Tag Archives: Canadian Space Agency

DIY Space: Operate a Very Expensive Backhoe


Not quite like this–but it would be cool if it were…

I worked with some plumbing fellows this last year to remove some huge amounts of dirt to get at our very clogged up house waste line.  One of the pieces of equipment we used to remove the dirt was a very small, but effective, backhoe.  They let me help them with the backhoe occasionally (when I wasn’t just shoveling).  I actually enjoyed operating the backhoe.  So when I first played this Canadian Space Agency (CSA) Canadarm2 simulator, I actually felt a little bit at home with it, once I settled in.

Now I know the simulator is not intended to train future backhoe operators, but it actually works a lot, at least in the simulator, like a backhoe.  The controls for moving the arms around the axes, even though they are on the keyboard, remind me of the different controls for axes on a backhoe.  And just like when using a backhoe, there is a very big safety factor that needs to be considered when operating a huge mechanical arm around people and equipment.  Although admittedly, the equipment being moved around the International Space Station (ISS), where the Canadarm2 is mounted, is probably more expensive than the plumber’s truck.

The simulator is somewhat fascinating, especially if an operator treats it like the real deal.  There’s a very annoying music soundtrack, which can thankfully be turned off.  If this is evidence of current Canadian musical tastes, then maybe it’s a good thing they aren’t storming the entertainment world right now?  Give me Bryan Adams or Alanis any day instead of that (good lord, did I just say that?).  But that said, the simulator will start you off with a few practice runs on general movement.  It does help in this case to read the directions instead of jumping in, because the controls, at least as they’re being taught, aren’t intuitive.

After practice, you’re off and running.  There’re three different camera views to allow you to see just how you’re moving the arm.  I’m assuming that’s similar to the set up in real life on the ISS.  There are only two tasks you need to do.  If you’re a superstar pro at this stuff and you successfully complete both tasks, then you can just enable “smug mode” for the rest of the day.  Or just understand there are backhoe operators around the world who will probably do this so quickly that your “smug mode” gets disabled.

As for the plumbing problem at my house:  we had to dig 14 feet down, making a hole about 15 feet in diameter.  The problem was an eight inch clay pipe that had cracked and was filled with roots.  Digging and refilling the hole probably took about eight hours with people like me not familiar with the backhoe.  But it certainly made things easier and quicker.  I can’t imagine that making such a big hole with shovels only would’ve taken the same amount of time.  Technology is our friend.

By the way, if you don’t have it installed, you do need to install Unity on your browser to play the game.


Maritime Safety Satellite’s Launch Cancelled to Make Political Point


Well, this must be frustrating.  Imagine that you’re a part of a company that’s getting ready to launch a satellite.  All the company’s engineers and managers working to get the satellite ready to go for its mission.  Of course, everyone in the company is being paid to get the satellite completed.

But then, your government, who contracted with your company to build the satellite, has a problem with the government of the country you were to launch the satellite from.  And of course just to show that other government that your government is serious, you’ve suddenly been forbidden to conduct any kind of business with that other government.  This means you can no longer launch your satellite using the facilities and rocket of the company that so happens to reside in that other country.  This is a problem.

According to an Ottowa Citizen post, this is the problem that’s happening to a Canadian satellite manufacturer, named COM DEV.  COM DEV would like to launch the Maritime Monitoring and Messaging Microsatellite (M3MSAT), but the Canadian government is punishing Russia for conducting its very own “Lebensraum” campaign in the Ukraine.  The punishment consists of not allowing COM DEV to send M3MSAT into space using the Russian rocket they were originally intending to use.

M3MSAT is designed to primarily provide “maritime surveillance” for commercial customers and the Canadian government.  Fancy words for saying there’s a radio receiver and transmitter on board to receive automatic messages on particular radio frequencies from particular ships.  These messages contain the current ship’s position in the form of GPS coordinates (you can see the ship tracking happening real-time, here).  M3MSAT was to be launched into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) sometime in September 2014.

COM DEV won the contract to build the M3MSAT for the Canadian government in 2008.  So now the Canadian government is generously allowing COM DEV to bite the funding bullet and take the hit.  Which COM DEV doesn’t appreciate.  The Ottowa Citizen post notes that COM DEV and the Canadian government are in negotiations on determining a path forward.  Probably one that will compensate COM DEV for its work.  Maybe they’ll also get a case of Elsinore beer for their troubles?  We’ll see.

Dextre: When Humans Just Won’t Do

Dextre in the highlighted area of picture. Image from Wikipedia. Click on it to go there.

It might come as a surprise to some people that Canada has a space agency–the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).  Some Americans might view our northern neighbor’s agency as a NASA-Lite, but that would be very untrue.  It might be even more surprising for people to know the CSA is very active and has provided some critical equipment to the cooperative international space programs going on today.

