The main satellite system in Canada is hit by a new launch delay

Canada's flagship satellite project has been hit with a new launch delay, five years after the first of three spacecraft was scheduled for a job.

The RADARSAT Constellation Mission (RCM) will now be launched sometime between February 18 and February 24, 2019 from an air base in California. It is the fifth delay since the $ 1 billion project was hit by technical problems and other problems.

The mission follows RADARSAT-1 (1995-2012) and RADARSAT-2 (2007-present), pioneering Canadian satellite projects using synthetic diaphragm radar to observe the surface of the earth in detail, even through clouds and bad weather.

Technicians are putting the finishing touches to the second of the three radar-based constellation missions at the MDA facility on Thursday, June 21, 2018, in Montreal. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

The RCM, a project that was first presented to the federal government in 2004, will use three identical satellites in polar orbits to cover 90 percent of the planet, with the ability to show objects as small as a meter wide . Their images will, among other things, protect the sovereignty of the Canadian coasts and the north.

But getting the project literally off the ground was a challenge.

It was finally lit green by the cabinet in 2008, with a budget of $ 600 million. The price tag escalated quickly and the initial launch date of 2014 for the first of the three satellites was reduced.

A contract with a $ 706 million contract at a fixed price was signed in 2013 with MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (now MDA, a unit of US-based Maxar Technologies) to build, assemble, launch and operate the trio of satellites for the first year.

Ownership of the government

The contract, based on the success of MDA with the first two RADARSATs, specified a launch date of July 17, 2018. MDA owns and operates RADARSAT-2, but the new RCM will be owned by the Canadian government and provide monitoring data to the Canadian Forces and a dozen other government departments.

New costs are being picked up by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), adding another $ 300 million to the package, bringing total costs down to more than a billion dollars.

The current plan has the three identical satellites that are being launched together on a Falcon 9 rocket, built by SpaceX from Elon Musk, with a "dispenser" built in Sweden, which puts them on track to ensure that the satellites run about once every 90 minutes circling around the earth.

But thermal vacuum testing in Montreal of the three MDA-supplied satellites late in 2017 showed a problem with number 2.

"So testing the RCM satellite in the CSA laboratory indicated a problem with components – in one of the satellites – sending the data obtained by the satellite to earth," says an internal document obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Trading.

"The defective components have been removed from the satellite and returned to the supplier of MDA in Germany in early December."

Failed launch will result in long delays in the schedule (years) and a cost of $ 600 million or more & # 39;– Internal report of the Canadian Space Agency on the delayed RADARSAT constellation mission

Spokesman Audrey Barbier of the space agency said the defective part has been repaired, tested and reinstalled and a new launch date at the Vandenberg Air Base in California has been set up between October 30 and November 29, 2018.

But SpaceX saw one of its Falcon 9 rockets explode after launch in June 2015, which has been delayed and lagging behind for launches ever since. The company now says that a Falcon 9 can only get the RCM into the orbit somewhere between February 18 and February 24, 2019.

The mission will then need another three to six months to make the satellites operational.

The delay, according to an internal government document, means that the Canadian Space Agency has to rely on less extensive RADARSAT-2 data from MDA much less than before, raising the budget for that data to more than $ 500 million, an increase over the original $ 446 million.

The design lifetime of RADARSAT-2 was seven years and the spacecraft has now passed its life expectancy for almost four years, although it is still functional.

Another disaster with a Falcon 9 rocket, or a failure of the system that will insert the satellites into their 600-kilometer high lanes, would be costly for the Canadian government.

no insurance

Ottawa has only taken out insurance once for the launch of Canadian land take – $ 80 million for RADARSAT-1 – and will have to eat losses if the RCM project fails after its launch.

The agency takes the risk of failure at 5.5 percent, given SpaceX's record to date, but the consequences would be serious for the project.

"Would result in major delays (years) and a cost of $ 600 million or more to build and launch three replacement spacecraft and / or obtain replacement data, if such data would be available," says a March 2018 briefing package the risks & # 39; s obtained under the Access to Information Act.

"Rebuilding would require at least 3 extra, probably 4 years."

An illustration of the Radarsat-2 satellite in orbit around the earth. The satellite was designed to last for seven years, but is approaching its 11th year in space. Imaging is needed to close the gap caused by the delayed launch of the RADARSAT constellation mission.

Barbier confirmed that these figures are still valid, adding that the "knowledge and expertise gained during building the constellation would certainly alleviate the process, and the infrastructure built to support the RCM would already be appropriate."

She added that the Agency has not yet expected that its costs – including the costs of its 50 RCM staff – will rise due to recent delays.

The new satellites are each designed to have a lifetime of seven years.

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