Can the Canadian Government Keep up With the Growing SmallSat Community?

Government’s Role in SmallSat Panel – Kelly Anderson, Shari Scott, Christine Tovee (left to right). Credit: SpaceQ.

The Canadian SmallSat Symposium held in Toronto, February 13-15, attracted national and international individuals, ranging from small start-ups, law firms, private commercial space corporates, to the government, all involved in the Canadian small satellite and space sector.

An overarching gap was evident across the sessions: the rapid growth and expansion of companies in space and small satellite development, many outside of Canada, versus the lack or slow progress of government funding and licence approvals within Canada.

Space Exploration and SmallSats

In the Space Exploration session, representatives from AstroKeys Inc., Gedex Systems Inc., and Canadensys Aerospace Corporation spoke on their future plans for having Canada in space; some with more concrete and realistic goals than others.

Jocelyn Boily, the CEO of AstroKeys Inc., talked about using 150k tons of regolith from an asteroid to build a cycling habitat using 3D printing. Its main goal would be to allow for larger cabins and radiation shielding when it comes to providing habitats for future space exploration. Boily mentioned he would use already existing asteroid mining companies to retrieve the regolith, but where and how this habitat would be built was not clear. The company’s initial goal is to send a small satellite to a few select asteroids to determine their composition and physical characteristics.

In the next talk, Kieran Carroll, the CTO of Gedex, spoke about their Geophysical Reconnaissance Asteroid Surface Probe (GRASP) spacecraft. Gedex, in collaboration with the Space Flight Laboratory are developing a low-cost spacecraft to study asteroids. This concept is built and expands upon the existing nanosats and microsats in low Earth orbit that have already been developed and tested by SFL. The main objectives of this spacecraft revolve around obtaining better geophysical properties of asteroids, such as gravimetry (measurements of the gravitational field) and magnetometry (measurements of the magnetic field) measurements. This concept was previously proposed as a payload to fly on Asteroid Redirect Mission which was cancelled. The current concept study is under evaluation from the Canadian Space Agency.

Nadeem Ghafoor, the VP Space Exploration of Canadensys Aerospace began his talk by reminding the audience that space today should be accessible and application-driven. He remarked that we are in a new era of exploration and new boundaries are reached every day, as exemplified by the recent SpaceX Heavy Falcon launch and their plans for reaching Mars in the next few years. Canadensys works in partnership with government and commercial sectors to develop small, low-cost technologies that will aid in future space explorations. They have currently tested some of their technologies for surviving the harsh lunar temperature changes. Ghafoor said that Canadensys’ goal for the next ten years is to focus on low-cost Canadian exploration, such as cislunar secondary payloads and other small, affordable missions.

Space Exploration as a session topic was quite limited at the conference which was a fact conference organizer Michelle Mendes noted the following day during a pre-keynote update. She said future Canadian Space Commerce Association events will will include more space exploration sessions. It should be noted that while the Space Exploration session itself was limited, there were several talks in the technology session related to space exploration.

A Long Term Technology Development

In the QEYSSat: Quantum Computing session, Professor Thomas Jennewein from the Institute of Quantum Computing (ICQ) at the University of Waterloo and the Principal Investigator for Quantum Encryption and Science Satellite, spoke about new applications for quantum technologies. Quantum technology is the expansion of the concept of a bit, a unit of information, to the quantum world. Jennwein explained it as: “Think of a light switch as one bit of information, in a class world the light is either on or off 0 or 1), but in the quantum world we can have super-positioning and it can be in an undefined state, which has quantum information”.

Jennwein’s passion lies in quantum internet, the extension of today’s internet, which can be especially useful for secure communications through Quantum key distribution (QKD). Currently, most of the important secrets shared over the internet are protected by a secure distribution of cryptographic keys, and the main algorithms behind them make assumptions about a potential hacker’s computing power. This could lead to long-term security issues. Jennwein explained that the information we share securely over the internet that get stored, could be easily be read by quantum computers in the future.

