Volume 2: Reaching Higher: Canada's Interests and Future in Space – November 2012

Part 2

Chapter 2.1
Why space?

In the popular imagination, "space" is most commonly associated with bold historical accomplishments and technological breakthroughs, from the Soviet success with Sputnik in 1957 to Neil Armstrong's first step on the moon; from the construction of the International Space Station to the rover Curiosity analyzing the surface of Mars; from the Canadarm at work to the startling pictures of distant galaxies captured by the Hubble telescope. Space is indeed a theatre of exploration and discovery, but at the most practical level, it is simply a domain like air, land, and sea where we place equipment to deliver services that could not be efficiently provided in any other way.

Figure 1: Typical altitudes of space assets and aircraft

Figure 1: Typical altitudes of space assets and aircraft

Description of Figure

This diagram shows the typical altitude of different types of space assets and airplanes. Compared with Mount Everest, which stands almost 9 kilometres high, commercial jets typically fly only a bit higher, at an altitude of 10 kilometres, while supersonic fighter jets fly at altitudes of roughly 18 kilometres. In comparison, the International Space Station circles the Earth at an average altitude of about 370 kilometres while other crewed spacecraft fly about 400 kilometres above the ground. Earth observation satellites orbit at an average altitude of 800 kilometres, while positioning satellites (such as those used for Global Positioning Systems) operate at an altitude of 14,000 kilometres. Most telecommunications and weather satellites are about 35,000 kilometres above the ground.

Space is typically deemed to begin around 100 kilometres above the planet's surface. By comparison, a commercial aircraft rarely flies higher than 12 kilometres.

The things humans do in space fall into three categories.

The first is provision of public services using satellites and associated ground stations, which are usually purchased by governments, but may be largely designed, built, and operated by private companies. Satellites have become indispensable to modern nations. Although individual satellites can cost tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, they are the cheapest—and sometimes only—way of delivering a wide and ever-growing range of services. Among their many applications, they allow us to:

  • track and predict the weather;
  • find natural resources and monitor how they are extracted and harvested;
  • monitor the effects of climate change;
  • increase agricultural yields;
  • respond quickly to natural disasters and other emergencies;
  • communicate with, and provide education and health services to, isolated communities;
  • identify hostile attempts to penetrate our coasts and borders; and
  • operate drones and support military deployments around the globe.

The use of satellite imagery for disaster relief

The first imagery covering the main stricken areas of Port-au-Prince, January 14, 2010
The first imagery covering the main stricken areas of Port-au-Prince, January 14, 2010.
Source: Satnews Daily, "MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates — RADARSAT-2's contribution to Haitian imagery," January 21, 2010.

Canada's RADARSAT-2 satellite can collect imagery despite darkness and inclement atmospheric conditions, which is particularly valuable in the event of earthquakes, floods, landslides, or other natural disasters. Imagery taken before and after a natural disaster can be compared to determine the areas that have been hit hardest, and find passable routes for aid workers and safe locations for medical facilities and shelters.

Following the January 12, 2010, earthquake in Haiti, imagery from the RADARSAT-2 satellite was used to assess the extent of the damage and direct relief efforts effectively. Canada provided the imagery pursuant to the International Charter on Space and Major Disasters, an international program that harnesses space data in support of disaster recovery and reconstruction efforts.

Satellite applications

The Canada Centre for Remote Sensing (CCRS), along with federal and provincial regulators and the Canadian Space Agency, is developing a new technology using imagery from RADARSAT-2 to monitor land deformation caused by underground mining of Canada's oil sands, which can endanger workers and damage operating facilities. The CCRS technology will enable oil sand developers to identify problem areas and take measures to prevent accidents.

The CCRS is also developing an automated system for monitoring the environmental impacts of oil sand infrastructure development using multi-sensor, fine-resolution satellite imagery. This technology will allow for better assessment of impacts on the environment, and, in turn, ensure that regulations to control adverse effects are well-designed.

Farther north, the Canadian Ice Service at Environment Canada analyzes more than 7,000 RADARSAT-1 images per year to ensure navigation in ice-covered waters is safe, efficient, and sustainable. The use of satellite imaging resulted in cost savings of about $7.7 million annually in the first five years, through the elimination of extensive aircraft reconnaissance. RADARSAT-1 monitoring is unaffected by weather conditions and provides observations over a wider geographical area than was possible with aircraft. The newer RADARSAT-2 satellite allows for even finer discrimination of ice features.

The second category is the use of satellites and ground stations to provide services for which there is a commercial market, such as the delivery of telecommunications, information, and entertainment, and the collection of raw data that are then processed into popular applications such as Google Earth and the Global Positioning System (GPS). With respect to such business activity, the role of governments relates mainly to regulatory oversight and securing orbital slots for private companies' satellites.

The third category of space activity is space exploration and science, which focuses primarily on satisfying our thirst and need for fundamental knowledge. The inspiring feats of astronauts, missions to the moon and other planets, space labs, and deep-space telescopes expand our understanding of the universe and our place in it. They are wellsprings of national pride and prestige, and generate technological and economic spinoffs. Such activities are almost always government-funded and, given their scale and complexity, usually carried out through international cooperation.

Space technologies at work on Earth

Canada's investment in space technologies, such as the Canadarm, has yielded technological advancements in other sectors, notably health and mining.

The neuroArm, a direct spinoff from the Canadarm technologies, has revolutionized neurosurgery and other branches of operative medicine by liberating them from the constraints of the human hand and the operating environment. The neuroArm was developed in a partnership between the University of Calgary, the National Research Council, and MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA). More than 50 neurosurgeries have been successfully performed with this technology since 2008 and a commercial version is being developed for international sales. Similar technologies are under way for breast cancer detection and treatment, as well as paediatric care.

Photo of Penguin ASI robots
Sources: MDA; Penguin Automated Systems; Sudbury Mining Solutions Journal, "Penguin ASI robots assess Montcalm instability," December 1, 2010; Northern Ontario Business, "Sudbury-born mine tech assists in Elliot Lake mall excavation," July 17, 2012.

Using space-based technologies, workers in the mining industry can now remotely operate heavy equipment above and below ground, and use robotics to prepare mines for drilling or blasting in dangerous areas with unstable rock. Penguin Automated Systems of Sudbury, for example, developed robotic vehicles to survey Xstrata Nickel's Montcalm Mine, which closed in March 2009 after a major ground collapse. Equipped with robotic arms derived from Canadarm technologies, these vehicles allowed Xstrata to survey the mine and determine whether operations could safely resume. In a further application, mining robots developed by Penguin were used to aid in excavation efforts following the Elliot Lake mall collapse in Ontario in June 2012.

"Today, space applications and services are largely taken for granted. But virtually every aspect of modern life in Canada is dependent on space—from printing your morning newspaper to gas pump transactions, from television entertainment and hand-held mobile devices to the inner-most workings of our financial system and the electricity grid. Space is now so interwoven with Canada's economic life-blood that its fundamental contribution to our national infrastructure is often forgotten. It is estimated that space-based applications touch the lives of every Canadian 20-30 times per day every day."
Final Report of the Space Working Group, September 2012.

The significance of space will only increase as technological advances expand the number of space-based applications and reduce costs. Space activities have become critical for developing strong economies, weaving the fabric of societies, and protecting national security and sovereignty. That is why so many countries are endeavouring to secure a position in space. Canada was a pioneer in this regard, quick to recognize the potential and value of space for its national interest.