Canadian Radarsat Constellation Mission Delayed, Cost Rises by $400M

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VICTORIA, British Columbia — The estimated cost of Canada’s Radarsat Constellation Mission (RCM) has significantly increased and the proposed launch of the first satellite has been delayed to at least 2016.

The Canadian government had planned on the launch of the first satellite for RCM in 2014 and estimated the project would cost around 600 million Canadian dollars ($599 million). But recently declassified documents from Canada’s Department of National Defence put that price tag now at more than 1 billion Canadian dollars.

RCM was to have seen the construction of a number of radar-imaging satellites to conduct maritime and Arctic surveillance, but the project’s prime contactor, MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates of Richmond, British Columbia, has raised doubts over the last several months about whether there is enough government funding for the project to proceed.

Officials with the Department of National Defence raised similar concerns in internal documents two years ago. “While revised cost estimates for RCM vary, on average they reflect a projected cost of over $1 [billion],” Canadian Forces Brigadier General P.R. Matte, director general of integrated force development responsible for space capability, warned the department’s deputy minister, Robert Fonberg, in 2010.

Matte noted the previous estimate for RCM was 600 million Canadian dollars. The heavily censored two-page briefing note, titled “DND/CF Input Requested On CSA’s Long Term Space Plan,” is dated Jan. 18, 2010, and was recently declassified and obtained by SpaceNews under Canada’s Access to Information law.

Space industry sources have confirmed the 1 billion Canadian dollar estimate.

The Department of National Defence referred questions about RCM to the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). Asked to comment on the 1 billion Canadian dollar cost estimate for RCM, CSA spokeswoman Mélanie Beauchesne responded in an email: “As the Canadian Space Agency is currently in contractual negotiations, costs associated with the advancement of the Radarsat Constellation Mission cannot be disclosed.”

But she did confirm that the launch date for the first RCM satellite, originally targeted for 2014, is now planned for sometime between April 2016 and April 2017. The other two satellites would be launched a year later, Beauchesne added. She said the Canadian government remains committed to RCM and continues to work with MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates to complete the design phase of the spacecraft. Beauchesne said those discussions are ongoing but did not provide further details.

Asked about the estimated increase in cost on RCM outlined in the Department of National Defence documents, MacDonald Dettwiler spokeswoman Wendy Keyzer stated, “MDA has no involvement in Government estimates or budgets.” She did not provide further comment.

The baseline Radarsat Constellation Mission is for three satellites but the constellation is designed to be scalable to six spacecraft, according to CSA. The original 600 million Canadian dollar figure for RCM included the construction and launch of the spacecraft in addition to the modifications of existing ground stations.

Industry sources say the initial government cost estimates on RCM were too optimistic and it is not unusual for complicated space projects to cost more than first thought.

But the uncertainty with RCM has also created a domino effect: Work on a Canadian military maritime surveillance system that was supposed to be installed on the constellation spacecraft is now being stalled. The  Department of National Defence’s Polar Epsilon 2 project was to make use of an Automatic Identification System (AIS) package installed on RCM to track ships. The system would use data provided by transponders on the vessels to monitor their locations.

The department originally planned for the construction of a Polar Epsilon 2 ground station in the Arctic starting in 2013. The estimated budget for the project was around 65 million Canadian dollars, but that has risen to 102 million Canadian dollars.

Asked whether the Arctic ground station will be constructed next year as originally planned, department spokesman Dan Blouin pointed out that Polar Epsilon 2 has not yet received departmental or government approval. He did not indicate when that might happen.

In April, MacDonald Dettwiler President Daniel Friedmann warned that the funding being provided by the government for the CSA’s future budgets did not “include the funds required to continue the Radarsat Constellation Mission in relation to the build phase (Phase D).” Phase D was to have been the manufacture of the first satellite in the constellation.

The Canadian government announced this year that it will reduce the CSA’s budget from 424 million Canadian dollars to 363 million Canadian dollars over the next year.

In coming years, the agency’s budget is expected to drop back to its regular base level of around 300 million Canadian dollars. That funding level could increase again if the government approves new space projects, according to government officials.