Canada is investing in a new tool for the International Space Station that will help astronauts take a closer look at the many dings and dents all over its hull.
The federal government announced Thursday that a $1.7-million design contract has been awarded to an Ottawa firm to develop the monitoring system made up of lasers and cutting-edge cameras.
The end product will be roughly the size of a microwave oven and will be mounted to Dextre, the Canadian-made robotic handyman, to help look for any damage on the aging ISS.
"We're constantly getting bombarded by micro-meteorites on the International Space Station, so this is a risk to astronauts," said Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen, who was among those attending the announcement at the Canadian Space Agency headquarters near Montreal.
"This will allow us to inspect the space station and look for potential issues where we may have to go out and do repairs."
Divots in the station caused by the debris can cut into astronauts' gloves.
Mr. Hansen noted the space station celebrated 15 years of continuous human presence in November but that the first pieces were launched into orbit in 1998.
The station's life has been extended until at least 2024.
"It's going to be more and more important to be able to survey the entire space station, a capability we don't currently have," Mr. Hansen said.
The design contract has been awarded to Ottawa-based Neptec, with the sophisticated technology expected to be launched in 2020.
The vision system will be comprised of three sensors – a 3D laser and two cameras, one high-definition and one infrared – and will be completely controlled from Earth. It will save on valuable crew time by reducing the number of spacewalks needed to survey damage.
Stephane Ruel, vice-president of innovation at Neptec, said some of the technology has been in development for a decade, while the high-resolution cameras, craft-tracking capabilities and thermal cameras have long-term use in space exploration.
"This is fairly state of the art and when you look at the capabilities that will be in this box, it provides capabilities that we know are going to be needed if you're going to the moon, Mars or asteroids, so it will be useful," Mr. Ruel said.
Navdeep Bains, the federal minister for innovation, science and economic development, said the technology can be useful on Earth, in areas such as mining, undersea gas and oil infrastructure and self-driving vehicles.
"Like most space innovations, this technology may be used for missions we haven't even imagined yet," Mr. Bains said.
"Perhaps on missions to future destinations like the moon, or even Mars."