MONTREAL, CANADA – My moonwalk was missing the most important thing.
I, with no training as a spacewalking astronaut, felt literally lost in space as I fumbled around NASA’s Gateway station circling the moon. I could see the Earth. Canadarm3 was making his robotic arm right in front of me. I could even peer inside the empty crew modules.
Then I finally looked down. There it was. Craters. Irregular shadows. Goosebumps. The moon in the proximity that I wanted to see since I was a child. Although simulated, the feeling of looking and exploring around felt so real.
Flying jetpack style around the Gateway for about 30 minutes required nothing more than joysticks attached to a standard Meta Quest virtual reality (VR) headset. Dropping into space based on this technology took just a few moments during a media day at the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) to announce Artemis 2, a mission around the Moon with astronaut Jeremy Hansen scheduled for 2025.
VR is so powerful and accurate that astronauts could one day train on it, the CSA told me. For now, though, the Gateway scale model is helping to make Canadarm3 the right size, shape and fit to keep the space station running on robotic power.
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Canadarm technology is so famous in Canada that it’s on our $5 bill. We’ve had two generations of space robotic arms so far, since the 1970s; Canadarm3 manufacturer MDA says the third will fly to Gateway as early as 2028 if the orbital complex is ready. Robots not only keep space programs running, they also fund Canada’s missions – both astronauts and space station science. So it’s a virtuous circle.
After decades of helping dock spacecraft, move astronauts and equipment, and even make occasional repairs to solar panels, Canadarm’s work will leave low-Earth orbit to help NASA build its Artemis program for lunar astronauts. The powerful series of robots has been called the “potato salad” of the space program: the unforgettable side dish that, like the rug in “The Big Lebowski,” brings the room together.
The Canadarm3 will be equipped with artificial intelligence and, itself, is not just an arm. There is the main arm in charge of big salad items: An eight-jointed spider-like being that can walk hand-in-hand into the Gateway for repairs. A small, detachable arm like CSA’s Dextre “hands-on robot” can do better work, like setting up experiments. The set even comes with a backpack, CSA’s Ken Podwalski told me as we sat next to the simulator.
Podwalski, a self-described “dinosaur” who has made Canadarm work his career for decades, is now executive director of the Lunar Gateway program at CSA. By the way, he uses the term prehistoric with affection and admiration.
Unlike Podwalski, the 20-something Gen Z engineers who showed us the VR environment didn’t need to wear paper drawings – or dress in protective “bunny suits” in clean rooms as they walked around the space modules – just to ensure that the robot arm would not bump into a critical point during its tracking.
This is especially crucial when the Canadarm3’s large arm carries things, such as a backpack or “tool kit”. Like a tool holder, it has slots that allow astronauts or the little arm to set up experiments – or carry keys and other items for spacewalks.
“This also allows us to configure payloads,” Podwalski told me. “So if we have a vehicle that arrives at the Gateway and brings a new experimental platform, where we can pick it up instead of making multiple trips, we can actually stack things in our backpack and load it with those loads.”
Related: Canada joins NASA’s Lunar Gateway Station project with ‘Canadarm3’ robotic arm
Let’s say a heliophysics or solar science experiment arrives on a cargo ship like SpaceX’s. Scheduling astronaut time is “ridiculous” on ISS missions that have six months or more for crew time, Podwalski said. Gateway is even worse as you can get 30 days if you’re lucky.
To save bothering the astronauts, the little arm could set up the experiment in his backpack. The large arm could “do the necessary choreography” of moving the solar sentinel to the designated location on the space station. Then, when the big arm stepped back to do something else, the small arm would spring back into action to add the experiment in the right place.
While the VR environment shows the current configuration of the Gateway, including all of the Canadarm3 perches in their right places, Podwalski emphasized that it is important to bring real-world training and experience in as well when firming up the arm design. Fortunately, Canadarm2 and Dextre have been working together on complex tasks for many years, but the next generation of robots can and should go further.
“When we were looking at the Canadarm3, a lot of my questions came straight from the hip: how are we going to be able to manage that kind of range of motion, when you have that kind of interference, or when you’ve got all this stuff clumped together on the outside.” of the Gateway? Questioning the length of the (big) arm, questioning the topology of the small arm and all that kind of stuff.”
Questions from people like Podwalski and MDA, Canadarm’s longtime supplier, will be crucial to keeping things running far beyond Earth, in robotics touted for their reliability closer to home. Even better, Podwalski pointed to a “gut feeling” among team members (who have also known each other for decades) that will be crucial in preparing Canadarm3 for challenges we can’t even predict.
“It’s actually one of the things we test, when we bring human crew members, mission planners, flight controllers, flight directors and whatnot” into the CSA, setting aside valuable weeks of a schedule to get them comfortable training. with an arm simulator on Earth. . “We bring them here to make sure (flexibility) is built into their thinking, because that’s how operations happen. That has to be there, right?”
VR, he added, will be “one of many tools” that will be used to prepare engineers or crew for Canadarm3 operations, in some cases allowing them to train together without needing to fly to Montreal. “The idea is really to create a training environment where we can develop our own resources, develop who we need to be successful, and do it in the most efficient way possible.”
While you wait for your chance to fly into space, it might be worth checking out our guides to the latest VR headset deals and the best free VR experiences.