Is Canadian Sovereignty at Risk by a Lack of an Indigenous Satellite Launch Capability?

©SPACEX/CHRIS THOMPSON

SpaceX Falcon 9 Launch

Canada has no indigenously satellite launch capability and until the last decade it wasn't even an issue people within the industry contemplated too seriously. However global security events such as 9/11, arctic sovereignty, earth observation needs have all increased Canada's need and reliance on satellites. So does Canada need an indigenous satellite launch capability? It's a question worth exploring as we consider whether Canadian sovereignty is at risk by not having our own launch capability.

In the past two years the Canadian Space Agency has requested two studies be done to determine whether a micro satellite system is feasible and a strategic analysis of the market. Neither studies were released to the public but the fact that they were requested in the first place is an indication that there was a need to look into the issue. The Department of National Defence is also very much interested in exploring the case for a small satellite launcher.

With respect to the question of whether there is a sustainable domestic market for a built in Canada launcher, the answer is no if you consider the question in purely economic terms but yes if you put national interests as the prime motivator. Is there an international market for a Canadian satellite launcher, be it for a small or large launcher? No.

In fact there is growing competition in the small launcher market. So there is little need for another small satellite launcher to compete internationally as there are cheap options available from other countries including the American Falcon 1E from SpaceX and the Minotaur from Orbital Sciences Corporation, the Indian PSLV and the European Space Agency Vega and several sub-orbital options.

Last year there were a total of 74 orbital launches of which 4 failed. Of those, 31 were launched by the Russians with 1 failure, 15 by the United States, 15 by China, 6 by Europe, 3 by India with 2 failures, 2 by Japan, 1 by South Korea which failed and 1 by Israel. Of those launches there was really only one launch Canada could have competed for if it had a small satellite launcher. That would have been for some of the small, micro and nano-satellites launched on the Indian PSLV-C15, which ironically enough included a couple of made in Canada nano-satellites.

But asking if there is a market for a made in Canada launcher is the wrong question to ask. Every single country that has built their own launch capability always done it first and foremost for security needs. Russia, the United States, China, Japan, the European Union through France, India, and Israel all have the capability to launch a satellite into orbit while South Korea, North Korea, Iran and Brazil have launcher programs underway.

In looking at the launch manifest form the past year the vast majority of satellites launched were of national interest to their respective countries, thus they were launched on domestic launchers.

Good Friends with Issues

Canada is fortunate that our good friends to the south of us, the United States, have an increasingly robust launch capability. In fact SpaceX, a private company based out of the greater Los Angeles area has disrupted the global market with new launchers and is reducing the cost of launch. So why build our own launch capability with such good friends?

Unfortunately there are some key issues to contend with when using a foreign launch service.

The first issue has to do with national self interest. Any foreign country will put its interests ahead of what Canada wants. Case in point is the launching of a satellite that could be considered a threat to the national interests of the country who would be launching the satellite. If the foreign country determined that it could not be in its best interest to launch the satellite, it could just say no. And this in fact has already happened to Canada. Radarsat-2 was launched in December of 2007 after being delayed six years because Canada had to find another launch provider, ultimately the Russians, as the U.S. backed out of launching the satellite. This also forced Canada to find another satellite bus provider. These two changes proved to be costly as they added an additional $191.1 million to the total mission cost of $528.8 million.

Originally the U.S was to have launched the satellite in exchange for data. However MDA, the company that built Radarsat-2, had the right to commercially sell the data which could include U.S. military or other sensitive facilities to groups or nations that U.S. would rather not have access to the data. This was unacceptable to the U.S. and so they backed out of the launch. However preceding this issue was the need to find another satellite bus supplier. The satellite bus is the infrastructure or body of the spacecraft to which the payload is attached. The original supplier of the satellite bus was to be Orbital Sciences Corporation, an American company, which at the time owned MDA, however the Technical Assistance Agreement contained restrictions which proved unacceptable to the Canadian Space Agency and the Government. So Canada contracted Alenia Aerospazio of Italy to build the bus.

This brings me to the issue of restrictions and in particular to the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). ITAR is a set of regulations that control the import and export of defence related articles and services on the United States Munitions List. Satellites and related technology are listed in Category XV. Because of ITAR regulations it can be very difficult to work with U.S. companies on satellite technologies and launches as explained in the example above.

At the recent Canadian Space Summit in Ottawa, invited speaker Mike Gold of Bigelow Aerospace indicated that ITAR reforms including Category XV, space, and more specifically satellite technology where on the Obama agenda. Unfortunately according to Gold, the reality is with the current congress reforms in this area are unlikely due to the polarization of congress after the recent mid-term elections.

So if the U.S. won't launch a particular satellite we can certainly try elsewhere as we did with the Russians. But this brings up another issue, technology transfer and some would go so far as to say technology theft. If you use a foreign launch service your satellite will need to be integrated into the launcher. If you have sensitive technology you might not want a foreign country to see it, let alone have access to it. Launch integration allows the integrator to at minimum see how your satellite is designed, what is placed where, the size of components etc. This could be valuable information to a foreign country.

An example is the recent launch of the U.S. SpaceX Falcon 9 with the Dragon spacecraft. This publication had a freelance reporter do a story on SpaceX before the launch. The reporter took several pictures of the Falcon 9 rocket in the SpaceX launch complex facility, none of which showed amy technology secrets but because of ITAR, SpaceX had a legal responsibility to review them so that nothing sensitive was inadvertently released. It took several days before SpaceX legal cleared the pictures.

