Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Media Reports: CSA "Lost in Space," RADARSAT "Over Budget" & UrtheCast "Hyped Vaporware."

Danger, Will Robinson!
Just when you thought the Canadian space systems industry was patiently settling back for the inevitable public hand-off of submitted aerospace review documents to the Federal industry minister (expected sometime before the end of this year as per my February 28th, 2012 post "Aerospace (and Space) Policy Review Head Announced"), along comes multiple reports illustrating growing public concern over eroding Canadian capabilities and rising costs.

The first is the April 30th, 2012 Postmedia News article "Canadian businesses lost in space" which reports on "an absence of clear direction" for any Canadian "whose business lies in space" which makes them "uncertain where to focus" and wondering what to design.

According to the article:
In the 1980s and 1990s the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) wrote three successive long-term plans to chart our course. These steered us through the glory years of building Canadarms and other robotics, launching two Radarsat satellites and helping build the International Space Station (ISS).

Since Canada is a smaller player than NASA or other giants, these plans concentrated on doing a few things really well. But there's been no new plan since before the millennium.
The article fails to mention the overall industry growth during this period (as described in my April 9th, 2012 post "Global Space Industry Grows 41% Over Five Years") or note that the $350 million CDN annual CSA budget can reasonably be expected to have only a small effect on the far larger $3.4 billion CDN generated annually by the Canadian space systems industry. It even forgets to note that the CSA is generally not the largest client for most of these companies and therefore has only limited input into what gets built (and even expressly suggests otherwise).

But it does hit the proper overall note of concern and confusion. And it's not the only recent article doing so.

RADARSAT Constellation timeline in 2004. In March 2006, CSA finally awarded the phase A contract (for conceptual design and mission definition) to MDA. Chart c/o eoPortal Directory and CSA.

The second example is the April 30th, 2012 Ottawa Citizen article "Costs jump for Canadian arctic satellite surveillance system: documents," which reports on documents obtained under Canada's Access to Information Act, indicating that costs for the current RADARSAT Constellation (RCM) family of three synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellites have risen from $600 million CDN to $1 billion CDN.

The article goes on to state that the RCM program (originally envisioned as a follow-on to the highly successful RADARSAT 1 & 2) is not currently funded past August 2012, when the preliminary design (or phase B) is scheduled for completion. The satellites are now expected to launch in 2016 and 2017 according to the RCM project status website, but that could certainly change, just as it has multiple times before (the Ottawa Citizen article lists the launch date as being in 2014).

In March, RCM prime contractor MacDonald Dettwiler (MDA) went so far as to issue a public press release (the March 30th, 2012 release titled "RADARSAT Constellation Mission update") which stated that the company "has concluded that the budget does not include the funds required to continue the RADARSAT Constellation Mission (RCM) as currently envisioned. At this time MDA is uncertain on the way forward on Phase D of RCM and expects to work with its customer to seek clarification over the coming weeks."

As outlined in my May 23rd, 2011 post "Nothing to See Here! Move Along Now!" the RCM program has a history of lengthening lead times which normally drives up the total costs of a project as teams break apart, reform, attempt to justify themselves or move on to other things and generally kill time between funding infusions. This seems to be just the way the industry works and perhaps some of this confusion will be cleared up over the next few weeks.

The flight model of the medium resolution RAL Cam 3, scheduled to be installed on the International Space Station (ISS) by Canadian company UrtheCast.
But it's the final article which is a bit of a surprise, given it's source and genesis. According to the April 30th, 2012 SpaceRef Interactive article "UrtheCast's HD Video From Space Station: Real Product or Hyped Vaporware," a Canadian company "claiming" to place the first live HD video feed on the ISS, may not have a real product capable of following through on the promises the company has made.

The article cites a variety of concerns including questions about whether there is actually an agreement in  place to launch the camera to the ISS and questions regarding the technical capabilities of the HD video camera's as described in the company literature. 

SpaceRef Interactive and author Keith Cowing have a reputation for competence plus a decade and more of experience covering the space industry, so it's unlikely that they'd publish something like this without suitable documentation to back up their claims. It will be interesting to see how BC based UrtheCast responds to the charges.

But it's another example of multiple reports illustrating a rising public concern over eroding Canadian capabilities and increasing costs which have come to light in only the last few days. 

Expect more to follow.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Support our Patreon Page