A Rocket to Call Our Own? Canadian Space Agency Explores the Business Case

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Black Brant Launch

The steadily increasing cost of micro satellite launch services has reached the point that the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) is seriously considering the development of an indigenous launch system. In late November they issued a request for proposals (RFP) for a strategic analysis of the market.

This RFP follows on a 2008 pre-feasibility study that indicated that although developing a micro launcher system is feasible there were still many questions left unanswered. Proposals are due tomorrow with a decision on a bidder due in early January. The study is to be completed by the end of February.

The study is to be split into two parts. The first part will focus on describing the context surrounding the micro satellite market environment. The second part will focus on whether the development of an indigenous micro satellite launch capability is aligned with the Canadian objectives and response to windows of opportunity.

Key questions the study will answer include:

What is the current status of the global launch vehicle markets and what are the trends?

What is the international business volume and how much penetration can a Canadian launch capability obtain?

Can a Canadian capability capture foreign markets? What are the opportunities and forces at play?

What is the current status of the global micro satellite markets and what are the trends? (A micro sat is characterized having a mass of 150 kg)

What are the key considerations to move forward with a micro satellite development program?

How many missions per year are required to support an indigenous launch capability?
What is the domestic business volume?

What are the conditions conducive to a successful micro satellite launch vehicle development program?

What are the prevalent points of views concerning an indigenous micro satellite launcher development program?

Any niche segment opportunities? What is the cost 'sweet spot' for a micro satellite launch?

What are the advantages and challenges of launching from Canada?

What are the benefits and impacts of developing such a capability?

What is the cost of opportunity? (cost and benefits of developing and maintaining a launch capability vs cost of developing payloads and missions over the same period)

What are the benefits of developing and maintaining a launch capability vs the benefits of developing payloads and participating to missions.

What are the risks and pitfalls? Lessons learned? If any, where are the industrial gaps?

What is the estimated cost of developing and operating an indigenous launch capability?

What are the possible governance models for developing and operating an indigenous launch capability (Crown Corporation, privately held organization/joint venture, Federal Agency, public private partnership etc.)

What are the lessons learned from other development programs?

What About Bristol Aerospace?

Bristol Aerospace Limited, a Magellan Aerospace Company, is currently the only company in Canada that provides a launcher. Their experience would seem to fit the profile of what the Canadian Space Agency is after.

As well dealing with foreign companies is proving to be problematic. As we've seen in the past with Radarsat-2 even dealing with the U.S. can be a problem where ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) makes procuring launches difficult.

The CSA is looking for a thorough study, one that will hopefully make the case that there is indeed a need of an indigenous micro satellite launch system. Otherwise the increasing costs will force them to make hard decisions on missions they can support now and in the future.

A central question this RFP does bring up is; Is satellite launch capability a strategic Canadian need? Perhaps this study will help resolve that question.

Updated: 2:30 p.m. PST.