Com Dev, MDA Jockey for Position on Arctic Satellite Project

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VICTORIA, British Columbia — Com Dev International and MDA are positioning themselves for what they hope are key roles in a proposed new constellation of Canadian satellites designed to provide communication services and weather observation for the Arctic.

Officials with the two main players in Canada’s space industry say the firms intend to respond to a Request for Information (RFI) the Canadian government issued Nov. 1. The government is gathering information so it can eventually prepare a request for proposals for what is being called the Polar Communications and Weather (PCW) mission. That would see the launch of two optical satellites in a highly elliptical orbit for Arctic communications and weather observation.

If it is approved by the government, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) hopes to start the PCW ground and space segments in November 2016.

The project is estimated to cost around 600 million Canadian dollars ($574 million) but that figure could climb higher depending on the information provided by firms to the RFI. International firms are also expected to take an interest in PCW but would be expected to have Canadian companies onboard any proposal they would submit.

Chris Dodd, director of business development for Com Dev International of Cambridge, Ontario, said the firm already has been approached by U.S. and European companies interested in PCW, although he did not name them. 

“Clearly Com Dev’s interest is on the space segment as we have the ability to contribute to all elements of that,” Dodd said. “We’ve got a range of satcom payload products we can provide and we can also participate in the meteorological instruments for weather sensing. We also have the capability of delivering on the space weather instrument [Canada] is interested in.”

But Dodd noted that Com Dev would not seek to become the prime contractor on the overall program.

The Canadian Space Agency 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.

Wendy Keyzer, communications manager for MDA, said the firm is interested in PCW. “It is too early to tell in what capacity, as we are currently evaluating the Request for Information,” she noted in an email.

Keyzer pointed out that MDA developed the mission concept for PCW.

Industry sources say MDA is expected to make a bid to be a prime contractor for the mission.

On Nov. 5 the Canadian government also released the 98-page performance report for the Canadian Space Agency, which noted that PCW is a priority for the organization. The weather and communications system would be used by the Canadian military and various government departments.

“The northern circumpolar region presents unique challenges and is not currently supported by dedicated meteorological, communications or climate-monitoring instruments,” the report stated.

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.

In February, Guennadi Kroupnik, the Canadian Space Agency’s director of satellite communications and space environment, told SpaceNews that 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.

The CSA would not provide comment on the RFI, referring questions to Public Works and Government Services Canada, the federal department that oversees procurement.

Sébastien Bois, a spokesman for Public Works, stated in an email to SpaceNews that the Canadian government “is exploring options for a potential Canadian-led project with potential international partners, to satisfy requirements in satellite communications, earth observation coverage of the Arctic and space situational awareness.”

Bois said the closing date for companies to submit a response to the RFI is Jan. 13.

The RFI results will be used to inform the Canadian government on the technical options, business viability, potential project delivery models, costs and risks for industry to support such a project, he added.

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 the mission covering Canada’s Arctic and the region around the North Pole. The spacecraft are expected to have a 15-year life.

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.

Federal government organizations that would use the satellites’ weather data and communications for their activities in the Arctic include the Defence Department, the Canadian Coast Guard, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Nav Canada, Transport Canada, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, Natural Resources Canada and Environment Canada.

The PCW mission project team has also developed relationships with Eumetsat, the European Space Agency and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

But industry sources say it is still too early to determine which international partners, if any, would be interested in the Canadian project.