Meet Dextre, Canada's robotic space hand, eh

But is this Canada's last big venture into space?

By Farhad Manjoo
Published March 10, 2008 7:35PM (EDT)

Courtesy of the Canadian Space Agency

On Tuesday the Space Shuttle Endeavor will launch off toward the International Space Station with a special Canadian helper friend in tow.

No, not Pam Anderson. The Endeavor will carry the Canadian Space Agency's Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator, or Dextre, a giant robotic space "hand." Dextre will sit at the end of two previously installed Canadian robots -- the "arm" and "shoulder" -- and will help astronauts perform delicate tasks that now require dangerous space walks outside the Space Station.

The robot is a marvel to behold (see the Canadian Space Agency's video, posted below). "Like a mechanic in space, Dextre can pivot at the waist, and its shoulders support two identical arms with seven offset joints that allow for great freedom of movement," says the CSA.

Dextre, which cost 200 million Canadian dollars to develop, can precisely measure the forces in its grip, allowing it to fix the components of the Space Station, open and close hatch doors, and install and remove batteries and scientific equipment in docks around the station.

The Canadian Space Agency has long developed robots for space. In 1981, it launched Canadarm, a robot that moved payload around the Space Shuttle bay.

But as Canada's National Post reports, many observers worry that Dextre might be Canada's last big space venture. The Canadian Space agency's budget is small -- 300 million Canadian dollars annually -- and has not seen an increase for years. The agency has a small cadre of astronauts, and few new ones are signing up. Moreover, there's little public support for -- or even awareness of -- the agency's accomplishments.

Kevin Shortt, who heads the Canadian Space Society, tells the Post: "Until the space program becomes part of Canadian popular culture, part of the Canadian psyche, the funding and government attention to this great space program of ours isn't going to change." He adds: "To the majority of the people out there, Canada's involvement in space ended with the shuttle arm in the '80s."

But perhaps shots of Dextre in action will change that? The animation below is a tad boring, but there's clear grace, even beauty, in Dextre's movements. As you watch it, hum Strauss's "The Blue Danube," and it becomes something nearly magical.

Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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