Canada eyes $2.4 billion Arctic satellite communications constellation

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ARLINGTON, Virginia – The Canadian military wants to build a new constellation that would provide 24-hour satellite communications for the Arctic region as early as 2023, one of the country’s top space officers said June 29.

The program would likely include at least two satellites in an elliptical orbit and could cost about $2.4 billion Canadian dollars, said Col. Jeff Dooling, director of space requirements for the Canadian Department for National Defence.

Canada’s Arctic region is often underserved by weather and communications satellites but that area has become a priority for government officials with the advent of climate change, new shipping routes and an increased military presence in the area.

To solve the unique challenges of satellite coverage in the polar region, the Canadian Space Agency had been studying a new constellation known as Polar and Communications Weather mission since at least 2010. But that program, which included ultra-high frequency communications, wideband communications and weather payloads on one satellite, was expected to cost about $4.5 billion. Privately, government and industry officials had long been skeptical about the program.

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Canada’s military has shelved a concept for a Polar Communications and Weather satellite mission, pictured above, but stripped out the communications requirements for a new constellation. Credit: CSA artist’s concept

“It’s dead,” Dooling said June 29 during the MilSatCom conference here. “It was never a project, it was a concept from the Canadian Space Agency. It did provide a lot of data from the studies that were done, but it had become too expensive and so it went on the shelf.”

Instead, the Canadian Armed Forces broke off the communications requirements from the PCW study to build the foundation of a new constellation, known as the Enhanced Satcom Project.

“The report from PCW wasn’t wasted,” Dooling said.

Now, Canadian Armed Forces plans to release a draft solicitation for the Enhanced Satcom Project later this fall. That program would feature X-band and Ka-band communications as well as ultra-high frequency narrowband communications over the North Pole.

Canadian Armed Forces would operate the constellation, but the military plans to cooperate with international allies to help offset the cost of the program. Already, Canada has verbal commitments from the United States, Denmark and Norway to serve as partners on the program. All three have territories in arctic regions. The United Kingdom has also shown interest in the program.

“Partnerships are the way forward simply due to cost,” Dooling said.

Initially, Canadian officials see their international partners as paying for access to the program based on how much bandwidth they plan to use. A similar model of allied participation has allowed the U.S. Air Force to expand the size of its Wideband Global Satcom satellite constellation in recent years.

In addition, he said the program has the backing of senior leaders in the Canadian government who view it as a “key project.” The Canadian military hopes to move forward on a proposal in late 2017, Dooling said, and for the constellation to make initial capabilities available in 2023.

Meanwhile, Canada is also considering buying into an existing communications constellations as part of a second project known as the Tactical Narrowband SATCOM program.

An Atlas 5 rocket from United Launch Alliance successfully launches the fifth narrowband communications satellite in the U.S. Navy's Mobile User Objective System. Credit: ULA.
An Atlas 5 rocket from United Launch Alliance successfully launches the fifth narrowband communications satellite in the U.S. Navy’s Mobile User Objective System. Credit: ULA.

The Canadian Armed Forces hopes to make a decision in May 2017, have an initial operating capability available as early as 2018 and a full capability available as early as 2021.

The Canadian military plans to spend between $500 million to $1.5 billion Canadian dollars on this portion of the project, according to the Armed Forces web site.

Among the options under consideration: buying into the U.S. Navy’s Mobile User Objective System narrowband communications constellation.

A consortium of U.S. allies, led by Canada, has been working on an agreement for months to possibly build a sixth MUOS satellite. By funding an additional satellite, Canada and its partners would get full access to the Navy’s MUOS constellation, which is designed to provide smartphone-like communications almost anywhere on the globe and has been successful transmitting in demonstrations near the North Pole.

The fifth MUOS satellite launched June 24 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on an Atlas 5 rocket.