Canada Seeking Partners for Polar Satellite System

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VICTORIA, British Columbia — Canada’s space agency is looking for international partners as well as government departments to help fund a new constellation of polar communications and weather satellites tentatively scheduled for launch in 2016.

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) does not have enough funding on its own to finance the Polar Communications and Weather (PCW) Mission, estimated to cost around 600 million Canadian dollars ($580 million). So it is casting around for other nations, Canadian government departments and potentially private companies as it tries to put together a deal to build the spacecraft.

The PCW Mission would see the launch of two optical satellites in a highly elliptical orbit to provide continuous communication services and weather observation for the Arctic. The satellites are considered essential for militaries that want to operate in the high northern region. Guennadi Kroupnik, the space agency’s director of satellite communications and space environment, said the organization has completed a number of studies on the PCW Mission as well as completed mission requirements.

He said CSA is now in discussions “with international and domestic partners to identify the best scenario for mission implementation,” but he declined to provide more specifics.

“We are currently in negotiations with those partners and I would not want to name them until we finish those negotiations,” he said.

Kroupnik said the CSA will have a better understanding of the way ahead for the PCW Mission likely within three months.

“At this moment the only thing I can say is that it looks very promising but it is conditional on innovative ways of doing business and that is dependent on partnerships within Canada as well as international partners,” he said.

Canada’s Defence Department is involved in the PCW Mission and sees it as a key project for future operations in the Arctic, say Canadian Forces sources. Other domestic partners could include federal government organizations that need weather data and communications for their activities in the Arctic; those include the Canadian Coast Guard, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Nav Canada, Transport Canada, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, Natural Resources Canada and Environment Canada.

In an interview with SpaceNews in December, CSA President Steve MacLean, who left the position Feb. 1, suggested that a potential way forward in expanding Canadian space capabilities might lie in working more with other federal government departments who rely on space for their operations.

The PCW Mission project team also has developed relationships with Eumetsat, the European Space Agency and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Kroupnik said the aim of PCW is to provide high data-rate communications throughout the north as well as near-real-time weather information for the region.

Current geostationary satellites that provide communications have gaps in their coverage over what is known as the High Arctic. Meteorological data for such high latitudes in the north are also diminished because of the orbit geometry of geostationary satellites.

The CSA completed a feasibility study on the project in 2008 and followed that with a 4.3 million Canadian dollar contract to MDA Corp. of Richmond, British Columbia, for the development of the mission concept for PCW.

But MDA President Dan Friedmann said the company has not heard anything new about the mission. Still, he is confident that the project will go forward in some form. “There are certain programs you can’t live without if you’re going to be a sovereign nation,” he explained. “In my personal opinion I cannot imagine how this country can lay claim to the [Arctic] and not be able to talk to anybody” there.

In the last several years the Conservative Party government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has put great emphasis on expanding Canada’s presence in the Arctic. As part of a multibillion-dollar program for the country’s north, Harper has promised his government will construct a new fleet of Arctic patrol ships and a new icebreaker, as well as establish an Arctic training base for the Canadian Forces.

Harper has cited the presence of oil, gas and minerals in the country’s Arctic region as one of the reasons for the increased emphasis on a government presence in the north. He said those resources are critical to Canada’s economic growth.

Friedmann said that the PCW Mission would be key for Canada’s Defence Department if it wants to operate in the Arctic.

The uncertainty surrounding PCW, plus a lack of new CSA projects, prompted Com Dev International of Cambridge, Ontario, to lay off 31 employees last year from the company’s division that worked on CSA payloads and scientific instruments.

“We had hoped two years ago that [PCW] would be a natural follow on to our James Webb [Space Telescope] team and the Sapphire group because it’s the same basic technologies to some extent,” Mike Pley, Com Dev chief executive officer, told SpaceNews in October. “Unfortunately that didn’t materialize and that was what led to our decision.”

The proposed PCW Mission would include a ground segment to process the meteorological information and to manage the communication services offered by the satellites.

In addition, the mission would allow Canada to contribute meteorological data to other nations.

The satellites are expected to weigh around 1,000 to 1,500 kilograms each.

Unlike Canada’s Radarsat 1 and Radarsat 2, which have an Arctic observation aspect to their missions, these satellites would be totally dedicated to a mission covering Canada’s Arctic and the region around the North Pole.

The CSA had listed PCW as one of its “emerging priorities” in its 2009 plans and priorities report.