VICTORIA, British Columbia — Canada’s military will provide search-and-rescue repeaters for the U.S. Air Force’s next-generation GPS timing and navigation satellites that will significantly cut down on the time it takes to locate a distress signal.

Com Dev of Cambridge, Ontario, has been awarded an initial contract for 4.7 million Canadian dollars ($4.5 million) for work on the repeaters to be eventually launched on the Air Force’s GPS 3 satellites.

That first phase of what is being called the Medium Earth Orbit Search and Rescue (MEOSAR) project will see Com Dev design and develop the repeater during the next 15 months.

The contract from the Canadian government includes a 14 million Canadian dollar option to extend the development work to produce a fully integrated prototype MEOSAR repeater for test and space qualification.

Com Dev expects to build repeaters for 24 of the U.S. GPS 3 satellites, with the total value of the MEOSAR project to be worth around 50 million Canadian dollars.

Once in orbit 22,000 kilometers above the Earth, a MEOSAR repeater will be able to detect signals from emergency beacons and retransmit the signals to receiver stations on the ground. The emergency messages can then be sent to appropriate authorities so that people in danger can be quickly located and rescued.

MEOSAR will bring more capability to the international Search and Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking (SARSAT) network of satellites, according to Canadian military officers. 

SARSAT is an international satellite-based search-and-rescue distress alert detection system established by Canada, France, the former Soviet Union and the United States in 1979. It is credited with saving more than 33,000 lives since its inception.

Canada’s associate minister of defense, Kerry-Lynne Findlay, predicted that once operational, MEOSAR “will be a real game changer for search and rescue operations.”

“To give you a real-time scenario, we are talking about reducing the time it takes to detect and locate a distress signal from an hour to around five minutes,” she explained. “That really is amazing and allows us to focus on rescue more than the search in the first place.”

The first Canadian repeater on a GPS 3 satellite could be launched as early as late 2017.

Com Dev has also been awarded an 11.4 million Canadian dollar contract to supply search-and-rescue repeaters for the Canadian Defence Department’s Low Earth Orbit Search and Rescue (LEOSAR) satellite project.

The work to be performed by Com Dev will include the design, development, test and delivery of one engineering qualification model and two flight model search-and-rescue payload instruments. 

The repeaters will be provided to Canada’s Defence Department and hosted on two Joint Polar Satellite Systems weather satellites provided by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The so-called Free Flyer satellites will operate in a polar low Earth orbit with the first launch planned for mid-2016. The repeaters will allow for quicker distress beacon detection and notification to Canadian authorities.

The repeaters will be similar to the systems to be designed for the GPS 3 satellites.

Com Dev’s CEO Mike Pley said in an email to SpaceNews that he appreciated the confidence Canada’s Defence Department has shown in the company by awarding it contracts on both LEOSAR and MEOSAR. “Both are important projects that will establish new hosted payload capabilities that will assist the international community with efforts to detect, locate and rescue people that are in danger on land and at sea,” Pley pointed out.

Com Dev began the development of its MEOSAR technology in 2008 under a cost-shared research-and-development project with the Canadian Space Agency. Canada’s National Search and Rescue Secretariat also later provided additional R&D support.

In a previous interview with SpaceNews, Pley said that the search-and-rescue transponders were originally destined for Galileo, Europe’s global navigation satellite system. 

“If you recall the history there, politically we got frozen out when Canada didn’t have a so-called defense certificate or defense status to be able to supply to the program,” he explained in November. “We took that same technology, we worked with [Canada’s Defence Department] and it’s destined we hope for GPS 3.”

Pley said such a multiyear military space program was welcome since it comes at a time when Canada’s civilian space program is not funding much work.

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.