Curiosity's Cousins: Meet the Rover Fleet of the Canadian Space Agency


A fleet of vehicles ready to explore lunar and Martian terrains

In 2009, the Canadian Space Agency committed $110 million the development of advanced robotics and space exploration technologies. The funding was designed to be spread over three years -- and now, right on schedule, the CSA has unveiled the results of its efforts: a fleet of rovers that will one day explore the moon and Mars. "One day" being sometime around the year 2020.

The vehicles range in size and function; some are familiarly Spirit- and Opportunity- and Curiosity-like, while others -- like my personal favorite of the group, the golf cart-esque SL-Commander -- are more distinct in form. Some of the vehicles will work independently, Space Safety Magazine reports, while others are designed to function as aides for astronauts. (The Commander, for example, could ostensibly transport astronauts across lunar or Martian landscapes. Or, because it is awesome, it could also drive autonomously.) 

Canada's development of this particular fleet, CSA officials point out, makes particular sense. Not only has the country had space-engineering success with its celebrated Canadarm, but it also has a long history of developing technologies for its mining industry. Those are technologies, says Gilles Leclerc, CSA's director-general of space exploration, that will also prove useful in space exploration.

Despite their Canadian origin, though, the vehicles could find use in NASA missions, as well. "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," Leclerc said. And the Canadian rovers should blend right in: All in all, they are quite similar to their American counterparts -- except that, in addition to English and Martian, they also likely speak French. 

Below are prototypes of the newly revealed rovers.

Artemis is a lightweight prototype designed to operate autonomously or telerobotically. Its four-wheel system can spin on the spot, making it ideal to explore the dusty terrain of the moon.

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Artemis (CSA)

Kapvik -- Innu for "wolverine" -- is a micro-rover whose small stature allows it to squeeze into caves and crevices. It has a robotic arm whose sensors can be used for both navigation and surveying.

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Kapvik (CSA)

The Robot Explorer -- "Rex" for short -- resembles Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity for a reason: It's been designed to collect soil samples from Mars. The six-wheeled rover completed a joint field test with NASA in 2010.

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Rex (CSA)

This little guy, Micro-Rover Platform with Tooling Arm, is designed for squeezing into tight spots. It can either accompany an astronaut or work on its own, deployed from a larger rover. The vehicle's tether allows it to navigate slopes up to an impressive 65 degrees.

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Micro-Rover Platform with Tooling Arm (CSA)

The CSA developed this Mini Cooper-sized all-terrain vehicle, the SL-Commander, in conjunction with Bombardier Recreational Products, which had previously helped to develop the Lunar Exploration Light Rover. The SL-Commander is fully automated; it can navigate -- lunar terrain, most likely -- with or without a driver.

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SL-Commander (CSA)
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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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