Earth observation satellites
Three Canadian satellites launched
12 June 2019 – At 7:17 a.m. Pacific Time today, about 90 minutes after sunrise on the longest day of the year at Vandenburg Air Force Base in California, a two-stage reusable SpaceX Falcon 9 launched Canada’s newest satellite venture into orbit. The RADARSAT Constellation Mission (RCM), a global monitoring and surveillance program, led by MDA (now a Maxar company), is designed to yield a wealth of unprecedented detail for use by the Department of National Defence and a half dozen other federal departments and agencies.
The RCM is comprised of three 1,430-kilogram satellites, each measuring 1.1 x 1.1 x 3.6 metres. The mostly-Canadian technology in the platforms, taking data from their 6.98-metre antennas, should provide what MDA Group President Mike Greenley described in a pre-launch interview with FrontLine as “measurements at a kind of millimetre-level of accuracy.” Newer technologies mean a significant improvement over the “several metres” resolution from the two highly successful earlier programs.
RADARSAT-1 was Canada’s first earth observation satellite. Built at the Canadian Space Agency facility in Ottawa, it was launched from Vanderburg AFB aboard a NASA Delta-II booster in November 1995 and was finally declared non-operational in March 2013.
RADARSAT-2, built by MDA when it was still MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates based in Vancouver, was launched in December 2007 aboard a Russian Soyuz from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. It went operational in April 2008 and continues to provide valuable data today.
The 3-satellite RCM planning actually began in 2004, before the RADARSAT-2 launch, and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) spent the next several years developing mission requirements and design. Ostensibly completed in March 2010, it continued to be refined until construction of the satellites began in January 2013. The satellites were transported to Vandenburg late last summer after extensive testing. They have an expected operational life of at least seven years but, based on the success of the two earlier programs and given the cost, the CSA hopes they’ll remain in service for several years beyond 2026.
The RCM was designed and built in Canada by MDA at facilities in Richmond, BC; Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, QC; and Dartmouth, NS. The official announcement also highlighted the fact that Magellan Aerospace in Winnipeg, MB, was involved as a key subcontractor, supplying the main bus.
“MDA was responsible for the full project, including the design, development, manufacture and testing of the satellites, the launch of those satellites to get them into orbit, commissioning the satellites into operation and then operating them for up to one year in support of the Government of Canada and then we turn into over to Canada during that year,” Greenley says.
As for when the RCM become fully operational, “there’s a whole sequence of events that occurs over multiple weeks and months to be able through the incremental deployment of each satellite and their operation as a constellation. It’ll be several months down the road to fully commissioned” with control eventually handed over to the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) in Montreal.
“Across the country, over the 13-year life of the program, there were more than 125 contractors and agencies involved,” Greenley explains. “At any one point in time, up to 300 people were working on this project . . . and up to 50 companies were engaged at its peak.” He notes that the overall cost was approximately $1 billion, with MDA accounting for “slightly over $700 million.”
Compared with optical systems on many other satellites, radar isn’t hampered by cloud cover. “It allows us to not only image but also sense elevation changes and differentiate between different surfaces,” It’s designed to provide access to some 90 percent of the world’s surface and the Arctic up to four times a day as well as daily updates on Canada’s landmass and maritime regions.
Additionally, the new satellites have an Automatic Identification System (AIS) sensor which enables to be able to track marine traffic on a real-time basis. Most commercial and many recreational vessels have AIS transponders which enable them to see each other and avoid potential collisions, but many naval vessels eschew AIS for strategic and tactical reasons.
Greenley acknowledges that potential loophole, but points out that the RCM still permits “quick differentiation of something that’s not AIS-activated which then can be explored further” to determine whether some sort of response is required along the longest coastline in the world. In addition to defence and sovereignty issues, there is also border security, ice movement and a range of environmental threats such as potential oilspills to consider as possible uses for this technology.
In addition to DND, the federal departments of Public Safety, Transport, Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment & Climate Change will be among the systems’ key customers. Increased activity in the Canadian Arctic’s natural resources and potential for increased marine traffic, particular given China’s growing interest despite the fact that it’s not an Arctic nation, is of obvious concern for Canada. “With such a large country, satellite observation can contribute significantly,” Greenley says.
The RCM launch was SpaceX’s 72nd use of the Falcon 9, and its second major CSA contract. The first was the small multipurpose CASSIOPE satellite in Septembe 2013. The $63-million CSA venture designed to provide data on the Earth’s upper atmosphere, was not only SpaceX’s first payload (other than its own Dragon spacecraft) but also the first time the company had launched from Vanderburg.
Asked why MDA had opted to use SpaceX rather than another Soyuz or even the European Ariane launcher, Greenley says it was essentially SpaceX’s record of providing “solid value in terms of their ability to do a good job. In selecting a launch subcontractor, MDA looked at a number of different providers and selected SpaceX just on solid value. It’s a very reliable provider.”
Mike Greenley is no stranger to the Canadian defence industry. “It’s been a solid 28-30 years,” he confirms. With an MSc from the University of Waterloo, he initially worked in Department of National Defence research laboratories before eventually setting up his own company, Greenley Associates, growing it over a decade until it was acquired by Montreal-based CAE Inc., where he served as a vice-president. His career track then took him to General Dynamics and L3 WESCAM before joining MDA in January 2018.