 24 at 7:10 a.m. EST (12:10 p.m. UTC), and will be available on NASA Television. We’ll keep you up to speed as the next spacewalk occurs. Today’s excursion was Mastracchio’s seventh and Hopkins’ first.

NASA astronauts Rick Mastracchio and Mike Hopkins of Expedition 38 worked outside for more than five hours Dec. 21 to begin replacing a faulty ammonia pump on the International Space Station. Credit: NASA TV
NASA astronauts Rick Mastracchio and Mike Hopkins of Expedition 38 worked outside for more than five hours Dec. 21, 2013 to begin replacing a faulty ammonia pump on the International Space Station. Credit: NASA TV


Chris Hadfield On Space-y $5 Bill: ‘It Reminds Us That Our Dreams Do Not Have A Limit’

In Canada, “gimme five” could soon have a space connotation. Today the country announced it is preparing to put new polymer $5 bills into circulation that feature Canadian robotics and an astronaut.

At the official circulation ceremony near Montreal, Que. was none other than Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who brought unprecedented social media attention to space through social media. The world was enchanted by his guitar playing and crying in space, but in space circles he also commands a lot of respect. The trilingual Hadfield visited two space stations, helped build the robotic Canadarm2 in space, and commanded the International Space Station, among other achievements.

His presence was appropriate, because the $5 bill has a lot of robotics on it. Canadarm2, Dextre and an astronaut are splashed across one face of the bill. “It reminds us that our dreams do not have a limit,” Hadfield said in French.

Canadarm2, Dextre and an unidentified astronaut will all feature on Canada's new $5 bill. Credit: Bank of Canada
Canadarm2, Dextre and an unidentified astronaut on Canada’s new $5 bill. Credit: Bank of Canada

“It serves as a reminder to all Canadians of the dedication and hard work of so many people across the Canadian Space Agency and the space industry across Canada, and the scientists and engineers that make the design of these incredibly complex robots and getting them into space somehow easy,” Hadfield added in English. “Being involved in it is the real inspiration part. Who knows where such innovation can take us.”

The Bank of Canada first unveiled the new $5 and $10 bills in April, while Hadfield was at the helm of the station. Canada’s central banking authority is touting the new plasticized bill series as more durable than past cotton-based ones, with better counterfeit measures such as transparency. Polymer bills are available already in $20, $50 and $100 denominations.

Opposite to the space-themed side of the $5 bill is a picture of past prime minister Wilfrid Laurier. The new $10 bill features a train on one side and (as with the past iteration) John A. Macdonald, the first Canadian prime minister, on the other.

Hadfield himself has featured on both Canadian currency and stamps in the past: the Royal Mint of Canada issued two coins with him and Canadarm2 in 2006, and Hadfield was among several astronauts put on to Canadian stamps in 2003.

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield holds a version of the $5 bill on the International Space Station on April 30, 2013. Credit: Bank of Canada (webcast)
Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield holds a version of the $5 bill on the International Space Station on April 30, 2013. Credit: Bank of Canada (webcast)

Space Robotics Dominate New $5 Bill in Canada

In a world first, Canada’s Chris Hadfield unveiled a new money note — while in space.

Hadfield spun a fiver before the camera Tuesday as part of a ceremony to announce new $5 and $10 bills that will be distributed in Canada this year. The $5 bill will feature two pieces of Canadian technology that helped build the station: Canadarm2, which is a mobile robotic arm, and the hand-like Dextre.

The bill also shows an unidentified astronaut. That said, the choice to use Hadfield in the press conference was likely not a coincidence: Hadfield assisted with Canadarm2’s installation in 2001 when he became the first Canadian to walk in space.

“These bills will remind Canadians, every time they buy a sandwich and a coffee and a donut, what we are capable of achieving,” said Hadfield, who is in command of Expedition 35 on the International Space Station. His comments were carried on a webcast from the Bank of Canada.

The money note travelled with Hadfield in his Soyuz when he rocketed to the station in December, the Canadian Space Agency told Universe Today.

