UPDATED Jan. 11, 6:55 p.m. EDT

VICTORIA, British Columbia — The Canadian government’s decision to proceed with the Radarsat Constellation Mission will help boost MDA Corp.’s position in providing the international market with satellite data and attract new customers because of the system’s ability to conduct rapid revisits of specific locations, says the company’s president.

The Canadian government announced Jan. 9 that the Canadian Space Agency and MDA Corp. had signed a 706 million Canadian dollar contract ($692 million) to move ahead with the construction of the Radarsat Constellation Mission (RCM). The constellation will consist of three satellites to be launched in 2018.

Daniel Friedmann, MDA’s president and chief executive office, said his firm has had a strong market in providing customers with information from Radarsat 1 and Radarsat 2 but clients are interested in access to satellites that can update information on a regular basis.

“The fact that we have three satellites, which means we can see every spot three times more often than we can today, will really open up the operational applications of consistently monitoring things like oil fields, oil spills, ships and all of those things,” Friedmann said in an interview with SpaceNews. “It’s hard to predict in dollars how big it’s going to be, especially five years from now, but we know this is a big issue and will be very significant for our data business.”

The deal, which will see the Richmond, British Columbia, company build, launch and provide initial operations for RCM, ends months of uncertainty for the country’s space industry.

In April, MDA, the prime contractor, raised concerns that there was not enough funding set aside for the construction of the satellites.

But on Jan. 9, Industry Minister Christian Paradis said the Canadian government is committed to the constellation and its technology. “The world-class Radarsat Constellation Mission keeps Canada at the forefront of the design and operation of radar satellites,” he said.

With the announcement, Canada will have committed 975 million Canadian dollars to the constellation. It had already paid MDA Corp. 269 million Canadian dollars for its earlier work on RCM, Friedmann said.

Initial work started on RCM in 2005.

The Canadian government will be one of the main customers for data from the radar-imaging satellites. Canada is interested in the system’s ability to conduct maritime and Arctic surveillance.

The RCM project is led by the Canadian Space Agency and supported by its principal users, which are Canadian federal government departments: the Department of National Defence, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Environment Canada, Natural Resources Canada and Public Safety Canada.

RCM will also incorporate automated identification system technology, which will aid in ship detection and identification.

According to MDA, RCM has been designed to support rapid tasking of the satellites (five hours from order to command uplink), real-time downlinks and rapid image delivery (10 minutes from downlink to delivery).

To meet its mission objectives, RCM is required to support a wide variety of imaging modes, company officials note. These modes range from wide-area surveillance with 500-kilometer imaging swaths to spotlight modes with resolution of 1 meter in azimuth and 3 meters in range, as well as a large number of modes between these extremes.

Friedmann said MDA already has in place an agreement with the Canadian government on the sale of Radarsat data to allied nations and commercial interests. A similar agreement will cover the sale of RCM data.

Although the project will now proceed, the launch of the three satellites is further delayed. The first spacecraft was originally scheduled for 2014. But in November the Canadian Space Agency stated in an email to SpaceNews that the launch date for the first RCM satellite was now planned for sometime between April 2016 and April 2017.

With the Jan. 9 announcement, the space agency now says the launch of the satellites is planned for 2018.

“We are now launching all three satellites at once on the same rocket,” Friedmann added.

That rocket, according to MDA, will be a Falcon 9 launcher operated by Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) Corp. of Hawthorne, Calif.

The constellation is expected to reach initial operating capability within several months of launch, he said.

After that, the Canadian government plans to operate the constellation.

Friedmann, however, said that MDA hopes to eventually persuade the government to allow the company to operate RCM. “It’s more effective to have industry do it,” he said.

Because of the uncertainty over whether RCM would proceed, MDA restructured its organization and a number of employees were given notices that their jobs would be affected. Although Friedmann did not have figures available he said a large number of employees left the firm and sought new jobs. “Some we have been revoking their notices over the last month as we gained confidence this [the RCM announcement] would happen,” he added.

The company has noted that RCM will involve 200 employees working on the project over a six- to seven-year period.

MDA said in a statement that the contract brings the company’s current backlog to approximately 2.9 billion Canadian dollars.



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David Pugliese covers space policy and developments in the space industry in Canada. He has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and a degree in journalism from Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario.