A render of the Canadian Space Agency's newly announced vision system, mounted on the agency's maintenance robot Dextre. Image: Canadian Space Agency
The International Space Station is under constant threat of impact from space debris. Some of that debris is so small that damage can be hard to see in traditional photos or with the naked eye. Some of it, such as meteorites, is natural. But more and more, debris is man-made.
On Thursday, the Government of Canada and the Canadian Space Agency announced a new CAD$1.7 million "vision system" that will be able to regularly scan the ISS for damage at a degree not previously possible, and is slated to launch in 2020.
"The vision system will use a combination of three sensors—a 3D [LIDAR] laser, a high-definition camera, and an infrared camera—to support the inspection and maintenance of the ageing infrastructure of the International Space Station," a release accompanying the announcement reads.
It is being developed by a Canadian company, Neptec Design Group Ltd., which previously worked with NASA on the development of a prototype lunar rover, Artemis Jr.
"Roughly the size of a microwave oven, the new vision system will reveal damage that in some cases remains hidden to the naked eye, or that is located in places that are hard to reach or difficult to see," according to the announcement.
The occasion marked Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Navdeep Bains' first visit to the Canadian Space Agency's headquarters in St-Hubert, Quebec.
The system will be attached to Dextre, another Canadian Space Agency robot, that performs maintenance and repairs on the exterior of the space station. At present, the space station is examined using cameras already attached to Canadarm2—the station's robotic arm—and Dextre, from photos taken by crew inside the ISS, as well as photos taken during spacewalks.
While it is unclear how, exactly, the vision system will function in practice, the addition of LIDAR and Infrared sensors could allow for more accurate 3D scans that could identify physical changes to the station's surface—similar to how a self-driving car uses such sensors to examine the world around it.
There's a bit of good news, too, for fans of NASA's ever-growing trove of freely accessible photography: "The system's imagery will be available to the public," the Canadian Space Agency said, "who will see the ISS as they have never seen it before."