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The Top Five Canadian Space Stories of 2018

When we look back at some of what was expected in 2018 with respect to significant Canadian space events, it’s clear they all delivered, just not always with the expected results.

Telesat launched the second of its LEO Constellation demonstration satellites, the first to make it to orbit, on an Indian rocket on January 12. This was shortly followed by Kepler Communications on January 19 launching their first satellite on a Chinese rocket, the first time a Canadian satellite had launched with China.

The Canadian SmallSat Symposium was held for the second time and was successful with respect to participation, but not longer afterwards the Canadian Space Commerce Association would fold. A sad development. The future of the Canadian SmallSat Symposium is uncertain, but efforts are underway to keep the biennial event going.

Most within the community were expecting a funded a space strategy, that didn’t happen.

CASI held its ASTRO 2018 in Quebec City, its biennial event, but by year end it looked liked it would become an annual event in some form.

The OSIRIS-Rex spacecraft with Canada’s critical Laser Altimeter would reach asteroid Bennu and begin exploring.

The RADARSAT Constellation Mission was to have launched in the fall but was delayed into 2019 with no fixed date yet set.

And of course David Saint-Jacques became the first Canadian born astronaut in six years to return to space on a six month mission to the International Space Station.

The top stories of 2018

We covered what was expected in 2018, now on to the stories that topped 2018.

ISED Minister Bains and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine discuss the Canadian space sector
ISED Minister Bains and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine discuss the Canadian space sector. Credit: AIAC.

1) The disconnect between government and the space community – Nothing defined 2018 more so than the disconnect between government and the space community.

The government thought that a new space strategy policy paper circulated in mid-2017 would do the trick, it was in fact rejected by key people who read the draft. The space community had enough. It was time for action in the form of real funding and long term commitment.

The government eventually came to the conclusion that it needed to do more than express their vocal support. It was time to dig deeper and look at creating policies towards a longer term plan. Quietly, and at the policy level within government, a more concerted effort was underway which may lead to necessary changes.

To provide more context to the critical issue of a national space strategy, SpaceQ explored the space programs history of long-term space planning in seven part special series called What’s in Canada’s Long Term Space Plans and interviewed Mac Evans for our weekly podcast.

For it’s part, the space community, led by MDA, created the Don’t Let Go Canada Coalition with 68 organizations backing an effort to educate the population on the benefits of space and at the same time persuading politicians to pay attention. The campaign included an IPSOS poll that showed support among Canadians for the space program, though they are largely unaware of its importance.

At the Canadian Aerospace Summit in Ottawa in mid-November, ISED Ministers Bains, seemingly tired of answering questions on when a new funded space strategy would be coming, told reporters that the government was now now looking at releasing a new space strategy before the next election in the fall of 2019. This didn’t answer the questions of funding. However, the government was being pressed by the U.S. to at least verbally commit to NASA’s Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway program by the end of 2018. That would mean a significant financial contribution. That decision, which was many seem to think would be approved, has not been announced.

Students from across Canada showed their skills winning several awards at the 2018 Spaceport America Cup
Students from across Canada showed their skills winning several awards at the 2018 Spaceport America Cup. Credit: Michel Wander, CSA.

2) Rise of the students – Canadian universities are producing world caliber workers who want to work in the space community in Canada. For some, opportunities abound, for others, especially those with advanced graduate degrees, they are finding it tougher to stay in Canada.

There is one trend though that is clear. More students than ever are interested in careers in space sector. They are also organizing and trying to exert more control of their career paths.

The Queens Space Conference, the Montreal Space Symposium and the SEDS Canada Ascension conference are examples of significant student run annual events with a combined attendance of some 700 students. These conferences are growing. Their activities are growing and the government should be more active in them.

Students are clearly being motivated to get into the space sector. But what are the motivating factors? It’s unlikely the result of government efforts, after-all the government hasn’t been increasing funding to Canada’s space program. There’s the Chris Hadfield effect, but that’s just one factor, and he returned from his last mission 5 1/2 years ago.

Within Canada I would say the Canadian Satellite Design Challenge has been a factor. Now the CSA’s Canadian CubeSat Project will help.

A lot of credit has to go to new space companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin. The attitude at these companies is refreshing, bold and clearly disruptive. Young Canadians are working in new companies like these. They then talk to other young people, word spreads, there’s a new attitude. It’s the 60’s Apollo program mentality of “just do it”, “we can do it”, and importantly it’s not only ok to take risks, but we need take risks. Sure, SpaceX and Blue Origin started with large pools of capital, but it’s not just them anymore. There’s a whole new group of new space companies with the attitude, but without the capital.

