Monday, July 07, 2014

NEOSSat Not Up to the Job; Government Report Blames Contractor

          by Chuck Black

A Canadian Space Agency (CSA) review of the operations of its Near-Earth Object Surveillance Satellite (NEOSSat), launched on  February 25th, 2013 from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in India, has concluded that the satellite is "underfunded," not working properly and has raised concerns about whether it will be able to successfully complete its mission.

CSA employees preparing NEOSSat for thermal vacuum testing at the David Florida Laboratory located in Ottawa, ON sometime before its launch in February 2013. According to the February 2014 CSA review of NEOSSat operations, it was premature to assess whether NEOSSat "will contribute to an increased portion of Aten-class asteroids being detected and cataloged, as science images are not yet available." However, as outlined in the same report, NEOSSat was designed specifically to detect Aten-class asteroids and should have been capable of detecting them within the first year of operation Photo c/o CSA.

The full report, completed in February 2014 under the title "Evaluation of the Near Earth Object Surveillance Satellite (NEOSSat) Project For the period from February 2005 to December 2013," is currently available for download on the CSA website. 

As outlined in the report:
... the mission encountered significant delays totaling 41 months, primarily as a result of a lack of capacity on the part of the prime contractor. This lack of capacity meant that the CSA and DND were faced with a choice of cancelling the project or taking a calculated risk and continuing to work with the contractor...
The report also stated that Dynacon Systems, which won the original NEOSSat contract on the basis of its successful Microvariability and Oscillations of STars (MOST) telescope, unexpectedly sold its satellite business to Mississauga, ON, based Microsat Systems Canada (MSCI) in 2008.

According to the report, the new subcontractor failed to attract the necessary skill-set to successfully complete the project and "without the technical capacity within the CSA and DND (the Department of Defence, which also contributed to the mission), it is unlikely that the NEOSSat project would have been completed successfully."

Of course, NEOSSat still isn't working properly. As outlined in the report, "the main issue with NEOSSat is that although images have been acquired, the image quality does not at present meet the imagery requirements of the scientific aspects of the mission." 

Others have been less kind.

According to the July 6th, 2014 Ottawa Citizen article "Asteroid-tracking satellite not up to the job: review," there was much finger pointing "about who was more responsible for the long delays in the project." The article also stated that CSA ended up dedicating "more resources to the project than it wanted." 

NEOSSat was launched on Feb. 25th, 2013, eight years after the project was born and 41 months late.

According to the article, the review concluded that "the government was right to take on the project in the first place — even with all its attendant problems — because the private sector would have balked at going it alone given the limited commercial applications of tracking asteroids."

Whether or not that's true, the report listed the cost of building and operating the satellite for two years as being $25Mln CDN and also claimed that the project was under-funded by as much as 50 per cent.

MOST, the earlier satellite which formed the basis for NEOSSat design and mission, is estimated to have a life-cycle cost (design, build, launch and operate) of less than $10Mln CDN in total and an annual operating cost of $300,000 CDN.

As outlined in the July 7th, 2014 post "BRITE Montreal Satellite Fails to Deploy after Launch. Presumed Lost" the MOST satellite is currently scheduled for decommissioning, after over a decade of successful operations in orbit, on September 9th, 2014.


  1. The statements in the Ottawa Citizen article, and in your article, are not true. The few facts that appear in it are horribly twisted. NEOSSat has been making slow but steady progress, but has indeed been hampered by overly strict processes (extremely long times between software uploads) and has suffered unfair criticism due unrealistic expectations that do not recognize this. Image noise was assessed before the spacecraft was fine pointing, which was terribly naive. Only very recently has there been an opportunity to gather this data. Moreover the NEOSSat performance requirements could not have been met by the MOST avionics, but this was not known until late in Phase D.

    The CSA knows this now, but will not acknowledge it publicly and instead have decided to point fingers rather than accepting their portion of the responsibility for this error. It is very sad indeed.

  2. Reading the actual report (and not just the Citizen's interpretation of it), the situation seems to be summarized as: "CSA wasn't willing to tolerate the higher risk of a microsatellite program (which is part of the point). Therefore, CSA injected itself into the process. Scope expanded, documentation ballooned, and CSA management made things even more cumbersome. It didn't work out very well. CSA blames the prime contractor."

  3. To paraphrase a fairly well-known president, we choose to go to the moon and do the other things (like NEOSSat), not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills...

    The NEOSSat story is still unfolding. At the end of the day, despite all the burns and bruises, either it will be remembered as a major contributor to our knowledge of the asteroid population between the Earth and Sun (potential hazards) or it will be remembered as what might have been (like an Avro Arrow). Hubble Space Telescope's legacy is its wealth of science, inspiration and awe, not its expensive and embarrassing repair missions.

    For all the many pundits and "experts" engaged in blame games, wagging fingers and rolling heads, I suspect there are a handful of talented team members actually tackling head-on the complexities of this ambitious project working to make this the Canadian success story it can still be.

    Hopefully they'll get the chance and prove the haters wrong.

    1. Anonymous: You make several good points, but to be fair to the CSA report it does identify the over management and review by CSA as one of the problems (although it doesn't really discuss the associated internal costs pegged to it). At times it seemed like CSA was treating NEOSSat like it was RADARSAT II, which probably had a bigger documentation budget than the entire cost of NEOSSat (that's an educated speculation).

  4. As an R&D satellite not all of NEOSSat's goals were strictly about the science missions. Recognizing the potential of the microsatellite platform, the project was designed to learn how to develop, manage and operate that class of platform (MOST was essentially contracted as a deliverable by CSA Space Sciences with little involvement from Space Tech). Clearly that part of the project has been a resounding success. From the beginning NEOSSat was envisioned as a joint DRDC-CSA project and DRDC even listed establishing a model for joint DND - CSA projects as one of its three (I believe) objectives for the project. That too has been successful. While there are genuine concerns regarding the NEOSSat science missions it is far too early to declare them a failure.

  5. So why can't I find any images from Neossat? Why is the latest update in the Neossat web page from August, 2013? What is going on here?


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