5 Canadian space inventions (that aren’t the Canadarm)

Canadian innovations have played a major role in space exploration, almost from the very beginning

Mike Dixon, students from Chris Hadfield school, & astronaut Robert Thirsk plant tomatoes with seeds that have been in space (CSA photo)

The Canadarm, which made its debut in 1981 and was retired last year is, without a doubt, one of the most famous robots ever in space. But while Canada’s space program has become synonymous with this giant grappler, researchers here have contributed to space science in all sorts of ways.

1. Greenhouses in space: At the University of Guelph, Mike Dixon and his team are working on “biological life support”—systems that will help sustain long-term human exploration to distant planets. “Canada currently leads the world in research and technology development in this field,” says Dixon, director of Guelph’s Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility, where they’re finding ways to grow plants inside greenhouses with techniques that could one day allow us to grow crops on the moon or Mars.

2. Space vision system: Conditions in space can switch from extreme dark to brightness, making it hard for astronauts to gauge distance and speed with eyesight alone. The Canadian Space Vision System, which was first thought up about three decades ago, uses TV cameras as sensors to help astronauts see better, giving information about a specific target so they have an easier time locating it, and helping the Canadarm and Canadarm2 do their work.

3. Microgravity isolation mount
: When astronauts attempt to do science experiments in space, they can find their results bungled by tiny disturbances in microgravity caused by on-board equipment like fans and thrusters, or even the movement of the astronauts themselves. To make it easier, Canadians developed the microgravity isolation mount, which uses magnetic levitation to protect fragile experiments from the spacecraft’s vibrations. It was first launched into space in 1996.

4. STEM antenna
: Invented by Canadian inventor George J. Klein, the STEM antenna (short for “storable tubular extendible member”) looks like a roll of tightly coiled steel, like a large measuring tape. Once it’s in space, the roll can be unwound with a small motor into a strong tube to become an antenna. When Canada’s first satellite, Alouette I, was launched in 1962, it carried four STEM antennae; the design was also used on Mercury and Gemini spacecraft that brought the first Americans into space.

5. Landing gear on the Apollo lunar module
: Using a landing system designed by Canada’s Héroux-Devtek, the Apollo lunar module was the first vehicle to take humans to another surface beyond Earth. Facing a tight timeline in the space race between the U.S. and Russia, Héroux-Devtek produced the landing gear systems used in all six moon landings; their hardware can still be found on the moon today.

Sources: Canadian Space Agency, Mike Dixon
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