Forced To Think Small, Canadian Space Agency Focuses on Microsatellites

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VICTORIA, British Columbia — With little solid funding for new large-scale programs on the horizon, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) has embarked on a number of smaller potential projects focused on microsatellites.

Industry sources say the CSA is not expecting any major funding for large projects for the next several years, beyond proceeding with the Radarsat Constellation Mission, or RCM.

But on April 29 the CSA awarded five contracts to Canadian firms and universities to perform feasibility studies on five potential future microsatellite missions.

These studies will investigate whether the five concepts are technically viable and suitable for the use of a microsatellite platform, according to the space agency.

The proposed missions would be in areas of security, health, forest fire surveillance, weather surveillance and water quality monitoring. The missions also would allow the Canadian space sector to advance industrial capabilities in microsatellite technology, especially in mission development, and advanced optical and communications payloads, CSA officials say.

“These microsatellite feasibility studies help to plan for future space missions to keep Canada secure and Canadians healthy, while monitoring our waters and forests,” CSA President Walter Natynczyk said in a statement. “They will also provide Canadian industry and universities with opportunities to test their technology and science in space.”

The total value of the five contracts is 2.3 million Canadian dollars ($2.6 million) over two years but the CSA did not release a list of companies and universities that will receive the money.

The feasibility studies results will be validated in collaboration with federal government departments that use the space data and services. Ultimately, one of the proposed microsatellite projects will be selected and made ready to launch around 2020, according to the CSA.

The space agency then intends to launch a microsatellite mission every two years thereafter.

Chuck Black, director of the Canadian Space Commerce Association, said the CSA’s decision to fund microsat projects makes sense. “Not only is the big money not there for other projects, but Canada’s expertise in microsats is second to none,” Black said. “We have taken a lead in that area so this will continue to advance that.”

Government officials have acknowledged large amounts of funding will not be available for the CSA.

Still, the Canadian government is insistent that will not matter. On Feb. 7 Industry Minister James Moore announced the Canadian government plans to make the country “a global leader” in space exploration.

Critics pointed out that the plan, which calls on Canada to focus on areas in which it has expertise, such as robotics and Earth observation, does not include any new funding for the CSA.

The policy calls for the continuation of the Canadian astronaut program and further investments in the development of Canadian contributions of advanced systems and scientific instruments as part of major international missions. The government will also increase support for technology development, especially in areas of proven strength among domestic firms, such as robotics, optics, satellite communications and space-based radar.

But Moore, the minister responsible for the CSA, has said that the space agency has “more than enough money to move forward” and those focusing on funding issues are “missing the point.”

The Canadian Space Agency, based in Longueuil, Quebec, has traditionally had a 300 million Canadian dollar annual core budget. That budget increases whenever major programs are added.

“The point of the policy is to point out that it’s a much larger ecosystem of investment and support and policy,” Moore told journalists Feb. 7. “It’s the private sector, it’s working with international partners, it’s working with industry and innovation, it’s working with military investments, it’s working with the scientific community, it’s working with universities.”

But Marc Garneau, a Liberal Party member of Parliament and former astronaut and CSA president, said new funding is needed to advance the country’s space capabilities. Chris Charlton, the New Democratic Party’s industry critic, called the space policy framework “a toothless wonder.”

Besides the Radarsat Constellation Mission there are no significant large-scale projects on the horizon. The Canadian government announced in January 2013 that RCM would proceed.

The Canadian Space Agency and MDA Corp. signed a 706 million Canadian dollar contract that would see the Richmond, British Columbia-based company build, launch and provide initial operations for RCM.

RCM is a constellation of three radar-imaging satellites to conduct maritime and Arctic surveillance.

Companies are also planning to bid on the Canadian government’s proposed Polar Communication and Weather satellite mission. Various companies responded to the government’s request for information on proposals for such a satellite.

But although work is expected to start in 2016, industry representatives say there does not seem to be much movement on the project. The reason, they say, is its high price tag, estimated to be at least 800 million Canadian dollars. The Canadian government is searching for potential international partners to defray some of those costs.