OTTAWA – Canada’s Earth observation strategy has its first major investment with a trio of instrument launches planned by 2031 and is working with NASA in an effort to monitor climate change from orbit.
As announced Oct. 18 at the Space Bound conference, Canada will contribute to the NASA-led Atmosphere Observing System (AOS) that aims to measure connections between aerosols, clouds, precipitation and atmospheric convection. AOS aims to meet modelling problems identified by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which notes global warming projections have uncertainties due to our lack of understanding in how aerosols affect clouds and the amount of solar radiation Earth receives.
AOS includes numerous other international agencies from Japan, France and Germany as well as several satellites; Canada’s contribution will be a part of the High-altitude Aerosols, Water vapour and Clouds (HAWC) mission. HAWC includes two launches: one on an unnamed Canadian satellite and another on a NASA satellite, both launching in the same calendar year.
Canadian collaborators on HAWC, aside from CSA, include Environment and Climate Change Canada, the National Research Council of Canada and Natural Resources Canada as well as 13 universities (which are listed at the bottom of this article).
In a recent speech announcing AOS, the minister responsible for the Canadian Space Agency or CSA (François-Philippe Champagne, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry) told listeners that the system would be “optimized to look at extreme weather.”
“Coming from New Brunswick after what we’ve seen with [Hurricane] Fiona, anything we can to predict weather patterns, this is going to save lives. This is going to improve the type of technologies we can put forward,” Champagne added.
Speaking by video at the same press conference, NASA administrator Bill Nelson paid special tribute to Canada’s TICFIRE (Thin Ice Cloud in Far InfraRed Experiment), which aims to detect ice clouds and water vapour along with measuring how much energy radiates into space from the atmosphere.
TICFIRE has been in development since at least 2010, according to SpaceQ documentation, and joins two others in the system for launch: ALI (Aerosol Limb Imager) to examine high-altitude particles for their sizes, densities and effects on sunlight and clouds, and SHOW (Spatial Heterodyne Observations of Water) to look at water vapour in the lower atmosphere.
“Canada and America are committed to making the data from these missions free and open to all,” Nelson added in the statement.
To be sure, this announcement comes from many years of planning and instrument development in alignment with CSA policy. In May 2021, NASA – pivoting its focus back to climate under the new Biden administration – announced an Earth System Observatory meant to include numerous satellites. Canada joined in with an Aerosol, Cloud, Convection and Precipitation (A-CCP) study that included these three instruments for space launch consideration.
A flurry of tenders and contracts were a part of A-CCP to mature the instruments, which all had flown on aircraft or balloons previously and required development for space to assess trade-offs. And it appears HAWC will form a part of Canada’s efforts to maintain science instrumentation in space, as its existing infrastructure (such as SciSat, and instruments on missions like Terra, CloudSat and Swarm) are on older satellites and some are nearing the end of their operational lifetime – but there will be more to say on the continuation aspect later in this article.
CSA’s Thomas Piekutowski, program manager of sun-Earth system sciences, told SpaceQ it has been a busy last year since A-CCP was announced, but Canada was able to meet NASA’s requirements.
The CSA-supported instruments passed a mission concept review in May 2022, following awarded contracts to perform tradeoffs on science and technology, along with “end-to-end” modelling to assess how the instruments would perceive clouds, aerosols and water vapor with realistic meteorological inputs. Simultaneously, CSA was making the pitch to senior Canadian government officials to “advance the business case” and make the necessary budget request, which led to the ministerial announcement this week.
“This project, this vision is very well aligned” with existing government strategy, Piekutowski said, including the 2019 CSA high-level strategy document that discussed prioritizing future Earth observation capabilities (which at the time, focused on the RADARSAT Constellation Mission that launched later that year.)
Piekutowski also pointed to Canada’s Strategy for Satellite Earth Observation released in February, which was a tri-ministerial effort (including CSA) outlining “why satellite observation is important for Canada, and things we would like to do with it.” He framed the 2022 strategy as important for Canadian industry as it provides a framework for contract opportunities. (As SpaceQ pointed out, this strategy did not include any satellites or instrumentation at that time, but HAWC changes that.)
The 2031 launch timeframe will depend on NASA and its partners meeting the various earlier deadlines in getting the system launched. For its part, CSA is currently working on contracts for the next phase in technology readiness level (TRL) development for the three instruments. Key decision points with NASA are so far expected in December 2022 and possibly, late summer 2023 (the timing on the latter one is very loose, Piekutowski emphasized.)
“We also have our own governance steps for approvals to move forward with the project,” Piekutowski said. “[There are] Treasury Board submissions to access the funds, and working with Public Works on the procurement process and procurement strategy. These are all very important things in order to be able to actually get significant contracts up and running.”
When asked how HAWC will maintain or enhance existing Canadian science capabilities in orbit, Piekutowski said there is one direct link that can be drawn with what CSA has called the “A-Train” of scientific research satellites to which the agency contributed space radar instrumentation: CloudSat, CALIPSO and Aqua.
NASA’s CloudSat, launched in 2006, studies clouds in three dimensions. CALIPSO (Cloud Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observations) is a joint American-French mission that also launched in 2006 to examine clouds and aerosols. NASA’s Aqua, the oldest of the trio, flew to space in 2002 to look at Earth’s water cycle (which does include clouds, water vapor and precipitation, along with land elements like sea ice, land ice, snow cover and the like.)
He also pointed to the Earth Cloud Aerosol and Radiation Explorer (EarthCARE) satellite mission, a European- and Japanese- coled mission which was supposed to launch in 2023 atop a Russian Soyuz rocket. The ongoing conflict in Ukraine nixed that opportunity, but when it launches, the radar and lidar on board are similar to Canadian instrumentation developed over the years.
But altogether, he said HAWC would allow for “richer and more detailed measurements that will allow us to actually get into the microphysics of what’s happening” with aerosols, which will be complimented by a series of suborbital missions under the larger NASA AOS mission to study local phenomena in short bursts using sounding rockets.
Piekutowski added that the Canadian university consortium is an integral part of the mission and includes 13 universities across the country. The full listing of participants is: University of Saskatchewan, University of Toronto, Université du Québec à Montréal, McGill University, University of New Brunswick, Université de Sherbrooke, University of Waterloo, Wilfrid Laurier University, St. Francis Xavier University, Saint Mary’s University, University of Victoria, Western University and Dalhousie University.