WGS Partnership Viewed as a Model for Expanded Radarsat Constellation Mission

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UPDATED Jan. 25. 4:10 p.m. EDT

LONDON — The Canadian government hopes to adopt the U.S. Air Force’s Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) partnership model for Canada’s three-satellite Radarsat Constellation Mission (RCM) by asking other nations to add their spacecraft to improve RCM performance, Canadian defense officials said.

The effort has picked up steam since the Jan. 9 announcement by the Canadian government that it was funding RCM’s full development, launch and first year of operations, with the first of the three satellites to be launched in 2018.

“Our phone has rung a couple of times,” said Col. Andre Dupuis, director of space requirements at Canada’s National Defence Headquarters, when asked whether other nations have expressed interest in joining the RCM effort. He declined to be specific, but said the industrial component of any collaboration may prove more complicated than establishing the necessary bilateral relations with prospective contributing governments.

Addressing the Defence Geospatial Intelligence 2013 conference here organized by Worldwide Business Research, Dupuis said the performance of an RCM-based constellation of satellites would substantially improve if it grew to as many as six satellites in the same orbit to reduce the amount of time between flights over a given point on Earth.

WGS nations contributing to the purchase of additional satellites automatically receive pro rata access to the entire constellation. It is a model also used in Earth observation by the DMC International Imaging Ltd. of Britain, which manages a five-satellite optical-imaging constellation on behalf of contributors from Britain, China, Nigeria, Turkey, Spain and Algeria.

One of the more obvious candidates for a collaboration with Canada would be Germany, whose civil TerraSAR-X and TanDEM-X radar satellites are in orbit and operated by Astrium Geo-Information Services of Europe in a partnership with the German Aerospace Center, DLR.

Astrium and DLR have been negotiating for months on a second-generation TerraSAR-X — the satellite was launched in 2007 and has a seven-year contracted design life — but thus far have not come to an agreement. Astrium had been scheduled to finance the second-generation system on its own, but has found the global market for radar imagery tougher to crack than forecast.

In a Jan. 24 briefing with journalists, DLR Chairman Johann-Dietrich Woerner said he expected DLR and Astrium to conclude their negotiations this year. Woerner said DLR is also looking for international partners on an L-band radar-imaging system, and that a decision here would also be made in 2013.

Woerner said he was in Canada when the government made the RCM announcement, and that he was “very happy” that the government is moving forward with the constellation.

Jean-Michel Darroy, director-general of Astrium Geo-Information Services, said the company’s radar sales improved in 2012, and that the commercial release of the WorldDEM product is coming in 2014. This will provide a global 3D digital elevation model based on stereo viewing of the globe by TerraSAR-X and TanDEM-X, flying in close formation, one behind the other.

In Jan. 15 remarks to a space policy conference in Paris, Darroy said a decision on a successor to TerraSAR-X would be made once the company has tested the market’s reaction to WorldDEM.

The German and Canadian experience suggests that the commercialization of radar imagery has not yet occurred, at least not in a way that encourages the private sector to build its own satellites. Canada’s RCM contract for the moment appears to be a standard government procurement and less of a public-private partnership with prime contractor MDA Corp. of Richmond, British Columbia, than was the case with the Radarsat 2 satellite launched in 2006.

The government officials speaking at the conference here said they are not concerned about the slow commercialization of radar Earth observation. With the Canadian, German, Italian, European and Japanese radar sensors in orbit or on the way, they said, there is more than enough supply for the existing market.

Dupuis said the Canadian government’s delay in confirming RCM had little to do with “requirements creep” in the form of additional government specifications that increased the cost and delayed final approval.

“If you go back eight years or so you will see very little of that,” Dupuis said. “Yes, we did modify the solar arrays so that the power would be sufficient to have the SAR [synthetic aperture radar] operating for 15 minutes per orbit, rather than 12 minutes. That was the main difference in terms of the satellite.

“But it’s fair to say that launch prices have changed a bit since we did our initial studies. I tell our financial people that launch prices are like oysters: You pay the market price and that price changes with the season.”

Early RCM studies had penciled in the Russian-Ukrainian Dnepr converted ballistic missile, operated from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, as a likely RCM carrier. But in the past couple of years, Dnepr and other converted missiles from the former Soviet Union have become much more expensive to use as satellite launchers, and their availability has been put into question.

By some measures, launch prices for Earth observation and science satellites into low Earth orbit have about doubled in the past five years. RCM program manages have always envisaged the three satellites being launched one at a time.

Dupuis said Canada’s Radarsat 2, launched in 2006, should be able to continue operating long enough so that, at least in its early operations, RCM is in effect a four-satellite system, reducing intervals between visits and enabling marine vessels not only to be detected, but to be tracked.

Canadian defense forces paid for the Automatic Identification System (AIS) terminals on the three RCM satellites. These will pick up signals sent by maritime vessels under regulations set by international maritime regulators. Canadian authorities will be able to monitor global sea traffic, and especially to track vessels in Canadian waters.

The RCM satellites will detect a ship and the AIS terminals will give information on its identity, cargo, heading and destination. When RCM picks up tracks of ships that are not emitting AIS signals but should be, this will be a signal to send in aircraft to take a closer look.