Canada aims to add more satellites to its flagship Earth observation program "as soon as possible" thanks to a fresh funding infusion, a senior space official said in an exclusive interview.
The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) will receive substantial new government funding to extend the long-standing Radarsat satellite series, a keystone of the country's climate change strategy and international disaster response, not to mention military surveillance. The agency allocation is $1.012 billion CDN (roughly $740,000 USD) over 15 years, a substantial boost to annual spending.
"We need to engage with industry to define appropriate and feasible timelines, and we will be doing that very soon," Guennadi Kroupnik, the CSA's director general of space utilization, told Space.com Wednesday (Oct. 18), just minutes after the announcement. "We have already started planning a while ago. We're ready to talk to our partners in industry."
At roughly $66 million CDN a year, the new Radarsat+ program will enhance Earth observation beyond CSA's typical $400-million annual budget for all programs, before special projects. And the money is needed: The Radarsat satellite series is well-regarded and heavily used by government stakeholders including the Canadian military, civil and environmental officials — as well as international space agencies like NASA or the European Space Agency.
Timely and trustworthy Earth observation needs are accelerating along with the effects of climate change and global warming, and the more frequent disasters they are causing. Canada already uses Radarsat data as part of the 17-agency International Disasters Charter contributions of satellite information that activates when major problems arise anywhere in the world.
The current Radarsats, though healthy, are growing old. So the latest funding will do two things.
First, Radarsat+ will add a fourth satellite to the already launched three-machine Radarsat Constellation Mission (RCM) made by MDA, which is expected to last until 2026 without intervention (although in good health, they could go longer.) The fourth satellite, flying as soon as feasible, would extend that timeline by years.
"We are planning to go in a competitive procurement process, engaging with Canadian industry to define parameters of that process to acquire Satellite No. 4," Kroupnik said; the exact launching date is not known yet, but CSA already has preparatory steps ready.
The fourth satellite will be more advanced than the other RCM machines, given it is a decade younger. But like many gaming consoles, the fourth satellite will be backwards-compatible with older technology. As for what's on board: "We have a pretty good grip on what is available technology-wise," Kroupnik said, thanks to a portfolio of projects the CSA already funded since 2021, representing about $10 million CDN ($7.3 million USD) in previous early-stage work.
Secondly, the Radarsat+ program (in its current form) will also fund the definition phase of a successor mission, called a "fourth-generation national sovereign satellite system," aiming to launch in the 2030s. Manufacturing the successor system and launching it will require more money at some point, however.
"It will support current applications that the Radarsat Constellation Mission is enabling, as well as enhance application domains," Kroupnik said of the fourth-generation satellite system. These applications include climate change and disaster response "where we have already demonstrated Canadian leadership," he added.
The Radarsat series, Canada's flagship Earth observation program, is somewhat akin to the United States' long-running Landsat series. Like Landsat, Radarsat's observations track change over decades and are essential for monitoring Canada's lands and shores.
The first Radarsat satellite launched in 1995 following decades of using aircraft-based radar for Canadian Earth observation. Though that satellite is long retired, its successor Radarsat-2 remains healthy (albeit at double its seven-year prime mission) after launching in 2007. The most recent RCM satellite series was next launched in 2019 for that mission's own seven-year prime mission.
Extending the Radarsat program beyond RCM has been an ongoing conversation at CSA and its government partners since at least 2017, including discussions with industry. (Canada has a small taxpayer base, so it tends to share responsibilities for large space programs between departments, and to use industry expertise, to make modest space budgets go farther with collaborations.)
The main planning effort for Radarsat's program extension has been the CSA's Earth Observation Service Continuity initiative. Some crucial steps in recent years include:
- Funding for eight companies in 2020 for development and proposal work. After an initial round of analysis, four companies were selected: MDA, Airbus, C-Core and Alpha Insight, "to further develop their concepts," CSA officials stated.
- A request for proposals in 2022 for technology research and development projects "in support of future radar EO (Earth observation) programs" that include the Earth observation continuity work. This led to funding five companies: AstroCom, Calian, C-CORE, EarthDaily Analytics and MDA. (The contract vehicle falls under the CSA's space technology development program, for "innovative technologies with strong commercial potential." Simply put, it's a way of bringing new and promising tech into space with government support.)
Canada's auditor general warned in 2022 that new satellites will be needed quickly. In a report focusing on the Arctic, Karen Hogan's department warned of "incomplete surveillance, insufficient data about vessel traffic in Canada's Arctic waters" and identified a lot of aging hardware that has to be replaced such as satellites, icebreakers and patrol aircraft. At that time, it was expected a new satellite would only be ready in 2035.
The Radarsat series is a central part of Canada's maritime monitoring strategy as the Arctic is so remote. The satellites are used alongside aircraft and ships, the report emphasized. Still, "radar imagery satellites are at — or will reach — the end of their expected service lives long before the planned launch dates of the replacement satellites," warned the report.
"What we're looking for is for the government to have a bit of a contingency plan," Hogan said during a standing committee on national defense meeting on Dec. 8, 2022, in Canada's House of Commons (the equivalent of the U.S. House of Representatives).
"What will happen should these satellites reach the end of their useful lives?" Hogen asked. "Right now, the government either buys information commercially or turns to its allies. We encourage it to have a bit of a contingency plan, in addition to doing that."
While sovereign Earth observation data is a primary consideration for CSA, Kroupnik noted there are other avenues for receiving satellite data through government or industry partners where necessary. In fact, CSA recently stepped up to the plate to help the Europeans when their Sentinel-1B satellite unexpectedly faced an anomaly in 2021 due to a power supply issue.
The satellite data, as much as possible, will be open for community use — which the minister responsible for the Canadian Space Agency pointed out during the livestreamed announcement at the Space Canada annual industry conference in Ottawa early Wednesday (Oct. 18). (A Canadian minister is somewhat analogous to a U.S. cabinet member or secretary.)
Satellite information is not only useful in the government, but also "for the Canadian population generally," minister François-Philippe Champagne said in French (translation provided by Space.com). He added that satellite data will especially be useful when paired with artificial intelligence — a strategic area for Canada's government — to accelerate decision-making.
"I think that this (satellite) information will help us … while at the same time advancing science and knowledge in various areas, including the fight against climate change," Champagne added in French. "I think we are all agreed that if there is an industry that talks about innovation, that's definitely the space industry."
Radarsat+ is not the only big funding project CSA has received in recent years. In 2019 the agency received a bundle of moon-based funding, including for the robotic Canadarm3 to serve NASA's Gateway space station. Canadarm3 essentially underwrites Canada's contributions to the greater NASA-led Artemis program, including a seat for astronaut Jeremy Hansen on the moon-circling Artemis 2 set to fly in 2024.
Another notable announcement came in 2023, with billions promised to extend Canada's participation in the International Space Station until 2030 (alongside most other partners), to support Canadian science on Gateway and to develop a lunar utility vehicle, among other moon programs.
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Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace