Southern Alberta might seem like an unexpected location for a pitstop on a journey to the moon, but it may soon be an important destination along any route to outer space thanks to an innovative project underway at the University of Lethbridge.

Dr. David Naylor, head of the university’s Astronomical Instrumentation Group, is leading the development of a cryogenic chamber to test instrumentation for space exploration and operations are expected to begin mid-2021. About the size of a large chest freezer standing on its side, the large facility cryostat (LFC) will drop to temperatures as low as -273°C. That’s approximately 10 times colder than the coldest known part of the universe and it can easily match the cold temperatures seen in shadowy craters during long, dark lunar nights — a notable selling feature since Canada has committed $2 billion to support the United States-led Lunar Gateway project that aims to put a small space station in lunar orbit.

“Anything that’s going to the moon, it doesn’t matter if it’s a rover, a spectrometer or a shovel, has to be validated at low temperatures,” Dr. Naylor says. “We’re the only place in Canada that can do that for sizable instruments.”

The large facility cryostat (LFC) at the University of Lethbridge. Photo courtesy of the University of Lethbridge.

The Canada Space Agency (CSA) recognizes the University of Lethbridge as a key centre for cryogenic testing. While Naylor says the CSA isn’t specifically funding the LFC, the agency has funded activities related to space exploration for almost two decades in southern Alberta through support of Naylor’s university lab and technology development programs with some of the industrial partners involved in the LFC project.

“The LFC project is a small example of how we’re open to creative and innovative things, and we can compete with other major centres.” —Trevor Lewington, CEO of Economic Development Lethbridge

The LFC is supported by four industrial partners, including established international organizations ABB, QMC Instruments and the Space Research Organization of the Netherlands, as well as local Lethbridge company Blue Sky Spectroscopy. Launched 17 years ago to commercialize Fourier-transform spectrometer (FTS) technology developed at the University of Lethbridge, Blue Sky now provides spectroscopy products for use across (and outside of) the world in diagnostic laboratories, astronomical observatories and space missions.

Blue Sky will perform detailed engineering and assembly for the LFC, and hopes to commercialize some of the cryogenic testing techniques the university is developing.

“We’d like to move out more into the cryogenic world, similar to how we spun off the FTS instrumentation from the university,” says Brad Gom, vice-president of systems design with Blue Sky.

Situated in the expansive prairies of southern Alberta, a little more than 200 kilometres south of Calgary, Lethbridge has built a reputation as a main agricultural hub of the province. According to Economic Development Lethbridge (EDL), over 15 percent of local GDP is tied to agriculture, but activity is starting to grow in high-tech areas as diverse as geospatial imaging, artificial intelligence and biotechnology, according to EDL’s chief executive officer Trevor Lewington.

“The LFC project is a small example of how we’re open to creative and innovative things, and we can compete with other major centres,” he says.

Certainly, no other major centre in Canada can boast a unique asset like the LFC. With former students of Dr. Naylor already working at government space agencies around the world, the LFC will help cement the university’s reputation in the aerospace sector.

“It brings a lot of renown and world recognition,” Dr. Naylor says. “Lethbridge is known in the halls of CSA, NASA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and the European Space Agency.”