Monday, October 17, 2011

The Confusing Geopolitics of Canadian Space

Two breaking stories are only the most recent reminders of the internationally confusing geopolitical nature of current Canadian space activities. This situation complicates Canadian space policy and drives up procurement costs for Canadian satellites.

James Fergusson.
For example, the October 16th 2011 Canadian Press story "Did Canada punish Russia for 2008 Georgia invasion by moving satellite" quotes Dr. James Fergusson, the Director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba on his assessment of a recently leaked US diplomatic cable from Ottawa.

According  to Fergusson, the Oct. 6th, 2008 cable (classified as secret, but released publicly by the Wikileaks website on August 11th 2011 under the headline: "Canada considering space launch alternatives due to Russia's invasion of Georgia") indicates that "Canada attempted to sanction Russia for its 2008 invasion of Georgia by switching to India for the launch of SAPPHIRE, this country's first military satellite."

The Surveillance of Space (SAPPHIRE) satellite project, the Canadian contribution to the United States Space Surveillance Network (SSN), was originally expected to be placed into orbit using a Russian spacecraft "in late 2009 or early 2010" but the cable indicated that this would not occur "due to the Russian invasion of Georgia."

The Indian Polar Satellite Lunch Vehicle (PSLV).
The cable also asked if the US, "intends to broaden its bilateral safeguards to permit satellite launches from India."

The Americans must have been OK with that since, according to the March 29th, 2011 article "MDA to Provide Operations and Maintenance Support for DND Sapphire Satellite System," the SAPPHIRE satellite is now scheduled for launch sometime after the second quarter of 2012 aboard the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV).

While the stretching out of the launch schedule is certainly going to increase overall project costs, the most interesting part of this story is that the "bilateral safeguards" instituted by the US allowed for the launch of Canadian military satellites in Russia but not India in 2008.

So Canada needed to ask for permission.

Of course, this isn't the first time that Wikileaks cables have mentioned the Canadian government and it's confusing international connections. My May 16th, 2011 post "Wikileaks, Defense, Awards, Astronauts, Announcements, Museums and Politics" discussed secret US embassy cables released by Wikileaks which "show nations are racing to "carve up" Arctic resources, oil, gas and even rubies, as the ice retreats" but also indicated that the US government doesn't take Arctic sovereignty pronouncements by the Canadian Federal government seriously.

This begins to make more sense when you consider that Canada seems to essentially require US permission to launch military satellites. It's quite likely that bilateral agreements are also in place to limit and restrict Canadian sovereignty activities in other areas.

Which brings us to our second, breaking story.

According to the October 14th, 2011 Ottawa Citizen post "Thales Wins RADARSAT Contract" the European based Thales Alenia Space Group (Thales) has just won a series of "major contracts worth more than 7 million Euros" to supply S-Band data communications systems for at least two future optical reconnaissance (CSO) satellites for the French Armed Forces and their European partners (as part of the French contribution to the Multinational Space-based Imaging System constellation) and for the three RADARSAT Earth observation satellites scheduled to be constructed as part of the RADARSAT Constellation program by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA)."

S-Band data communications systems were originally developed for the Apollo program by NASA  and operate in the S band portion of the microwave spectrum. According to Wikipedia, the S band "is used by weather radar, surface ship radar, and some communications satellites, especially those used by NASA to communicate with the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station."

According to the Ottawa Citizen article (which refers to this October 10th, 2011 press release on the Thales website), Thales has:
... signed agreements with the companies Astrium SAS (a subsidiary of the European based Aeronautic Defence and Space Company N.V. or EADS) and Bristol Aerospace (the Winnipeg based subsidiary of  Magellan Aerospace) to start the development, manufacture and supply of a total of 10 equipments, (four for the two CSO satellites and six for the three RADARSAT satellites), plus 2 optional equipment for the third possible CSO satellite.

The Telemetry, Tracking and Command (TTC) data communications equipment to be supplied are the latest generation technology developed by the Spanish company (the Espana division of Thales), with application in Earth observation and science missions, telecommunications and space vehicles; they are currently in operation on board the CryoSat satellite for European Space Agency (ESA) and Aquarius SAC / D satellite for the Argentina Space Agency (CONAE) and NASA.
Oddly enough, as outlined in my October 10th, 2011 post "SAR Satellite Designers Living in Interesting Times" a different EADS division (the UK based Surrey Satellite Technology or SSTL) has just announced it's intent to "build, insure and launch" the next generation of SAR satellites (of which RADARSAT is an example) for less than 50M euros each, which is less than half the cost overall for most existing SAR satellites.

The SSTL proposal is 1/3 of the present estimated cost of the Canadian designed and build RADARSAT's so it will be interesting to see if RADARSAT prime contractor MacDonald Dettwiler (MDA) is able to shop around for the best price on other components through alternative suppliers like SSTL or if the just announced Thales contract includes a clause that restricts this.

How's that for confusing and complicated?

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