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Canada Changes ISS Robotic Operations Strategy, Extends Operations to 2030

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) has extended its contract with MDA Space, to continue supporting robotics operations on the International Space Station (ISS) until 2030.

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Zac Aubert

Zac Aubert

Thu Apr 18 2024Written by Zac Aubert

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) has extended its contract with MDA Space, to continue supporting robotics operations on the International Space Station (ISS) until 2030.

The contract, valued at approximately $182 million, encompasses a broad spectrum of responsibilities, now including robotics flight controller duties.

MDA Space has been a pivotal player in sustaining the operational readiness of the Mobile Servicing System on the ISS since 2001. Initially tasked with training CSA and NASA personnel in the operation of the system, which features the iconic Canadarm2 robotic arm, alongside offering mission planning and engineering support.

The extended contract involves MDA Space taking on the critical role of controlling robotic operations, a responsibility previously handled predominantly by ground-based flight controllers. These operations entail various tasks such as assisting in the berthing of visiting spacecraft, relocating and repairing equipment on the station, conducting surveys for damage assessment, and aiding astronauts during spacewalks.

Starting January 2025, MDA Space will oversee these robotic operations with a dedicated team, initially stationed at the CSA mission control center in Quebec, Canada.

The contract extension coincides with MDA Space's introduction of a new product line named Skymaker, unveiled on April 10. Skymaker represents a modular robotic technology and service suite designed to cater to emerging commercial opportunities in the space sector. As part of this initiative, MDA Space aims to operate Skymaker technology on behalf of customers, leveraging its recently established mission control center in Ontario, Canada.

Holly Johnson, Vice President of Robotics and Space Operations at MDA Space, highlighted the significance of this venture, emphasizing the company's commitment to providing end-to-end mission services and operations. Skymaker offers a versatile kit of robotic arms ranging from one to over 15 meters in length, addressing a spectrum of needs in space robotics operations. Skymaker is adaptable to spacecraft of varying sizes, emphasizing its suitability for tasks ranging from dexterous handling to crane-like operations.

The commercial push by MDA Space comes amid a growing demand for space robotics in various sectors. The company has already secured contracts for building grapple fixtures and anchor point interfaces for Axiom's proposed commercial space station and is involved in providing robotics for lunar rover concepts under consideration by NASA.

MDA Space is also actively engaged in governmental projects, including the development of a robotic arm system for the Gateway space station planned to orbit the Moon, representing Canada's contribution to the program.

The announcement of Canada's ISS robotics extension follows the proposal by the Canadian government to establish a National Space Council, signaling a comprehensive approach to space exploration, technology development, and research. The council's formation is part of Canada's 2024 budget request, which includes funding for the Lunar Exploration Accelerator Program (LEAP).

MDA Space's evolution into a key player in the space industry is part of a broader transformation following its separation from Maxar Technologies in 2020. The company, founded nearly 55 years ago as MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates, recently rebranded as MDA Space and introduced its software-defined satellite product line named Aurora.

MDA Space faces competition from various international players in the space robotics sector, including Maxar, Redwire, and GITAI of Japan. However, with its extensive experience, innovative product offerings like Skymaker, and ongoing involvement in both commercial and governmental projects, MDA Space is poised to maintain its position as a frontrunner in the global space industry landscape.