One of those pieces of equipment is a robot, called Dextre.  Dextre is orbiting overhead on the International Space Station (ISS) since March 2008, and serving as the station’s robotic handyman.  An engineer earned a bit of money by giving it its true name:  the Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator (SPDM).  Some people are also calling it the Canada Hand.  But thankfully someone decided the name Dextre is the better alternative.

The robot doesn’t look anything like Johnny 5.  It actually looks more like an albino praying mantis.  It has no head, but does have two 11 ft. long arms.  The arms’ “hands” can be configured to hold different kinds of tools and objects, and have an outlet to power particular tools.  Dextre’s body is nearly 12 ft. tall.   There are also TV cameras mounted on the body.

Dextre (in foreground, holding a “crate”) helped unpack HTV-2. This picture shows Canadarm2 releasing HTV-2 for re-entry. Image from Wikipedia.

While Dextre is pretty neat, its job is to do mundane and risky tasks on the outside of the ISS.  Canada is showing that a space robot can work well, and keep ISS inhabitants safe.  Its activities minimize the amount of times astronauts need to go out on a spacewalk and work, which is always risky.  Canada is also trying to show how a robot can effectively service and repair satellites (see video below).

The Canadians are justifiably proud of Dextre and their space accomplishments.  They even have it on their $5 bill (go to this wiki image to see it).  Not too shabby for a bunch of Canuckleheads…not shabby at all.  At least until Dextre becomes self-aware.  Then we’ll blame Canada.

Astronaut Pay

Astronaut Pay

Sure, some of us say we’d work in space for free.  We’re pretty nerdy that way.  I’m pretty sure, then, for these astronauts, that getting paid to do something they love, is icing on the cake.  I’m assuming astronauts love their job.  There’s a lot of work and commitment involved to become an astronaut, though, so they should get some sort of pay.

How much does an astronaut make?  This Universe Today post lists the different space agencies, and the range of pay each country agency pays its astronauts.  The pay scales don’t look bad, but as with most jobs, it looks like being a more senior astronaut with more experience has its perks.   The ranges offered by each agency looks pretty comparable, although the Canadians, known globally for being terrible tippers, are the most generous.

The post gives some tips to those interested in earning that Astronaut’s Pay.  You have the opportunity earn the pay and the name if you have the “Right Stuff,” that is.  It’s not too long of a post, so give it a read if you’re curious about the amount of money governments pay the people who are taking risks in space.

Fill it up, RROxITT! And check the solar panels, too.

For a very long time, satellites orbiting the Earth have had a very finite lifetime.  Some satellites have lasted over ten years, and aside from anomalies and failing components, a satellite’s fuel tank has been key to how long a satellite can function.  But that might change soon for geosynchronous (GEO) satellites, thanks to RROxITT (Remote Robotic Oxidizer Transfer Test).

RROxITT is a step in NASA’s and the Canadian Space Agency’s (CSA) remote servicing satellite program.  Specifically, RROxITT is the result of the Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office (SSCO) Satellite Servicing Technology Develop Campaign’s Robotic Refueling Mission (RRM) experiment.  The SSCO is developing a remote satellite refueling system, not just for future GEO satellites, but for GEO satellites currently in orbit.

This is hard, because the GEO satellites orbiting the Earth weren’t really designed to have a robotic “gas station attendant” refuel them.  But RRM already proved in early 2013 that a robotic servicing system could service existing orbiting satellites. Another challenge is the matter of the satellite fuel, which in this case, it isn’t.  The key is in RROxITT’s name:  oxidizer.  In this case, the oxidizer is nitrogen tetroxide.  Nitrogen tetroxide is nasty, toxic, and corrosive.  However, it’s also part of a hypergolic combination, that, when mixed with the other part of fuel, combusts.  When the resulting combustion is directed, it becomes the satellite’s thrust.

RROxITT is only part of the story.   Argon is the other part, according to the SSCO website.  Argon is all about “Rendezvous and Proximity Operations.”  Those fancy words describe what the servicing robot must do before it refuels another satellite.

For it to refuel another on-orbit satellite, the servicing satellite must be able to get in that satellite’s vicinity, and then dock with it.  Autonomously.  As in, no human hands will be guiding the servicing satellite to dock with the other satellite.  Considering the oxidizer on board, it’s probably safer for everyone that way.

If you want to see a video about what all the fuss is about, then watch this.

The SSCO is currently in Phase 2 of the RRM tasks and projected to complete Phase 2 sometime in 2015.  No one has clarified whether the person who named RROxITT is a Herbie Hancock fan.