Canadian Space Agency: Facts & Information

csa, canadian space agency
Credit: CSA.

The Canadian Space Agency, established in 1989, is responsible for coordinating all government-funded space activities in Canada. It divides its work into four main branches: Earth Observation, Space Science and Exploration, Satellite Communications, and Space Awareness and Learning.

Some of the CSA's more high-profile projects include its robotics, most famously the Canadarm and Canadarm2 that were used during shuttle and space station missions. Additionally, several Canadian astronauts flew in space. The most recent was Chris Hadfield, who commanded the International Space Station in 2013.

As is true of many government-funded space agencies, the CSA has faced numerous financial cutbacks in recent years. A few years ago, the agency received a boost of stimulus funding to fund rovers and robotics projects. A 2012 report, however, said the agency lacked long-term funding stability and urged the government to provide more money for the CSA's activities.

Canadian space before the CSA

It should be noted that government-funded civilian space activities long predate the formation of the CSA. For example, the first Canadian satellite, Alouette, went into space in 1962. Sounding rockets were also used regularly to do upper atmosphere research.

Five years after the first satellite launch, a government-sponsored report led by John Chapman outlined the space activities of the country in universities, private companies and government departments, of which there were many.

NASA invited Canada's government to join the shuttle program in 1969, which eventually resulted in the development of the Canadarm — a robotic arm capable of manipulating satellites in space. The project was led by SPAR Aerospace and initially funded by Canada's National Research Council (NRC).

The Canadarm made it into space for the first time in 1981, for the second shuttle mission (STS-2). It so impressed NASA that the agency invited Canada to send astronaut applications. Canada's first astronaut, Marc Garneau, flew aboard the space shuttle Challenger on STS-41G in 1984.

As Canadian space activity increased, the government passed an act of Parliament in 1989 establishing the CSA, whose mandate was to "promote the peaceful use and development of space for the social and economic benefit of Canadians," according to the Canadian Encyclopedia.

Atlantis Displays Canadarm and Open Payload Bay
With its payload bay open, Canadarm robotic arm deployed and window covers removed, space shuttle Atlantis is ready for its public debut on June 29, 2013 at NASA's Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida.
Credit: Z. Pearlman

Evolution of astronauts and the Canadarm

The first Canadian astronauts were payload specialists, meaning that they were responsible for certain experiments on the shuttle and did not perform duties such as spacewalks. As the program matured, however, NASA invited the Canadians to train as mission specialists. Garneau and Hadfield, who was a part of the second Canadian astronaut selection in 1992, were the first to receive this training.

In the 1990s, Canada racked up a series of astronaut milestones: first woman (Roberta Bondar, 1992), first Canadian on space station Mir (Hadfield, 1995), first Canadian to operate the Canadarm (Hadfield, 1995) and first Canadian to visit the International Space Station (Julie Payette, 1999).

Since then, Canadian astronauts have gone on to do spacewalks (Hadfield was the first, in 2001) and more complex duties on the space station. This culminated in 2013 when Hadfield became the first Canadian commander of the station. Two new astronauts were selected in 2008, and are expected to reach the space station no earlier than 2016.

Meanwhile, the Canadarm's success prompted the CSA to fund two new projects built by Macdonald, Dettwiler and Associates, which by then had bought out SPAR. Canadarm2 was first installed on the space station in 2001, boasting the ability to move around the station and a greater length than its predecessor. MDA also constructed Dextre, a robotic hand that has been used for satellite refueling tests since it arrived on station in 2008. [Photos: Next-Generation Canadarm]

Chris Hadfield Looks at Next-Gen Small Canadarm Prototype
Canadian Astronaut Chris Hadfield looks on at a demonstration of the Next-Generation Canadarm Small Canadarm prototype during a visit to the NGC prime contractor, MDA of Brampton, Ontario, in September 2012.
Credit: Canadian Space Agency

Other CSA activities

Robotics and astronauts take the lion's share of CSA attention, but the agency also has hands in other types of space work.

The David Florida Laboratory in Ottawa, Canada, is a testbed for satellites before they reach space. Satellites there are shaken, baked and put through electronic interference tests to make sure they are ready for launch.

The agency also funded a suite of Earth observation satellites that monitor the surface for natural disasters, changes in agriculture and even ship activities. The latest generation of its famed Radarsat series, called Radarsat Constellation, initially had a delay that prompted military concerns out of worries it wouldn't launch before Radarsat-2 failed. The satellite series is now scheduled to launch in 2018.

Payloads from CSA-funded projects have also travelled into other locations. The Mars Curiosity Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (funded by CSA) has been analyzing the composition of rocks on the Red Planet. Several Canadian experiments are on the International Space Station, including several examining the relationship between aging on Earth and the effects of weightlessness.

Closer to Earth, the AuroraMAX camera provides live views of auroras taking place in Yellowknife, Canada. In Earth orbit, the SCISAT satellite examines the ozone layer and its depletion, particularly over Canada's north. Aboard NASA's Terra satellite, the MOPITT (Measurements of Pollution in the Troposphere) atmosphere examines atmospheric pollutants in Earth's atmosphere.


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Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell is a contributing writer for who is one of the few Canadian journalists to report regularly on space exploration. She is pursuing a Ph.D. part-time in aerospace sciences (University of North Dakota) after completing an M.Sc. (space studies) at the same institution. She also holds a bachelor of journalism degree from Carleton University. Besides writing, Elizabeth teaches communications at the university and community college level. To see her latest projects, follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @HowellSpace.
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