Quantum key distribution uses single photons to transmit each bit of the key between users, and since photons cannot be copied or directly measured without detection, they make for a more secure form of transmission. Ground-based QKD systems are currently available, but Jennwein noted that their typical range is around 100 km, and they are limited by other factors such as fiber optic loss and constraints with line-of-sight transmissions. Therefore, there is a dire need for quantum communication satellites to reach a larger range.

“Satellites can be used as trusted nodes to bridge larger gaps,” said Jennwein in his presentation, emphasizing the benefits of satellite use for this technology. Some leading countries in developments of quantum communication satellites are China (with its space-based dedicated hardware), Japan, and Singapore. Following those are Germany, Italy, and Canada with their proof of concept demonstrations.

The Canadian QEYSSat’s initial studies were funded by the Defense Research and Development Canada (DRDC) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). QUESSat has also collaborated with the Space Flight Laboratory (SFL) at the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies (UTIAS) to study the feasibility of performing a low cost space-based QKD demonstration mission. The current space quantum communication projects by IQC are supported through academic, industrial and government partners.

Jennewein said he had spent a better part of 15 years working towards this technology.

Government and SmallSats

While most of Canada’s new space exploration technologies rely on the government for funding, some even rely on them for licensing. In the Government’s Role in SmallSats panel, Kelly Anderson, Deputy Director of Global Affairs Canada, Shari Scott, Director of Space Services Operations at the Ministry of Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED), and Christine Tovee, a member of the Space Advisory Board, shared their views on advancements and challenges at each sector.

Scott’s presentation focused on ISED’s Spectrum management and the ministry’s rules around “orderly development and efficient operation of radio communication in Canada.” Under the Spectrum management licensing rules, all satellites use spectrum and must be licensed. “Smallsats present enormous opportunities, but are just as capable of creating interference as ‘traditional’ satellites,” said Scott. The use of spectrum gets coordinated with other Canadian and international users through ISED and in accordance with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Scott’s advice to Smallsat developers was to apply early and ask questions before applying.

In the following talk, Anderson focused her presentation on the Remote Sensing Space Systems Act (RSSSA), starting off by stating that “Under the RSSSA any entity operating in Canada or Canadian entity operating abroad, must obtain a license to operate a remote sensing system and to distribute and process data, products and services for domestic and foreign clients”. Any satellite capable of sensing the surface of the Earth must acquire a license. This is mainly to address national security, foreign policy and international obligations.

In the 2017 independent review of the RSSSA one of the findings was that “The RSSSA has had some difficulty keeping up with the pace of technological change over the past decade and will continue having difficulty in the future; thus far, the flexibility of the RSSSA has allowed for continued regulation but may soon extend past its functional limits” Similar to Scott, Anderson suggested applying early and maintaining a line of communication.

Christine Tovee highlighted some of the Space Advisory Board’s (SAB) suggestions to the ministry, as they’ve been appointed to rely the needs of the industry to the government. “The government senses the urgency, it is now or never,” said Tovee, mentioning that her board has relayed to the government that there is an urgent need for action. One of the top recommendations from SAB to the ministry has been to expand on outreach and education, as many Canadians might not truly understand how space affects their daily lives, beyond knowing about the Canadarm and the astronauts. “Perhaps a NASA model should be taken; where for every project or mission that gets funded, a portion of it should be dedicated to education and outreach,” suggested Tovee.

What was evident in the first day of the Canadian SmallSat Symposium, was the growth of SmallSat and space technology development in Canada. In the meantime, can the government keep up in supporting them with providing funding and licensing?

A Fast Moving Space Segment

On the last day of the conference at the final luncheon keynote session, Mendes polled the audience on their thoughts as to whether the SmallSat Symposium should be held yearly or every other year. The overwhelming majority raised their hands and voted in favour of yearly. The reason was simple as many told SpaceQ, the sector is moving fast enough that an annual event is warranted and they want to reconvene next year.

With additional reporting by Marc Boucher. More stories from the Canadian SmallSat Symposium 2018.

About Sara Mazrouei

Sara is a planetary geologist and science communicator with a passion for sharing the wonders of the universe with the public. Sara started writing for SpaceQ in September 2017.

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