CSA Plans for Post Radarsat Constellation as Earth Observation Panellists Speak of Data Challenges

RADARSAT Constellation Mission artist rendering. Credit: Canadian Space Agency.

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) is already thinking about what’s next after its RADARSAT Constellation Mission (RCM) launches in February 2019.

CSA President Sylvain Laporte told delegates at the National Forum on Earth Observation from Space that the agency is considering either launching hardware, or partnering with another entity; the process of deciding will take 18 months to two years.

Laporte tasked the agency with being technology-agnostic – meaning, not thinking about what particular technology the new system would use – as well as agnostic as to the business model. The one firm thing the CSA does want is data collection that will continue on their legacy of Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) that every RADARSAT satellite has ever possessed.

For those who weren’t happy with the procurement model for the soon to launch RCM, this is welcome news. The government owns RCM and industry had hoped to get some real-time data for commercial purposes. That doesn’t appear to be likely. The government has said it would make some data available though its open data policy. A new model for procurement could include a public-private partnership as was the case for the RCM’s predecessor RADARSAT-2, but updated based on lessons learned from both RADARSAT-2 and RCM.

“We need it [SAR] for a long period of time to make sure that our science is rigorous,” Laporte told about 150 delegates at CSA headquarters in Longueuil, Que. (SpaceQ attended by teleconference.) “We will take the next 18 months to two years to figure things out,” he added, “and get the facts, to be able to get the government some tangible factual base options. Hopefully you’re aware there’s a ton of different scenarios in terms of buying or building other constellations.”

Laporte also challenged delegates to get the word out to their respective communities, because otherwise the request for funding may come as a surprise to the Canadian government when the CSA is ready. For government employees, he told them to get everyone in the food chain involved, even their minister’s office. He also urged everyone to share the importance of Earth observation on social media, as the CSA has already done in highlighting sectors such as agriculture.

Sharing strategies for Earth observation

Funding challenges were also on the mind of four industry representatives of Earth observation activities, spanning the private, public and not-for-profit sectors. In a panel, the representatives briefly spoke of the lack of a long-term space strategy for the Canadian Space Agency, which in some cases may be playing options against each other (rather than pursuing multiple options) due to a lack of funding.

But the topic of the day was more on making conference participants aware of each presenter’s activities. At Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, for example, the department is using Earth observation to meet two broad goals: to embrace climate variability and change, and also to adapt to global population growth. Some of the things the agency is tracking include greenhouse gases, how local ecosystems react to abiotic and biotic stresses, and methods of agricultural production (which could be changed as the circumstances require).

In the near future, assistant deputy minister Brian Gray told delegates, his department will be looking to hire “machine learning, big data” types of people, because there will be a wealth of information to parse through from satellites. The department anticipates that in the future, satellites will be revisiting areas more often – which would generate more data – with better resolution and coverage. The department is also looking for improved methodologies to better quantify the conditions of crops and soils.

Iain Christie – executive vice-president of the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada (AIAC) – pointed to the danger of “new space” companies exploring Earth observation without having a proper understanding of the specialized knowledge needed to operate in space. “Any business model, no matter how attractive, still has to respect the laws of physics,” he said.

He challenged the government to think of downstream applications that the community could benefit from (such as data products). Additionally, he pointed to the challenge of recruiting people to Earth observation, a field that often uses “pictures of crop fields in Saskatchewan” as opposed to the public relations techniques that astronaut Chris Hadfield used while in space, he said.

Wade Larson, UrtheCast’s executive vice-president of business development, said he is concerned about his Earth observation company “owning our own pixels” and that is one of the reasons that UrtheCast is about to acquire GeoSys, a Minneapolis-based geoanalytics firm concerned with crop health.

And Alex Miller, president of geographic information system company Esri Canada, briefly pointed to the effects of global population rise, chiefly concerning the pressure on city infrastructure and the extreme growth of the transportation sector to move people around.

About Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell
Canadian space and science reporter, researcher and consultant. I also am pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of North Dakota.