Last week, the Canadian Space Agency showed off the Next-Generation Canadarm (NGC) prototypes, which were unveiled after three years of development at Canadian company MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates. The mechanical limbs are the successors to the shuttle fleet's Canadarm and station's Canadarm2, which played pivotal rolls in the station's construction for more than a decade.
The CSA and MDA plan to use this technology to position Canada for newer space business opportunities in areas such as in-orbit refuelling of satellites, said Gilles Leclerc, the agency's director-general of space exploration.
"We prepared all these new systems so that we will be well-positioned for the next thing in space," Leclerc said.
However, the Canadian government's $53.1 million contribution to the arm project (as well as supporting testbeds and simulators) has only brought them to the prototype stage so far. The arms will require moremoney for launch configurations and a ride to orbit.
One of the prototype arms spans 49 feet (15 meters), the same length as the space station'sCanadarm2. But the new arm is lighter and has two sections that telescope into each other. This makes it more suitable to fold up inside the smaller spacecraft of the future. [Photos: Building the International Space Station]
The other NGC prototype arm is a miniature, at 8.5 feet long (2.58 meters). Like the station's Dextre robot, which it is modelled after, it will be able to refuel satellites, grapple tools and manipulate items such as blankets that cover satellites.
Manufacturer MDA has spent several years touting the benefits of satellite refuelling, which the company says would save money since satellites could be kept aloft longer if they can receive more after launch.
In March 2011, MDA signed a $280 million agreement with Intelsat SA to advance this concept, but the deal was scuppered in January 2012 after receiving lukewarm interest from potential customers.
NASA is also considering robotic refuelling. There is debate among Canadian space circles as to whether MDA could contribute to NASA's project, since it is a Canadian company.