CSA Budget Cuts Put Radarsat Constellation Mission in Limbo

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VICTORIA, British Columbia — The future of one of the Canadian Space Agency’s (CSA) key programs is looking increasingly uncertain after the Canadian government announced a series of budget cuts to the organization.

The Radarsat Constellation Mission (RCM) was to have seen the construction of a number of radar-imaging satellites to conduct maritime and Arctic surveillance, but MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA), contracted to design the spacecraft, is raising doubts whether the project will proceed.

The company’s assessment of the Canadian government’s budget is that it “does not include the funds required to continue the Radarsat Constellation Mission in relation to the build phase (Phase D),” MDA President Daniel Friedmann stated in an April 4 email to Space News.

Phase D was to have been the manufacture of the first satellite in the constellation. The company is seeking answers from the CSA on what comes next for the mission.

MDA also stated that given the uncertainty over RCM it would restructure its work force, suggesting some staff would be laid off. In his email, Friedmann said the company is not releasing details about the numbers of staff affected at this time.

The Canadian government has announced it would reduce the CSA’s budget from the current 424 million Canadian dollars ($420 million) to 363 million Canadian dollars.

In coming years, the agency’s budget is expected to drop back to its regular base level of around 300 million Canadian dollars. That funding level could increase again if the government approves new space projects.

The Canadian Space Agency referred questions about RCM to Industry Canada, its parent department.

Industry Canada spokeswoman Stefanie Power noted that design work is continuing on RCM and is scheduled to be completed in August. “Industry Canada and the CSA will continue to work with the space industry on key issues and impacts for economic competitiveness and growth,” she said.

A government source said it would be months before the space agency has a clear idea on whether RCM will proceed or not.

Initial work started on RCM in 2005 but has ramped up significantly, with satellite launches planned for 2014 and 2015.

The baseline mission is for three satellites but the constellation is designed to be scalable to six spacecraft, according to CSA.

The total cost of the RCM is estimated to be 600 million Canadian dollars and that will include the construction and launch of the spacecraft, in addition to the modifications of existing ground stations.

MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates initially received a 40 million Canadian dollar contract in 2008 from the Canadian Space Agency to design the RCM.

But Friedmann had warned in February in a conference call with investors that the company had detected hesitation on the Canadian government’s part with respect to RCM. He noted that could push MDA into a position where it may need to cut its payroll.

Friedmann said at the time that the company’s current RCM contracts, which did not include full construction of the system, expired in the next few months, at which point “we and our subcontractors run out of funding and run out of work.”

Depending on how RCM is treated in the Canadian government’s current debate over aerospace and space funding, fresh RCM funding may not arrive until September at the earliest. “We have to take corrective restructuring actions to protect ourselves financially,” Friedmann said in the February call. “The production phase is 100 million [Canadian dollars] per year work level for us and our subcontractors. And of course we are staffed up to do that work.”

The RCM satellites will be interoperable and will be equally spaced in a 600-kilometer low Earth orbit. The radar satellites can conduct surveillance day or night and in all weather conditions.

The RCM was initially focused on maritime security requirements, but land security, particularly in the Arctic, will be dramatically enhanced by the new system, according to the Canadian Space Agency. It will provide up to four satellite passes per day in Canada’s far north, and several passes per day over the Northwest Passage.

The RCM satellites will be able to detect ships as small as 25 meters in length. The ground segment for the Radarsat Constellation will be based on upgrades to the existing Radarsat-1 and Radarsat-2 ground facilities.

Previously, the CSA had stated that the first satellite of the RCM would be launched to ensure that there is no data gap as Radarsat-2 nears the end of its planned life. Radarsat-2 is designed to operate until 2014.