Quirks & Quarks·Bob McDonald's blog

Canadian eyes open in space, both human and robotic

"Space is part of the fabric of Canada," says Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques
Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques takes part in pre-launch activities as part of the first Soyuz dress rehearsal activities. (Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center)

When Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques blasts into space, his eyes will undoubtedly be wide as he takes in the stunning view of Earth and the sprawling, soccer field-sized International Space Station. But on the same day, a Canadian robotic eye will open much farther out in space as it gazes down on an asteroid.

After almost two years of crossing interplanetary space, the international mission called OSIRIS-REX will be arriving at the asteroid Bennu for a little over three years of observation. One of the first instruments to look down on the flying space mountain is the Canadian built OLA, which is a laser altimeter that will map the entire surface of the asteroid down to a resolution of seven centimetres.

An artist's conception of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft at asteroid Bennu. (NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre)

OSIRIS-Rex is a sample return mission, where the probe will move in and touch the asteroid with a device that will pick up a little material from the surface and return it to Earth for study. But before they can attempt that delicate feat, they have to know what the surface looks like in fine detail so they can choose an appropriate spot to touch down. That's where Canada comes in.

Canadian built instrument aboard OSIRIS-Rex

Resembling a big eye, the OLA sends out pulses of infrared light that bounce off the surface, the same way radar waves bounce off your car so police can measure your speed. The reflected light waves from OLA are shorter than radar, so they will provide a high resolution, 3D map of the surface with details down to objects the size of your fist.  

Assembling a 3D model of the asteroid and gathering the sample will be a slow process, with the canister containing the alien dirt returning to Earth in 2023. The mission is lead by NASA and includes contributions from France, Japan and Canada.

That fact that Canada will have both an instrument at an asteroid out beyond Mars, and an astronaut on the space station at the same time, shows once again how our country is a major player when it comes to space exploration. After all, we were the third country in space with the launch of Alouette 1 in 1962, the year after the flight of Uri Gagarin, the first man to orbit the Earth. Our astronauts get a lot of attention when they fly in space, and rightly so. They have been scientists in orbit, space walkers, and one of them Chris Hadfield, was the commander of the space station.

Canada's role in space

But hidden in the glare of the astronaut spotlight has been our continued work producing precision instruments that have flown in space, whether it is satellites orbiting the Earth, robotic arms for the space shuttles and space station, devices that measure clouds or mineral composition on Mars, or the current mission to an asteroid. Canada is a highly respected member in the space community with a reputation of producing high technology and the expertise to go with it.

In the words of David Saint-Jacques, just before his launch, "We [are] a space faring nation ... Space is part of the fabric of Canada ... For space exploration, that is also a huge part of who we are as a nation of explorers. Now, the 'Concert of Nations' is getting ready to embark on the next step, now that we are wrapping up the program at the space station, and go back to the moon and deeper into space, and eventually on to Mars. So I believe that Canada has a big role to play in that community. To me, it's the kind of innovative, creative, bold Canada that I want my children to live in."  

There is a very good possibility that some of the children watching David carry our nation into space will one day carry the Canadian flag to the moon or Mars, while others will be be future scientists designing precision instruments that will reach even farther into the unknown.

Bon Voyage, David...


Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC-TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.


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