The polymer notes are intended to be more secure than the last generation of bills issued in Canada. Polymer $20, $50 and $100 bills are already available, but the smaller currencies won’t hit consumer pocketbooks until November.

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield holds a version of the $5 bill on the International Space Station. Credit: Bank of Canada (webcast)
Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield holds a version of the $5 bill on the International Space Station. Credit: Bank of Canada (webcast)

“Featuring a sophisticated combination of transparency and holography, this is the most secure bank note series ever issued by the Bank of Canada. The polymer series is more economical, lasting at least two and half times longer than cotton-based paper bank notes, and will be recycled in Canada,” the Bank of Canada stated in a press release.

As with the past $5 bill, the opposite face of the new bill shows a drawing of past prime minister Wilfrid Laurier. Also shown at the ceremony: the $10 bill, with a Via Canada train on one side and John A. Macdonald, the first Canadian prime minister, on the other.

Both Jim Flaherty, Canada’s minister of finance, and Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney wore Expedition 35 pins at the press conference.

“I hope that’s not London calling,” Flaherty quipped to laughing reporters when NASA’s Mission Control phoned in with Hadfield on the line.

Hadfield is no stranger to space-themed currency. In 2006, the Royal Mint of Canada released two coins featuring him and Canadarm2. Hadfield and several other Canadian astronauts were also put on to Canadian stamps in 2003.

You can check out the full set of polymer bills on this Flickr series uploaded by the Bank of Canada.

Amazing Panorama of Western Europe at Night from Space Station


An amazing panorama revealing Western Europe’s ‘Cities at Night’ with hardware from the stations robotic ‘hand’ and solar arrays in the foreground was captured by the crew in a beautiful new image showing millions of Earth’s inhabitants from the Earth-orbiting International Space Station (ISS).

The sweeping panoramic vista shows several Western European countries starting with the British Isles partially obscured by twin solar arrays at left, the North Sea at left center, Belgium and the Netherlands (Holland) at bottom center, and the Scandinavian land mass at right center by the hand, or end effector, of the Canadian-built ISS robotic arm known as the Space Station Remote Manipulator System (SSRMS) or Canadarm2.

European Space Agency astronaut Andre Kuipers gazing at Earth from the Cupola dome of the ISS

Coincidentally European Space Agency astronaut Andre Kuipers from Holland (photo at left) is currently aboard the ISS, soaring some 400 kilometers (250 miles) overhead.

The panoramic image was taken by the ISS residents on January 22, 2012.

The Expedition 30 crew of six men currently serving aboard the ISS (photo below) hail from the US, Russia and Holland.

NASA astronaut Dan Burbank is the commander of Expedition 30 and recently snapped awesome photos of Comet Lovejoy.

“Cities at Night” – Here’s a portion of a relevant ISS Blog post from NASA astronaut Don Pettit on Jan. 27, 2012:

“Cities at night are different from their drab daytime counterparts. They present a most spectacular display that rivals a Broadway marquee. And cities around the world are different. Some show blue-green, while others show yellow-orange. Some have rectangular grids, while others look like a fractal-snapshot from Mandelbrot space.”

“Patterns in the countryside are different in Europe, North America, and South America. In space, you can see political boundaries that show up only at night. As if a beacon for humanity, Las Vegas is truly the brightest spot on Earth. Cities at night may very well be the most beautiful unintentional consequence of human activity,” writes NASA astronaut Don Pettit currently residing aboard the ISS.

Comet Lovejoy on 22 Dec. 2011 from the International Space Station. Comet Lovejoy is visible near Earth’s horizon in this nighttime image photographed by NASA astronaut Dan Burbank, Expedition 30 commander, onboard the International Space Station on Dec. 22, 2011. Credit: NASA/Dan Burbank
Expedition 30 Crew: Pictured on the front row are NASA astronaut Dan Burbank, commander; and Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, flight engineer. Pictured from the left (back row) are Russian cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov and Anatoly Ivanishin; along with European Space Agency astronaut Andre Kuipers and NASA astronaut Don Pettit, all flight engineers. Photo credit: NASA and International Space Station partners

Gallery: 10 Years of Canadarm2, Construction Crane in Space


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.