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Canadian firm to deal with Hubble servicing

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NASA is tapping the talents of MD Robotics of Canada to work on a potential spaceflight mission to robotically service the Hubble Space Telescope. The firm has a long history with space robotics, perhaps best know for supplying the Canadarm, or Space Shuttle Remote Manipulator.

MD Robotics is a wholly owned subsidiary of MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) of Richmond, British Columbia. The company was formed in May 1999 following the acquisition of the robotics business from Spar Aerospace Limited. It is located in Brampton, Ontario Canada.

The company first developed and built the first Canadarm under contract to the National Research Council of Canada as that country’s contribution to NASA’s space shuttle program. Subsequently, NASA ordered additional units to augment its shuttle fleet.

Work set for fast track
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center intends to issue a sole source Request for Proposal (RFP) to MD Robotics for the development of a robotic grapple arm and a double-armed dexterous robot.

This hardware would be needed to accomplish the hardware exchange during a potential spaceflight mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), called the HST Robotic Servicing and De-orbit Mission (HRSDM).

NASA is contemplating conducting either the HRSDM or a mission for disposal only of the orbiting telescope. If the HRSDM is approved, it must be accomplished before systems on Hubble fail and the observatory goes into a scientifically useless tumble mode.

All analysis and estimates set the timeframe for those Hubble system failures to begin to occur in late 2007. Therefore, the launch schedule for the HRSDM would be December 2007, according to space agency engineers.

The decision by NASA to link up with MD Robotics is being justified on several key factors.

The Canadian firm has the only known system with the high level of maturity, NASA feels, needed to meet the critical schedule requirements for integration, test, training, and launch.

Specifically, that hardware is the MD Robotics Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator (SPDM) Robot and Space Transportation System (STS)/Orbital Express (OE) robotic arm system. That equipment includes respective packages of embedded flight software.

Both of these system elements have been developed, tested, and provided for the International Space Station (ISS). In addition, the MD Robotics grapple arm has been fabricated and used for the space shuttle, and has also been developed for the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

DARPA's Orbital Express mission is designed to demonstrate autonomous rendezvous and capture of a target vehicle. A response date to NASA's RFP from the company is set for June 30.

Shuttle inspection boom
In other related space work, MD Robotics recently got the NASA go-ahead to proceed with the development of an extension to the space shuttle's Canadarm to inspect the Shuttle's thermal protection system on-orbit. The Inspection Boom, almost as long as the Canadarm itself, will enable astronauts to survey the Shuttle's thermal protection system -- tiles and wing leading edge panels.

The robotic arm extension concept evolved following the Columbia Accident Investigation Board's recommendation for on-orbit inspection repair capabilities in light of the tragic loss of the space shuttle and its crew on February 1, 2003.

The firm's boom extension builds on the technology and experience acquired by MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates in building several generations of spaceborne manipulators -- the original Shuttle Canadarm, Canadarm2 for the International Space Station, and "Dextre" a two-armed robot destined for the International Space Station.

According to MD Robotics, the group has some three decades of expertise in developing advanced robotics systems for space and terrestrial applications, "where humans cannot safely venture."

"We are positioning ourselves for future challenges in emerging markets ranging from space exploration to specialized applications and spin-off technologies here on Earth," a company web site explains.