Canada Devising Action Plan for Taking Over Troubled Space Projects

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VICTORIA, British Columbia — The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) is working on a plan to intervene in troubled government space projects, providing commercial firms the technical expertise, if necessary, to complete what they had been hired to do.

The backup plan comes after an internal audit found that the Near-Earth Object Surveillance Satellite (NEOSSat), built on contract by a commercial firm, ran into difficulties and fell 41 months behind schedule.

At one point, CSA and the Department of National Defence, which were co-funding the 24-million-Canadian-dollar ($23 million) microsatellite, considered abandoning the project. But the two organizations decided to take a risk and continue while at the same time providing technical advice to the contractor, Microsat Systems Canada Inc. (MSCI) of Mississauga, Ontario.

“Without the technical capacity within the CSA and [the Department of National Defense], it is unlikely that the NEOSSat project would have been completed successfully,” concluded the 69-page audit, titled “Evaluation of Near Earth Object Surveillance Satellite Project.”

NEOSSat was launched in February 2013. CSA touts it as the world’s first space telescope dedicated to detecting and tracking asteroids and satellites.

The audit recommended that CSA maintain the technical capability “to effectively manage projects and to step in and undertake the more technical aspects of a project if a contractor is unable to do so.”

“If the prime contractor does lose capacity then the CSA should ensure it has a way to deal with that risk,” it added.

In response, CSA will develop “guidelines for project intervention,” which should be ready by December, agency officials said.

By March 2015, it will have identified the areas of key technical expertise it needs to have if required to take over troubled projects from contractors. The space agency will also put in place a system to acquire engineering services when needed on a contract basis.

CSA spokeswoman Maya-Olivia Eyssen said the agency has been working on its response to the audit since earlier this year. She noted those changes will also include “an improved process for project management at the CSA.”

It will develop new methodology for project management that will include a process to provide continuous monitoring of contractor’s financial, technical and project management performance. That system will be ready by March 2015.

The audit was completed in March 2014 but only recently made public.

Dynacon Inc. of Mississauga was awarded the contract to build NEOSSat in July 2007. In 2008 Dynacon sold its satellite business to MSCI, and MSCI continued the project as a subcontractor to Dynacon.

But according to the audit, the project faced a number of hurdles.

MSCI lacked the capability to do the project and faced a significant turnover of key staff, the audit noted.

MSCI, however, has challenged those findings. Its officials say the requirements for the project were lacking in specifics and that staff from CSA, who were brought in to help, instead got in the way.

MSCI President David Cooper also told Postmedia news service in a July 28 article that CSA kept asking for changes to the satellite. Cooper did not immediately respond to a call from SpaceNews for comment. Chuck Black, a space analyst and former director at the Canadian Space Commerce Association, said much of the audit places blame on contractors but CSA and Canadian government should not escape blame for some of the problems.

A source of significant delay was the federal government approval and contracting processes, he pointed out. Even when Dynacon-MSCI was awarded the contract, it took the government another year to actually issue the contract and CSA another four months to get approval to implement the project.

In addition, some officials representing industry and the Defence Department noted that CSA did not always appear to be managing NEOSSat efficiently or cost effectively, the audit reported.

Another delay beyond the control of MSCI stemmed from one of its subcontractors going out of business; MSCI had to replicate systems developed by the defunct subcontractor, causing another year of delay.

Although NEOSSat is operating, the images it is producing are not what was expected, the audit found. The image quality does not at present meet the imagery requirements of the scientific aspects of the mission, it added.

“A stable focus is needed in the imager in order to yield images of a scientific quality, due to the very low levels of light that are reflected off asteroids,” the audit concluded. “Whether the intended production of 288 images per day can ever be achieved is a matter of concern.”

But CSA says it is confident that it can deal with the technical issues. In early June, following various flight software and parameter improvements, NEOSSat demonstrated that it can obtain scientific images, said CSA’s Eyssen. “Additional flight software upgrades are scheduled, which should lead to the full commissioning of NEOSSat during the fall,” she added.