In Canada, companies like Kepler Communications, SkyWatch, QEYnet, Reaction Dynamics and many others are led by young entrepreneurs willing to take risks. Heck, Kepler did what no other Canadian company or the government had ever done, launch on Chinese rocket. It was a decision based on costs and schedule, and took guts.

It’s also clear young students and entrepreneurs want to work in areas not normally promoted by the government. This includes rocketry. The question used to be, will the government support an indigenous built launch capability to who will build the nations first orbital launch vehicle? It’s no longer a matter of will we, but rather when.

Change is inevitable and students in Canada are on the rise.

CDL Insights chat with Chris Hadfield, Firouz M. Naderi, Anousheh Ansari and Dante Lauretta
June 2018 CDL Insights chat with Chris Hadfield, Firouz M. Naderi, Anousheh Ansari and Dante Lauretta. Credit: Creative Destruction Lab.

3) An accelerator takes on space – 2018 saw the arrival of the first dedicated space accelerator stream.  In August of 2012 the Creative Destruction Lab (CDL) was launched by the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. This past summer CDL opened the application process for its first space stream. 27 companies were selected of which 7 were from Canada.

The Canadian companies selected were; QEYnet, Wyvern, Reaction Dynanics, Loonify, Leap Biosystems, BioAstra and Averro Robotics. Cultovo was added at the end of the first session.

According to Rotman School of Management CDL “is one of the world’s fastest-growing venture labs. The eight companies from the first cohort of the Lab have generated over $165 million in equity value, with the support of seven of Canada’s most prominent and successful entrepreneurs.”

The government saw innovation coming from CDL so in the fall invested $25M from the Strategic Innovation Fund into the program.

For the entrepreneur, CDL offers a change to interact with mentors with a program designed to accelerate their business to the next level.

More accelerate programs are likely to take on space companies now.

That a space accelerator program exists as an option in Canada now is a major milestone.

Satellites play an important role in agriculture.
Satellites play an important role in agriculture. Credit: Canadian Space Agency.

4) Space Big Data – Big Data isn’t new and its become a buzzword to mean a lot of things. Fundamentally though, the deluge of data started years ago. However, with the proliferation of small satellites and the variety of available data growing exponentially, end users are now faced with the problem of how to sift through all that data for that nugget of information they want.

Players in Canada include MDA with their sister business DigitalGlobe offering its own massive database. Then there’s startups like SkyWatch that aggregate data from many sources and creating unique products. UrtheCast has its own platform EarthDaily. The list goes on.

The government meanwhile is realizing it needs solutions to its own Earth Observation needs. That’s one of the reasons the CSA convened National Forum on Earth Observation from Space this fall. It’s clear Canada needs a new Earth Observation strategy along with new Earth observing satellites.

David Saint-Jacques first media interview from space
David Saint-Jacques first media interview from space. Credit: Canadian Space Agency.

5) A Canadian astronaut heads to the space station – There was a time, between 1995 and 2001, a six year period, that Canada had 8 astronaut missions. Then between 2006 and 2009 we had another 4 astronaut missions.

The number of missions Canada has, and had, is a result of the contributions we’ve made to the International Space Station program. That since 2009 we’ve only had 2 missions, this should suggest to the reader that Canada hasn’t been making more substantial contributions.

So David Saint-Jacques current six month stay on the International Space Station is important. The research he’s performing, which is designed to have some benefit here on Earth, is important. The potential spinoffs are important. Some would argue that we spend too much on astronauts. Nope, we don’t spend enough. The problem is we don’t spend enough on the space program, hence why there are some who would argue against one investment over another. They’re fighting for dollars for their programs.

The space environment offers a unique platform for a variety of research including in the medical field. This is an area the CSA has identified, rightly so, that Canada should become a leader in. So Saint-Jacques’ mission, the last for Canada for several years, is much needed.

About Marc Boucher

Marc Boucher
Boucher is an entrepreneur, writer, editor & publisher. He is the founder of SpaceQ Media Inc. and CEO and co-founder of SpaceRef Interactice Inc. Boucher has 20 years working in various roles in the space industry and a total of 27 years as a technology entrepreneur including creating Maple Square, Canada's first internet directory and search engine.