The lunar rover “Max” waits in a huge facility painted black, ready to explore a simulated lunar landscape that sits next to the cubicle-filled offices of local company Mission Control. Surrounding the rover prototype is 4,000 square feet (370 square meters) of sand, providing a giant playground with landscape rocks, garden rocks, and numerous “craters.”
Illuminating stage is a single lamp high on the wall, casting a single harsh shadow. I turn away from the light and see my figure projected far into the distance; for a moment I am transported to the iconic photos and video of the 1960s and 1970s taken by the Apollo astronauts.
“Appearance is important; lighting is extremely critical,” said Adam Deslauriers, Mission Control’s space and education manager. He allowed that “the sun” is a bit weaker than in real life, since the alternative would be “to spend gazillions of dollars and have dangerous lamps.” But key aspects of the facility’s design included having a single, sharp light source to cast one shadow, just as lunar explorers see.
Related: See the moon Just like the Apollo astronauts with these epic panoramas
Mission Control builds artificial intelligence systems to operate across the solar system for Earth observation, satellite servicing and other applications.
Its software is already on its way to the moon on the United Arab Emirates’ Rashid rover, which is expected to land in April aboard a lander built and operated by Tokyo-based company ispace. Cameras aboard Max were tested for the Rashid mission, Deslauriers said, and Mission Control also trained the machine learning models in Ottawa.
Mission Control asked another Canadian company to supply super-reliable rovers, allowing the Ottawa engineers to focus on their software specialty. Clearpath Robotics’ chair-sized “Husky” rovers (opens in new tab) fit the bill, said Deslauriers; the rover nicknames “Max” and “Ruby” come from a popular Canadian animated children’s show (opens in new tab) based on a book series by Rosemary Wells.
Because the rovers are so durable and can be designed for different driving experiences, other benefits are likely to arise. For example, novices like me (and dozens of kids) have been allowed to drive these rovers as part of Mission Control’s mandate to conduct outreach. “When we did this lab, it was a conscious effort to get bulletproof, reliable rovers, and Clearpath has been great,” added Deslauriers.
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Mission Control’s lunar focus is no accident. NASA has several contracts under its Commercial Lunar Payload Services program for companies to send small rovers, landers and other payloads to the moon. That’s because the agency wants to bring private infrastructure to support the multinational NASA-led Artemis missions, which could land astronauts near the moon’s south pole as soon as 2025.
The Canadian Space Agency has its own projects, such as the Lunar Exploration Accelerator Program (LEAP), to soon bring Canadian technology to the lunar surface. This country is also investing heavily in lunar exploration and is working with the company MDA to develop a new robotic Canadarm3 to maintain NASA’s Gateway lunar space station.
This spring, Canada’s commitment will provide the country with a prestigious opportunity. One of Canada’s four active astronauts will take a seat aboard the lunar Artemis 2 mission in 2024, along with NASA colleagues and potentially an astronaut from Japan.
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In a meeting room, I eagerly take the wheel in Max. We turn on the “hazard” function in the software, which brings a yellow and red glow to obstacles that are otherwise hard to see in the gray landscape. I carefully move across a semi-circle on the screen to get Max going.
If I move the mouse forward, I creep the rover a few centimeters. A shift left or right allows me to spin in slow “donuts”. Within moments, this space player finds himself happily exploring the landscape. With black painted walls and sand under the wheels, the ride feels like the real thing.
They deliberately made this course simple for me. There is no two-second time delay for my movements as there would be during remote control of an actual lunar rover. Stones are generously distributed and thus easy to avoid. I quickly fall into zen and experience my own kind of “slow TV” as Max drives in circles on my behalf (creating tracks to be ripped away later; I tell the rep helping me to thank these employees after I’m gone).
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Late that night, I think back to the moment I entered Mission Control’s moon portal for the first time. The scene filled me with a stillness that I have experienced only a few times in my life: walking into the Stonehenge circle, for example, or standing in the British Museum and reading the signature of a birthday greeting (opens in new tab) probably written by a Romano-British woman 2,000 years ago.
I am not alone in this feeling during my simulated moon walk, said Deslauriers. “It captures people’s imaginations. When we have visitors, it’s easier for them to remember us … ‘Mission Control, what was that one? Okay, the one with the moon.’ Not just the ‘guys with the computers and the desks’.”
I will also remember my moon experience. I felt connections with the Apollo astronauts of the past, as well as those who will touch the moon in the future. We are all explorers of time, space and our communities. I can’t wait to see what wonders will be revealed as we tear our gloved hands through the lunar regolith once more.
Elizabeth Howell is the co-author of “Why am I taller? (opens in new tab)?” (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book about space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or Facebook (opens in new tab).