The Canadian Market

Canada currently has nine satellites tentatively scheduled for the next five years with an anticipated two others yet to be approved but also tentatively scheduled for the next five years. Of those 11 satellites one is a dedicated military satellite while five will have military capabilities.

Canada is currently developing the Radarsat Constellation, a program of three earth observation satellites, a follow-up to the original and successful Radarsat program. Interestingly enough the Radarsat Constellation wasn't fully funded until Arctic sovereignty became an issue for the government. The Radarsat Constellation has a dual-role of domestic uses including resource management, sustainable development, transportation and military use for national security. As well the military is preparing to launch Sapphire, it's first dedicated military satellite. At this point no launch service provided has been contracted for the Radarsat Constellation. Sapphire is scheduled to be launched on the the Indian PSLV-C20 launch which has been pushed back to 2012.

Other Canadian satellites in development include the scientific satellites CASSIOPE and NEOSSat and two dual-role satellites, scientific and security, for the Polar and Communication Weather (PCW) Satellite Mission are being evaluated. CASSIOPE will be launched by SpaceX and according to a spokesperson from the Canadian Space Agency NEOSSat is scheduled to be launched by India no earlier than June of this year. As PCW is still a mission under review there is no launch provider identified as yet.

The University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies Space Flight Laboratory has developed several nano-satellites including the identical CanX-4, CanX-5 and the CanX-3 BRITE mission which are now scheduled to launch on Indian launchers in early 2012.

Unfortunately launch manifests change often as launches get pushed back for various reasons. India, which will launch five Canadian satellites had two of three rockets fail last year. Even though their small launcher, the PSLV, was not among those failures, it has affected their schedule pushing back all the Canadian launches as they investigate the two failures and deal with a backlog of launches.

With 10 launches pending in the next five years and more likely in the future it would seem there's an economic benefit to having these launches take place in Canada as well. After all, each satellite launch comes with a launch cost, which right now is spent in foreign countries. Those Canadian tax dollars could be spent at home which would also create new jobs and foster the growth of the domestic industry. An industry that would also benefit the scientific community. With more opportunities for space science, Canadian universities and research centres could be able to contribute more to our scientific knowledge base which in turn would help other related industries.

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Development Costs and Timeframe for a New Launcher

What would it cost and how long would it take to develop an indigenously small satellite launcher? That depends on who runs the program and their level of expertise. According to Canadian Space Agency officials it would take 10 to 12 years for a full-scale project to design and build a small satellite launcher. That seems rather slow considering recent developments.

Space Exploration Technologies or SpaceX as it is know as, a private company, ironically founded by Elon Musk a South African with Canadian roots, as his mother is Canadian, briefly worked and went to university in Canada before leaving for the United States, accomplished there what Canada may try to accomplish now. SpaceX has built not only a small launcher in the Falcon 1 and 1E but also a heavy lift launcher in the Falcon 9, all in eight years as well as developing and flying the Dragon multi-purpose spacecraft. SpaceX has disrupted the market with its ability to deliver products that work, that are cheaper and took less time to develop than any other company or government has in the past. Musk says his companies accomplishment are in part due to the past work of NASA and all those how that preceded them. That is true, but it took vision, skill, determination and innovation to accomplish what they have in those eight years.

Can a Canadian effort replicate this? That is unlikely especially if the effort is led by the government. However there are many lessons to learn from SpaceX which could make a Canadian launcher program take less time, be cost effective and innovative to reduce the cost of each launch.

What would it cost to develop a new launcher? Once again this depends on who is building the launcher and the level of expertise of their team. An industry expert familiar with the costs of SpaceX said it would cost between $100-$150 million if done in the manner that SpaceX did it. The difference in price depends on the level of experience of the team and whether you would be developing multiple launch sites as SpaceX originally did with their Kwajalein and Vandenberg launch sites. Unless Canada developed the launcher in a private-public partnership model I doubt they could keep the costs so low.

Canada has an abandoned launch site in Churchill, Manitoba on the western shores of Hudson Bay. While in disrepair it could be the site of a new launcher. A launch site in Nova Scotia has also been discussed in the past.

The Churchill launch site was developed mid-1950s for military applications and eventually became a hub for sub-orbital launches of sounding rockets. The sounding rocket used was the Black Brant, a Canadian designed rocket built by Bristol Aerospace in Winnipeg, Manitoba. To date over 800 Black Brants of various versions have been launched from Churchill and other locations.

It should be noted that a small satellite launcher would not be capable of launching the Radarsat Constellation satellites. A medium to heavy lift launch vehicle such as the SpaceX Falcon 9 would be needed. If Canada was successful in developing a small satellite launcher there is no reason it could not cost effectively develop a medium to heavy lift launcher capable of launching a Radarsat sized satellite.

National Strategic Interest

Canadian national strategic interests must be taken into account when considering whether to begin development of an indigenous satellite launcher program. Canada must ensure access to space for civil and military satellites. At the moment Canada is at the mercy of foreign launch providers, having to fit in our strategic needs within their launch schedule and sometimes on their terms. So is it in Canada's national strategic interest to develop a satellite launcher?

With the need for more Canadian satellites, both for civil use and national security, and with a growing number of Canadian satellites already in development it seems Canada has reached the point where this question must be answered. The answer seems obvious when you consider Canadian national strategic interests. After all, if our best friends and neighbours the American have already refused to launch one satellite, what's stopping them from imposing conditions that aren't to our liking and refusing us again?

Our reliance on satellites is growing and will continue to grow. If we can't launch our own satellites and have to rely on others to launch them, sometimes on their terms and their schedule, then I would argue that Canadian sovereignty is at risk.