This Week in Space for Canada

Mississauga-based Microsat Systems Canada (MSCI) announces it’s building a massive (perhaps too good to be true) constellation of 78 small, relatively low-flying satellites designed to relieve network smart phone congestion. Macdonald Dettwiler (MDA) will be “exercising an option” for additional work on the Orbital Sciences Corporation (Orbital) developed Cygnus cargo spacecraft and even ComDev International gets a new military contract from the US government. All that and more, this week in space for Canada.


Our first story comes to us this week via this January 19th, 2011 press release from MSCI which states:
“Mississauga-based Microsat Systems Canada Inc. (MSCI) announced plans on Wednesday to launch a network of micro-satellites to provide additional bandwidth and increase access to the non web-wired regions of the Earth by 2015. The 78-device strong COMMStellation project, will orbit the planet at an altitude of 1,000km, with each satellite capable of transferring up to 12 gigabits of data per second to 20 base stations on the ground, significantly reducing the strain on global fiber optic infrastructure.”
This seems very similar to Europe based O3b Networks, which is planning a constellation of eight internet satellites in a medium-Earth orbit (8,000km) around the equator. The Canadian venture would be very much lower in the sky (which would reduce signal latency but also require more satellites) and circle the Earth via the poles. Both networks are scheduled for roll-out in the middle of the decade but O3B networks has already raised quite a bit of money and possesses defined partnerships with Google, satellite systems provider Thales Alena and launch systems provider Arianespace.
While normal press releases are a dime a dozen and don’t necessarily mean anything, this specific story seems to have been picked up as the basis for recent articles in the Financial Times (“Canadian firm to launch global satellite-based Internet service“), CNET.com (“Canadian firm plans 78-satellite Net service“) and quite a few other news outlets.
The MSCI Commstellation website doesn’t really go into a lot of detail on the partners and the funding so while I wish MSCI the best of luck with their plans, it might be worthwhile to take today’s press release with a grain of salt, at least until more details have been made public.
After all, communications constellations have had a checkered history (remember Iridium and Globalstar). This is mostly because any business plan that starts with “first, we spend half a billion dollars” (which is likely a low end order of magnitude ball-park price to design, develop and launch the 78 communications micro-satellites needed under the plan) is going to have trouble lining up investors and supporters, no matter how bad the local internet service happens to be.
Which brings us to our next story.
According to the January 13th, 2011 Canada NewsWire article “MDA provides additional advanced technology solutions to Orbital’s Cargo Delivery Spacecraft,” BC based Macdonald Dettwiler (MDA) and Orbital Sciences Corporation of Virginia(Orbital) will be “exercising an option” on a contract announced January 19, 2010 for additional robotic units to assist in the capture and mating of the Cygnus cargo delivery spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS).
The original contract, as outlined in the January 19th, 2010 Spaceref.com article “MDA contract will enable robotic capture and mating of Orbital’s Cygnus(TM) Cargo Delivery Spacecraft to the ISS” was for $2.4 million USD for the design and development of the first unit but included an option to purchase additional units for follow-on operational missions worth “at least” $4.0 million USD.
The Cygnus is being developed by Orbital and Thales Alenia Space (Thales) under the National Aeronautics and Space Administrations (NASA) Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program.
It’s one of at least seven spacecraft (not including the soon to be retired US space shuttle and the not quite dead yet Lockheed Martin designed Orion spacecraft) presently being developed or in existence and capable of delivering either cargo or astronauts to the ISS (if you’d like to take a look at the others, you need to check out the Commercial Space Blog).
Which brings us to our final story this week. According to January 17th, 2011 article titled “COM DEV Awarded Military Communications Contract” on David Pugliese’s Defence Watch:
COM DEV International Ltd. (TSX:CDV), a leading manufacturer of space hardware subsystems, today announced that it has been awarded a contract valued in excess of US$9 million to provide equipment for a military communications satellite. Combined with pre-production work already completed, the total value of the Company’s work on this satellite will exceed US$12 million. COM DEV will provide beam select subsystems and switch assemblies for the satellite. The order is a follow-on award for COM DEV, which has participated on previous spacecraft in the program.
This is welcome news to the scrappy little company which posted a $1.9 million loss in the fourth quarter of 2010 compared to an $0.9 million profit in Q4 of the previous year according to the January 18th, 2011 article on the PARS3C web blog titled “Profitability COM DEV’s top priority for 2011.”
As a quick aside, the PARS3C blog recently came in second in the science, technology and the Internet category of the 2010 Canadian Weblog Awards. Congratulations PARS3C for your ongoing coverage of space science and technology.
That’s all for this week in space for Canada.

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Staff Writer