Planned 40-satellite Constellation Would Monitor Earth and Space

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — A Canadian company is targeting commercial and government markets with a proposed constellation of 40 low Earth orbiting satellites designed to keep tabs on the environment both in space and on the ground.

NorStar Space Data’s planned NorthStar satellites would fly in an orbit that is similar to — but higher than — the one in which the Iridium communications satellites operate, company officials said, providing near-ubiquitous coverage using sensors that look both up and down. The dual nature of the mission means the company will not have to depend on a single customer set or sector for revenue, they said.

Government agencies like the U.S. and Canadian defense departments are viewed as the most likely users of the space situational awareness data, according to Stewart Bain, president and chief executive of Montreal-based NorStar.

Commercial-sector businesses, primarily in agriculture, mining, fishing and fossil-fuel energy, comprise the anticipated customer set for the hyperspectral and infrared data collected by the downward-looking sensors, he said.

“The potential of NorthStar is unlimited,” Bain said in a press release dated April 15. “Agri-business users will have the ability to continuously monitor crops for disease and irrigation requirements, and be able to more accurately predict harvest yields. Mining and energy corporations will have new tools to manage the environmental impact of explorations. Precise information on the water quality of rivers and oceans around the world will be available continuously, to provide users with a deeper understanding of the health of ocean life and freshwater resources.”

In an interview April 14 at the 31st Space Symposium here, Bain said oil and other energy companies will be able to use NorthStar data to characterize and remediate the environmental impacts of their operations. Global population growth is driving demand for nonrenewable energy sources, and the ability to closely monitor resource extraction and transportation operations will make them more palatable to the general public, he said.

tar sands mine
Aerial view of Syncrude Aurora tar sands mine in the Boreal Forest north of Fort McMurray. Credit: Greenpeace/Jiri Rezac

Canada’s significant oil and mining interests, in particular the controversial effort to exploit the country’s oil sands, will place a premium on being able to get this information from a Canadian company, Bain said.

NorStar is working with Visual Analytics Research and Development Consortium of Canada, or VARDEC, to develop applications for NorStar data, Bain said. VARDEC is composed of major aerospace firms — Boeing of the United States is a member — and small- to medium-sized companies with a goal of advancing the state of the art in visual decision-making tools to enhance Canada’s global competitiveness.

Bain declined to say how much funding NorStar has raised for the product-development phase of its effort, which is expected to last about 12 months. The company’s strategy is to prove the value of the data to get early commitments from prospective customers. This, in turn, should make it easier to attract investment from Canadian financial institutions including Fonds de Solidarite, Caisse de depot et placement du Quebec, and various Canadian pension funds, he said.

NorStar is working with NovaWurks of Los Alamitos, California, on the NorthStar constellation, company officials said. By using a U.S.-based manufacturer, the NorthStar project will be eligible for financial support from the U.S. Export-Import Bank, Bain said.

NovaWurks is developing satellite building blocks dubbed satlets under a contract with the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and would likely apply that technology to the NorthStar satellites. Satlets are designed to perform various satellite functions and can be assembled together in different ways depending on the mission.

That flexibility will come in handy on the NorthStar constellation, according to Robert Maskell, president and chief executive of NorthStar Satellite Services, which is responsible for developing the system. The NorthStar satellites likely will not all carry the same complement of payloads, he said.