Planet ground station caught in Canadian regulatory limbo

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WASHINGTON — As Planet prepares to complete its initial constellation of remote sensing satellites, a ground station it built in northern Canada to communicate with those spacecraft remains offline because of delays in receiving a government license there.

The problem Planet has faced winning approval for its ground station, industry representatives argue, is a sign of outdated remote sensing regulations in Canada that could deter other companies from operating in the country.

Planet completed the ground station at Inuvik, in the Northwest Territories, early this year. The company said the latitude of the site, 68 degrees north, coupled with a fiber optic link to the town and a lack of radiofrequency interference in the area, made the location ideal as a major ground station to collect images from its constellation of cubesats.

“It could be, and we were planning on it being, incredibly important,” said Mike Safyan, director of launch for Planet, in a July 6 interview. “Once it comes on line, it will be able to furnish somewhere between a quarter and a third of the ground station capacity that we need for our entire fleet.”

That initial fleet of Dove cubesats will be completed with the July 14 launch of 48 satellites on a Soyuz rocket from Baikonur. That will bring the total number of satellites operated by Planet to 190, including five RapidEye and seven SkySat spacecraft.

To operate the ground station, though, Planet needs licenses from two Canadian agencies. One, from Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED) Canada, covers its use of radiofrequency spectrum. The other, from Global Affairs Canada (GAC), is for its operation of a satellite remote sensing system.

That dual-license approach is unique among the countries where Planet operates ground stations. Safyan said that, in other countries, Planet’s remote sensing license from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the U.S. has been sufficient, requiring the company to obtain only the communications license.

Safyan said that Planet has had no problems with ISED getting its communications licenses to operate the Inuvik ground station. The problem, he said, has been with GAC. “Working with them, to be frank, has been a huge pain,” he said. “Their timelines for review have been incredibly frustrating and the whole process has been surprisingly opaque.”

Safyan said GAC has informed the company it will not approve a license prior to the upcoming launch, but has offered few details about the reasons for the delay or when the company can expect a decision.

“One of the challenges is that getting a straightforward answer from GAC is very difficult,” he said. “Getting to the core issues, GAC refuses to give us any information there.” He added that personnel changes in the office, and difficulties fitting the company into existing Canadian remote sensing law, may by contributing to the delays.

In a July 10 statement to SpaceNews, Brittany Venhola-Fletcher, a spokesperson for GAC, didn’t discuss the details about delays in the ongoing review of Planet’s license application. “The licensing process for these complex systems is thorough, involves consultation among multiple government agencies, and includes vital assessment of national security considerations as well as commercial issues,” she said.

That licensing process, she noted, is governed by the Remote Sensing Space Systems Act (RSSSA) of 2007. However, both Planet and other industry officials believe that the legislation is outdated and needs reforms.

“The RSSSA was drafted in a time when NewSpace wasn’t really a reality, certainly not in Canada,” said Michelle Mendes, executive director of the Canadian Space Commerce Association, in a July 10 interview. While enacted a decade ago, she said the act was first drafted in the late 1990s, primarily to support operations of the Radarsat spacecraft by MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates.

“It’s widely acknowledged by the space sector that this act is not doing its job,” she said, noting her organization has worked with several other companies she could not publicly identify that also were having problems linked to the act. “It’s inhibiting companies like Planet from staying in Canada.”

The RSSSA includes a provision requiring an independent review every five years, including one completed earlier this year by the Institute of Air and Space Law at McGill University in Montreal. That review warned that the act “has had some difficulty keeping up with the pace of technological change” and that the office within GAC that administers the act is “underfunded and under-staffed.”

The Canadian government has not yet responded to the findings of that report. “We are currently considering the results of an independent review of the RSSSA to determine how to best regulate and support the sector,” said Venhola-Fletcher.

Mendes said she expects an update of remote sensing law once the government releases a new space strategy, which was planned for June but has been delayed until later this year to incorporate feedback from various stakeholders. “I am hopeful that the RSSSA will be resolved as part of the implementation of the strategy,” she said.

That may be too late for Planet. Safyan said that, while waiting for a license from GAC for its Canadian ground station, it sought backup capacity from the TrollSat ground station in Antarctica operated by Norwegian company KSAT, and also worked with Swedish Space Corporation to set up a ground station in Punta Arenas, Chile.

Planet encountered no regulatory problems getting those ground stations up and running. “In both cases, the timeline from expressing a need to signing a contract, doing all of the regulatory reviews and installing the hardware has been a handful of months, at most,” Safyan said. “All of this has occurred while we were waiting for GAC to give us an answer on Inuvik.”

Planet’s patience with the Canadian government may be running out. “We’ve been hearing ‘we’ll get an answer soon’ for quite a long time,” he said of the company’s dealings with GAC. “I think over the next month or two, we’ll make a final decision on if it’s worth continuing to wait.”