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

Part 2
Context (continued)

Chapter 2.4
Opportunities and challenges

The space sector is entering a period of tremendous dynamism, and the next 20 to 30 years will present both the private sector and government with a range of opportunities to advance national security, resource development, and a broad range of public and private services using space assets, technologies, and applications.

Among the most important of the opportunities is the role satellites and associated ground infrastructure can play in propelling and managing the opening of the North. Satellites will facilitate the identification of mineral deposits; help us monitor the impacts of mines and oil and gas wells; allow us to better apply environmental standards and to monitor and understand the pace and effects of climate change; permit safer navigation through northern sea and air routes; and support the delivery of education, health, and emergency response services to small, dispersed northern communities, whether they have been there for centuries or are established in response to new economic activity.

"In light of the effects of global warming on the Arctic climate and the associated sovereignty issues, expected boom in resource exploration and development, increased maritime traffic, and socio-economic development needs of the North, a clear and compelling argument can be made that investment in the space sector is a cost-effective solution to the needed infrastructures that will contribute to positive developmental outcomes.

"In some instances, the business case for those investments will appeal to and be embraced by industry. These generally relate to the direct support of resource exploration and development in the North, and in support of secondary industries including transportation and logistics…

"However, in other cases, the sparse population of the North or current public policy makes pure commercial investment in space infrastructure uneconomical. Examples include large private investments in telecommunications infrastructure in the North instead of more lucrative, populous regions; or in building weather forecasting infrastructure when weather forecasts are provided for free to the general public… The responsible development and protection of Canada's North is not just a short-term development need, but rather… long-term, highly strategic and vitally important… "

Norstrat Consulting, Canada's Space Sector: The Essential Enabler of Canada's Northern Strategy, July 2012. Research report commissioned by the Aerospace Review.

Through a vigorous presence in the North, using satellites as a key instrument of policy, Canada will be able to accelerate wealth creation, protect the environment, and assert its sovereignty. Given the intensification of multiple, conflicting national claims in the Arctic, both international law and pragmatic geopolitics demand that Canada be active in the region if it wants to secure its interests there.

Beyond the North, the designers, manufacturers, and operators of satellites, satellite components, ground stations, and data processing services have the opportunity to meet rising demand in areas as diverse as precision farming that optimizes the use of equipment, irrigation, and fertilizers; transportation and urban planning; meteorology; and the delivery of information, entertainment, and many other applications to a constantly expanding customer base.

"Geographically, Canada is the second largest country in the world and has the world's longest coastline. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Canada claims an exclusive economic zone along our coastline equal to more than 70% of our land mass. Protecting and managing such an enormous zone is a major challenge. Seventy-five percent of our population lives within 160 km of the U.S. border, leaving the majority of our land mass scarcely populated and difficult to access. We are an Arctic nation with a northern territory that comprises more than 40% of our total land mass. This Canadian geography and demography make it extremely challenging for governments to provide the infrastructure critical to our economic and social growth and to manage our national and international responsibilities for security, safety and resource stewardship—In a country as vast and sparsely populated as Canada, space technologies play a unique and vital role in helping us to communicate to one another and to help monitor our territory for both opportunities and threats."

Final Report of the Space Working Group, September 2012.

Finally, there is an emerging set of opportunities that are a by-product of the dramatic expansion in the use of space. There is, for example, an increasing interest in extending the lifespan of functioning satellites through refuelling and maintenance missions. And as more and more countries and companies put assets in space, there is a growing recognition of the need to track space debris and reduce the congestion caused by defunct space assets. This protects operational satellites and makes room for new assets to be placed in orbit without a major risk of being damaged or disabled by other floating objects. Even healthy space assets will need to be carefully managed and coordinated in the increasingly crowded global commons that is near-Earth space.

Figure 8: Status of man-made objects in orbit – 2012

Figure 8: Status of man-made objects in orbit – 2012

Description of Figure

This pie chart shows the distribution of the status of man-made objects measuring 10 centimetres and larger currently in orbit. Fragmentation and inactive satellites make up 87 percent of man-made objects currently in orbit, followed by rocket bodies at 8 percent and functioning payloads or satellites at 5 percent.

Source: Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC) of the U.S. Space Surveillance Network. Data as of May 2012.
Includes objects that are 10 centimetres and larger—about 22,000 in all.

Only a very small proportion of the man-made objects in orbit represent operational satellites or spacecraft. The rest—including fragments of destroyed equipment, spent booster rockets, and inactive satellites—is considered debris. Since these objects circle the Earth at almost 30,000 kilometres per hour, any collision with satellites or manned spacecraft can be catastrophic. Space-faring nations recognize the challenges posed by rising amounts of orbital debris and are actively discussing remediation strategies, notably through the 11-nation Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee, of which Canada is a member.

Removing debris and inactive satellites requires both an accurate identification of objects in orbit and a capacity to gather them for proper disposal. Regarding the former, Canada is preparing to launch its first military satellite, called Sapphire, which will provide timely tracking of objects in space. For the latter, Canada possesses world-renowned expertise on space robotics that can be mobilized to develop equipment to retrieve space objects.

Reflecting the transformational opportunities emerging in space-related technologies and applications, substantial growth is taking place in both global public spending on space activities and the commercial space industry. Neither market should be ignored.

