Canada Finds its Way To Providing GPS 3 Search and Rescue Repeaters

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VICTORIA, British Columbia — After delays because of concerns over funding, the Canadian government has decided to proceed with a project to provide search and rescue repeaters for the U.S. Air Force’s next-generation GPS satellites.

The repeaters provided by Canada’s Medium Earth Orbit Search and Rescue (MEOSAR) satellite project will significantly cut down on the time it takes to locate a distress signal, Canadian military officers say.

Canada’s Department of National Defence will begin negotiations with the U.S. Air Force to install the 24 search and rescue repeaters on the U.S. Air Force’s GPS 3 satellites, the Canadian government announced July 24.

The MEOSAR satellite project, which will also include the construction of three ground stations, is expected to cost Canada between 100 million to 249 million Canadian dollars ($70 million to $174 million).

“The government is making sure that Canada’s search and rescue capabilities continue to improve and keep up with the times,” Canadian Defense Minister Jason Kenney said in a statement.

The Canadian government first announced the MEOSAR project in 2013, awarding Com Dev International of Cambridge, Ontario, an initial contract worth 4.7 million Canadian dollars for research and design work on the repeaters. Com Dev successfully completed that phase and had expected a follow-on contract to proceed with the MEOSAR project.

But in January, Com Dev Chief Executive Mike Pley told investment analysts that Canada’s Department of National Defence had put the project on hold. Pley did not provide a reason for that action but said he had been assured by Canadian defense officials that what he called a contract “pause” would be of short duration, and that the program continued to be viewed as a priority.

Industry and military sources said the project was frozen as the department determined whether it could afford to proceed. It had tried unsuccessfully to persuade other Canadian government departments to share the cost.

For the last several years, the Department of National Defence has been dealing with government-ordered budget cutbacks. In addition, the Conservative Party government has scaled back the department’s budget for buying new equipment by 3.1 billion Canadian dollars, but it has stated that move is temporary.

A contract award for the MEOSAR repeaters is now expected to be announced next year, with Com Dev as the likely candidate to receive that deal.

Industry officials will also be asked in 2017 for bids on the ground segment, with a contract being awarded in 2018. The ground segments would be built by 2020.

Department of National Defence spokeswoman Ashley Lemire told SpaceNews July 27 that the first repeaters will be part of the GPS 3 system beginning with the 11th satellite in the series.

Once in orbit 22,000 kilometers above Earth, a MEOSAR repeater will be able to detect signals from emergency beacons and retransmit the signals to receiver stations on the ground. The emergency messages can then be sent to appropriate authorities so that people in danger can be quickly located and rescued.

MEOSAR will provide a more capable system than COSPAS-SARSAT (Cosmicheskaya Sistyema Poiska Avariynich Sudov — Search and Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking), according to Canadian military officers.

COSPAS-SARSAT is an international satellite-based search and rescue distress alert detection system established by Canada, France, the former Soviet Union and the United States in 1979. It is credited with saving more than 33,000 lives since its inception.

Canadian government officials said MEOSAR will reduce the time it takes to detect and locate a distress signal from an hour to around five minutes.

Com Dev began the development of its MEOSAR technology in 2008 under a cost-shared research and development project with the Canadian Space Agency. Canada’s National Search and Rescue Secretariat also later provided additional R&D support.

In a 2012 interview with SpaceNews, Pley said the search and rescue transponders were originally destined for Galileo, Europe’s global navigation satellite system.

“If you recall the history there, politically we got frozen out when Canada didn’t have a so-called defense certificate or defense status to be able to supply to the program,” he explained. “We took that same technology, we worked with [Canada’s Defence Department] and it’s destined, we hope, for GPS 3.”

Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver is to build eight GPS 3 satellites, with an option in the contract for up to four more. The first satellite is to be launched in 2017.

The satellites are designed to provide more-accurate navigation signals that are more resistant to both intentional and unintentional interference than those from earlier-generation craft.

The U.S. Air Force also has plans to award another production contract two or three years from now for nearly two dozen more GPS 3 satellites. Boeing and Northrop Grumman are looking to replace Lockheed Martin as the GPS 3 prime contractor.

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