VICTORIA, British Columbia — The Canadian military is looking at whether it can develop a launch vehicle to put microsatellites for specific missions or operations into orbit.

The Department of National Defence’s science agency has several projects under way in the area — one a feasibility study into the development of a rocket capable of launching small and microsatellites, the others involving the construction of a number of micro- and nanosatellites that will be used to prove the military capability of such spacecraft or conduct further research into such capabilities.

Department of National Defence officials say the projects are unrelated, but a report on space capabilities from the military’s chief of force development notes that the development of a launcher for small and microsatellites is a key focus for the department’s research and development. The 19-page report, titled “The Canadian Defence Space Program,” was issued in November.

Martin Champoux, a spokesman for Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC), confirmed that the agency is examining what might be needed for a small launch vehicle. “This is just at the concept, design and analysis phase,” he said.

DRDC will deliver a report by March 2012 outlining the requirements for a launcher, a capability analysis and different possible mission scenarios that could be undertaken. “You’re looking at different permutations; if [the rocket] is this size, it can launch this,” Champoux said.

Defence Department officials say they expect to determine how to move forward once the report is completed.

Canada does not possess a launch capability for satellites and has relied on other nations, including the United States, Russia and India, to put its defense-related and commercial spacecraft into orbit.

“Nobody has made that linkage, but if we’re developing microsatellites, then down the road the client, being DND [the Department of National Defence], could decide to launch microsatellites using this small launch vehicle,” Champoux said.

DRDC is involved in the development of a number of micro- and nanosatellites, including the Near Earth Orbit Surveillance Satellite (NEOSSat). The 75-kilogram microsatellite is expected to cost around 10 million Canadian dollars ($9 million), which includes the launch.

NEOSSat, which will track space objects, will be launched next year.

“It’s more to show that microsatellites can do a militarily useful mission, and the tracking of space objects, if you will, just happened to be a target of opportunity,” DRDC scientist Brad Wallace said.

The spacecraft is being designed and built by Microsat Systems Canada of Mississauga, Ontario.

In addition, DRDC and the Canadian Space Agency are funding the development of the Maritime Monitoring and Messaging Microsatellite, or M3MSat. It is being built by Com Dev, Cambridge, Ontario, and is expected to weigh about 60 kilograms. The cost of the project is around $10 million.

Wallace said microsatellites offer the Canadian Forces a potentially low-cost and quick solution for a space mission. “The key here is response — something that will do a military mission at a price that we can afford in a timeline that is useful for us,” he said.

Wallace said DRDC is also providing funding to the Space Flight Lab at the University of Toronto for the development of two nanosatellites expected to be launched next summer.

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) is also studying the possibility of developing a launch system for microsatellites and is cooperating with DRDC. The space agency has conducted feasibility studies that found it would be possible, but challenging, to develop an indigenous launch capability.

A plan outlining research and development into propulsion systems has been put forward for CSA management to examine, said Eric Dubuc, a manager of technology development at the agency.

CSA’s focus is on a 150-kilogram satellite for an orbit of 800 kilometers sun synch, he said.

Kevin Shortt, president of the Canadian Space Society, said the issue of whether Canada should build its own launch system has been discussed on and off since the 1960s. He said Canada could carve out a niche for itself in microsatellite launches, adding that the country’s geographic location is ideal for particular launches, such as for polar orbits.

He noted that there are existing facilities for suborbital launches in Churchill, Manitoba, that could be quickly adapted for orbital launches.

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.