The Canadian space industry is well-positioned to profit from these opportunities. One of the sector's comparative advantages is its proficiency with respect to a number of niche technologies, each of which is relevant in its own way to the constellation of emerging demands:

  • Satellite communications are essential to satisfying consumers' demand for broadband communications and information services, and government requirements related to service provision and military deployments.
  • Space robotics will continue to be critical for publicly funded exploration and science missions, as well as initiatives to deal with space congestion and to extend the operations of existing assets.
  • Radar-based Earth observation and optical instrumentation will both be increasingly important in the context of natural resource management, environmental monitoring, and intelligence gathering.
  • Small satellites are more and more attractive to governments and private companies as a way of carrying out key activities in space with lower costs and shorter timelines than larger satellites.

In addition, the fact that Canada is a global leader in mining techniques positions Canadian firms to participate in potential long-term initiatives to mine in space and to use space assets to further resource extraction on Earth. While mining rare minerals in space remains largely speculative, it is attracting private investor interest and, in another quarter or half century, could conceivably become lucrative. Meanwhile, the number of space-based applications that facilitate mining and other natural resource activities on Earth is multiplying rapidly.

Canada's geography also has benefits for its space sector. In part, this is because the country's vastness and northern location require, and therefore stimulate, satellite-based technological solutions that can be sold internationally and often put to other uses. But it is also because the North is an ideal location for ground stations, given that most Earth observation satellites are in polar orbits and pass over the Canadian Arctic on every orbit. This natural advantage can be leveraged both by companies seeking commercial gain and public agencies looking to enhance cooperation with other countries by having facilities that receive satellite data and can be used for command and control of satellites.

"Increasingly, complex data and communications services requirements are being met with nimble, low-cost, small and micro-satellite systems. The proliferation of small satellite solutions is evidence of this trend throughout the world and many are real success stories … Other advantages of pursuing a greater number of smaller missions are:

  • Affordability, making it possible to distribute mission activities to a larger number of Canadian stakeholders; both to industry and academia
  • More spending goes to technology development that contributes to the creation of new niche capabilities for export markets
  • Risk is spread over a broader portfolio

COM DEV International, Aerospace Review: COM DEV's Recommendation for a Guiding Framework for Canadian Investments in Space, submission to the Aerospace Review.

Finally, Canada's space sector has a strong set of global networks and a positive reputation built on a history of success. Consider, for example, the extensive "flight heritage" and export achievements of the industry; highly visible technologies such as the Canadarms, which serve as global advertisements for Canadian expertise; the country's participation in international space initiatives, cementing its reputation as an advanced and reliable collaborator; the web of linkages the CSA has built with other space agencies, particularly NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA); Canada's highly successful astronaut program; and Canada's membership in the Arctic Council, whose members share common interests in the North and may be partners in joint space-based efforts.

Against these technological, geographic, and reputational strengths, the Canadian space sector has a number of challenges that, if left unaddressed, will likely compromise its ability to take advantage of opportunities and serve the country's needs.

Figure 9: Civilian satellites to be launched, by sub-sector – 2011 to 2020

Total civilian satellites to be launched: 531

Figure 9: Civilian satellites to be launched, by sub-sector – 2011 to 2020

Description of Figure

This pie chart shows the number of projected civilian satellites to be launched from 2011 to 2020, by sub-sector. Of the 531 civilian satellites projected to be launched during this period, 195 will be for Earth observation, 115 for science and exploration, 68 for satellite communications, 67 for navigation, 47 for meteorology, and 39 for technology demonstration.

Source: Euroconsult.

The first lies within government: inadequate clarity of purpose with respect to Canada's space program and its role in providing services and advancing national priorities. This lack of focus appears to go back at least a decade and has been manifested in weak planning, unstable budgets, and confusion about the respective roles of the CSA and those government departments that are major space users. In a sector whose undertakings are, by definition, long-term, expensive, and complex, it is especially important to have concrete goals, predictable funding, and orderly implementation.

The second challenge lies with the private sector: limited competition and, in some cases, excessive reliance on public spending. In part, this reflects the realities that the Canadian space market is too modest to support a large number of major players and that governments around the world remain major purchasers of space assets. As a result, Canadian firms have tended to specialize in and depend on government contracts. But it is also a function of approaches dating back to the early days of Canada's space program, when federal officials worked with Canadian companies to allocate activities related to space procurements. While it is important to be pragmatic about the scale of the industry and encourage collaboration, it is also necessary, as the sector matures internationally, for private firms to contend with the discipline of competition.

This brings us to a third challenge: the widespread interpretation of security-based exceptions from international trade rules as applying to space programs, which has allowed governments in countries with large space budgets and markets to give explicit preference to domestic companies. Such practices impede the ability of Canadian space companies to diversify their markets, but may be partially overcome through bilateral, government-to-government agreements. A related issue is export controls and legislated American restrictions on space collaboration with China, which can present Canadian companies with a difficult decision: continue to seek business in the United States, which remains the world's largest player in space and the Canadian industry's best customer, or try to access the rapidly growing market in China and elsewhere.

A final challenge is the lack of launch capacity in Canada, which means the CSA and Canadian firms must turn to other countries' launch systems to place satellites into orbit, a dependency that can result in delays, operational complications, and cost overruns. This issue may become more serious if the use of small satellites continues to grow at a rapid pace.

The opportunities and challenges facing the Canadian space sector offer guidance to the way forward.