For decades, the Canadian Space Agency has been building the Shuttle Remote Manipulator System (SRMS) – also known as the Canadarm. Since 1981, aboard the shuttle STS-2 Columbia, this model of robotic arm has come standard on all NASA shuttles and was used as its main grasper. However, due to the progress made in the field of robotics over the past thirty years and the need for equipment to evolve to meet new challenges, the Canadarm was retired in 2011.
Luckily, the CSA is busy at work producing its successor, the Mobile Service System – aka. Canadarm2. The latest versions are in testing right now, and their main purpose, once deployed, will be to save satellites. Currently, an earlier version of this arm serves as the main grasper aboard the ISS, where it is used to move payloads around and guide objects to the docking port.
However, the newest models – dubbed Next Generation Canadarm (NGC) – are somewhat different and come in two parts. First, there is the 15 meter arm that has six degrees of freedom, extreme flexibility, and handles grappling and heavy lifting. The second is a 2.58 meter arm that comes attached to the larger arm, is similarly free and flexible, and handles more intricate repair and replacement work.
This new model improves upon the old in several respects. In addition to being more intricate, mobile, and handle a wider array of tasks, it is also considerably lighter than than its predecessor. When not in use, it is also capable of telescoping down to 5 meters of cubic space, which is a huge upshot for transporting it aboard a shuttle craft. All of this is expected to come in handy once they start the lucrative business of protecting our many satellites.
It’s no secret that there is abundance of space junk clogging the Earth’s upper atmosphere. This moving debris is a serious danger to both manned and unmanned missions and is only expected to get worse. Because of this, the ability to repair and retool satellites to keep them in operation longer is of prime importance to space agencies.
Naturally, every piece of equipment needs to undergo rigorous testing before its deployed into space. And the Canadarm2 is no exception, which is currently being put through countless simulations. This battery of tests allows operators to guide dummy satellites together for docking using the arms in both full manual and semi-autonomous mode.
No indication on when they will be ready for service, but it seems like a safe bet that any manned missions to Mars will likely feature a Canadarm2 or two. And as you can see, Chris Hadfield – another major Canadian contribution to space – is on hand to help out. Maybe he and the new arm can perform a duet together, provided it can handle a guitar!
And be sure to check out this video of the NGC Canadarm2 in action, courtesy of the Canadian Space Agency: