Canada and the International Space Station


Along with the United States, Russia, Europe and Japan, Canada is a partner in the International Space Station (ISS), an orbiting research laboratory. Since its first module was launched in 1998, the ISS has circled the globe 16 times per day at 28,000 km/h at an average altitude of 370 km, covering a distance equivalent to the Moon and back daily. The Station is about as big as five NHL hockey rinks, and has as much living space as a five-bedroom house.

The Canadian Space Agency's Contribution

Building on its heritage of leading-edge space robotics, Canada's contribution to the ISS is the Mobile Servicing System, a sophisticated robotics suite that plays a critical role in the Station's operations and general upkeep.

Developed for the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) by MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (MDA) of Brampton, Ontario, the Mobile Servicing System is comprised of three robots that can work together or independently:

  • Canadarm2, a 17-metre-long robotic arm that assembled the modules and major components of the ISS in space. It is used to move large pieces of equipment and supplies, install science experiments, and even carry astronauts. Canadarm2 has the unique ability to detach itself from its base and relocate itself to reach nearly all areas of the ISS by stepping from one anchor point to another, making it handy for inspecting hard-to-reach areas. In addition to general maintenance tasks, Canadarm2 is responsible for "cosmic catches": the robotic arm captures and docks unpiloted spacecraft (carrying everything from science instruments to necessities for the crew on board), and releases them at the end of their mission.
  • Dextre, the Station's two-armed robotic helper, was designed to tackle tasks requiring a more delicate touch in order to reduce the need for astronauts to perform spacewalks, which are always risky; in fact, Dextre is exclusively operated by flight controllers on Earth in order to free up the ISS crew for more important tasks, like science. Dextre changes batteries, replaces failed components with spare parts, sets up science experiments, and launches micro and nanosatellites. The robotic handyman also conducts technology demonstrations, including the first-ever robotic refueling of a mock satellite by a robot.
  • The mobile base is a moveable work platform and storage facility that glides on rails across the Space Station's main truss (or backbone) to transport Canadarm2, Dextre or equipment from one location to another.

Flight controllers operate the system remotely from the ground, and assist the crew on board the Station with robotics operations. The Mobile Servicing System is either commanded from NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, or at the CSA's headquarters in Saint-Hubert, Quebec. Mission planners also spend months plotting the Mobile Servicing System's every move and testing operations in simulators prior to each task. All astronauts and flight controllers assigned to operate the Mobile Servicing System undergo training at the CSA.

The harsh environment of space takes its toll on the ISS: in addition to the natural aging of the orbiting lab's materials, the Station is regularly hit by small meteorites and small pieces of orbital debris. In 2020, the CSA will equip Dextre with a sophisticated new vision system—a hand-held tool that will be used regularly to inspect the Station's external surfaces and sleuth out signs of damage as early as possible. The vision system will also be used to demonstrate how Canadian technology can assist visiting spacecraft as they dock and are installed on the ISS.

Building and maintaining robotic technologies for the ISS has accrued significant benefits for Canadians. It has led to opportunities for our space industry to maintain its international leadership in space robotics and optics, and to advance innovative technologies in new areas like biomedical analysis, which can help Canadians living in remote regions. Canadian space robotics have also had significant spin-off benefits, including life-saving medical robots for breast-cancer detection, pediatric surgery and neurosurgery.

Space for Canadian Scientists

Canada's investment in the ISS allows Canadian scientists access to the unique microgravity environment on board in order to make space travel safer and to benefit Canadians. In order to better understand the risks associated with human spaceflight—and to help find countermeasures and treatments—the CSA aims to identify, characterize and mitigate the effects to astronauts' health and well-being, and minimize impacts on performance. The CSA's top priorities in space life science are:

  • studying the risks linked to physiological adaptation to space;
  • monitoring radiation and protecting astronauts from its harmful effects; and
  • ensuring astronauts' psychological and psycho-social health.

Most of the physiological changes are an excellent parallel for studying problems that affect aging and increasingly sedentary populations here on Earth, who suffer from similar health issues. In fact, the CSA has teamed up with the Canadian Institutes of Health Research's Institute of Aging to pool knowledge on the subject and search for remedies or solutions.

The CSA has facilities at its headquarters for Canadian scientists to communicate directly with the crew on the Station and guide them while conducting their experiments.

Canadians in Space

Canada's contribution to the International Space Station program allows our nation to send astronauts to the ISS to conduct science experiments on behalf of Canadian researchers, advance technology development, and inspire Canadians—especially young Canadians—to learn more about science and technology.

Canadian astronauts have played a pivotal role in missions to the ISS:

  • 1999: Julie Payette
  • 2000: Marc Garneau
  • 2001: Chris Hadfield
  • 2006: Steve MacLean
  • 2007: David Williams
  • 2009: Julie Payette
  • 2009: Robert (Bob) Thirsk became the first Canadian to live and work on board the Station, spending 188 days in space.
  • 2012–13: Chris Hadfield conducted a five-month expedition to the orbital outpost, becoming its first Canadian Commander in March 2013.

The CSA's two active astronauts, Jeremy Hansen and David Saint-Jacques, will fly to space before the end of 2024. Specific missions and dates are being determined.

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