The Next-Generation Canadarm

A suite of robotic technologies designed to help explore space further and longer

The Next Generation Canadarm project

The Next Generation Canadarm project showcases unique Canadian robotic hardware and software technology designed to support future space missions and repairing and refueling existing satellites. (Credit: Canadian Space Agency)

As the world's nations work towards expanding the frontier of space exploration to destinations like the Moon or Mars, Canada is planning ahead to develop the types of robotic technologies that will be critical to future missions, from space telescopes to the vehicles that may carry humans beyond Earth's orbit. The extensive flottila of satellites near Earth that provides us with daily services (like weather and communications satellites) may also require robotics support for maintenance or refueling.

With over three decades operating the iconic Canadarm on the Space Shuttle, and Canadarm2 and Dextre on board the International Space Station (ISS), Canada has earned an enviable reputation for excellence in advanced space robotics. Building on this legacy, the Next-Generation Canadarm (NGC) is the Canada's futuristic next step in space-based robotic technology.

Photo mosaic of NGC

The Next-Generation Canadarm (NGC) facility provides a suite of robotic systems with the capability to support both low-Earth orbit and deep space missions, from repairing communication satellites to assisting human exploration missions to the Moon, asteroids and beyond. (Credit: Canadian Space Agency)

Built under contract for the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) by MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (MDA), NGC consists of four versatile, state-of-the-art robotic prototypes and a mission control station:

  • NGC's 15-metre robotic arm designed to fit onboard future smaller spacecraft.
  • A smaller, 2.5 meter robotic arm equipped with its own set of sophisticated tools to repair satellites in space.
  • A test-bed for proximity operations allows engineers to simulate bringing two spacecraft together for operations in close-contact.
  • A satellite docking facility to test the steps required to dock two vehicles together and, finally,
  • A mission operations station to control all NGC's systems remotely.

The Next-Generation Large Canadarm

Photo of a Large Canadarm

The Next-Generation Large Canadarm is a 15-metre robotic arm which is able to collapse and fit onboard future smaller spacecraft. (Credit: Canadian Space Agency)

The largest of the five components of the NGC facility, this prototype of a robotic arm has the same 15-metre reach as Canadarm2, but is much lighter and more compact for the smaller spacecrafts of the future. The arm's retractable, telescopic sections allow it to fold up for storage in less than 5 cubic metres—roughly the volume of a mini-van, which would make it compatible with the designs of most new space capsules and vehicles. With six degrees of freedom, the flexible arm can simulate demanding tasks like capturing and docking of large spacecraft for refueling. The arm features include advanced hardware, software, and operational capabilities.

The Next-Generation Small Canadarm

Photo of a Small Canadarm

The Next-Generation Small Canadarm, a "cousin" of Dextre, is outfitted with its own set of sophisticated tools and is designed to repair satellites in space. (Credit: Canadian Space Agency)

Photo of Chris Hadfield observing a Small Canadarm

Canadian Astronaut Chris Hadfield looks on at a demonstration of the Next-Generation Canadarm (NGC) Small Canadarm prototype during a visit to the NGC prime contractor, MDA of Brampton, Ontario, in September 2012. (Credit: Canadian Space Agency)

With a 2.58-metre reach, this smaller robotic-arm prototype builds on the capabilities of Dextre, the Canadian-built robotic "handyman" aboard the ISS. The Next-Generation Small Arm test-bed is a smaller, lightweight, dexterous robot with advanced electronics, software and control systems to support refueling satellites in space and repairing or replacing failing components.

Outfitted with specialized tools, the robot can perform a variety of intricate tasks including: removing and installing components (orbit replaceable units), removing the protective blankets that cover satellites; cutting wires; opening and closing fuel valves, and transferring propellant between servicer and client spacecraft. The smaller Canadarm can be controlled either manually or automatically and can be carried to various workstations much the same way as Dextre is transported on the end of Canadarm2.

The Proximity Operations System Testbed

Photo Proximity Operations System

The Proximity Operations System Testbed allows engineers to simulate bringing two spacecraft in close-contact. (Credit: Canadian Space Agency)

This test facility consists of two industrial robotic systems that simulate the delicate, precise operations involved in bringing two moving spacecraft into close proximity—within just a few metres of each other. The testbed provides realistic simulation models of the spacecraft with actual sizes, realistic lighting and camera views.

Once the two vehicles are close together, a robotic arm on a servicing spacecraft could capture an ailing satellite and dock it for repairs, or an operator could command the servicing spacecraft to dock itself to a client's spacecraft.

The Semi-autonomous Docking System

Photo of a Semi-autonomous Docking System

Part of the Next-Generation Canadarm (NGC) project includes a test facility called Semi-autonomous Docking System, which simulates the steps required to dock two vehicles together. (Credit: Canadian Space Agency)

Once two spacecrafts are in close quarters, this system is designed to take over and guide a spacecraft through a series of robotically performed procedures from initial contact to the final stages of locking two space vehicles together. While current space docking systems are controlled remotely by operators, this facility is equipped with sensors that autonomously detect successful docking and trigger the mechanisms that rigidize the docking of two spacecraft.

Missions Operations Station

Photo of an operator

An operator at the helm of the Mission Operations Station has the capability to control the various robotic components. (Credit: Canadian Space Agency)

The four components of the project are choreographed through a Mission Operations Station, which acts as a mini "Mission Control" capable of remotely planning a servicing mission, from proximity operations through docking and servicing.

Operators at the Missions Operations Station can conduct tests to demonstrate NGC's advanced servicing capabilities using either the actual hardware or computer simulations.

The NGC project was funded through Canada's Economic Action Plan