MDA Discusses Technology Priorities in Latest Earth Observation STDP Awards from CSA

Sermilik Fjord in East Greenland. Credit: MDA.

The Canadian Space Agency’s (CSA) recently announced $6.8 million in funding for Earth observation technologies included 10 R&D contracts, recently discussed by SpaceQ. Of those contracts, four of them went to MDA, which is not a surprise given MDA’s experience.

CSA officials emphasized to SpaceQ that each of the awardees were adept at meeting the needs of providing technologies related to satellite radar Earth observation after the RADARSAT Constellation Mission or RCM concludes. (The other awardees were AstroCom, C-CORE, EarthDaily Analytics and Calian.)

But any company in a marketplace does try to define itself by differentiators from others, and one of MDA’s is its literal decades of experience in running the RADARSAT series of missions. It was an original member of RADARSAT International (RSI), the industry consortium set up to commercialize RADARSAT-1 imagery; that mission ran successfully until 2013. MDA also was subsequently selected as prime contractor for RADARSAT-2 (which launched in 2007 and is still operational) and RCM (which launched in 2019 and is forecast to be operational until at least 2026, if not longer.)

Since readying for new satellites takes many years, the CSA awarded the 10 contracts “to assess the feasibility and risks of key enabling technologies that might be required for future satellite Earth observation missions,” according to a release issued earlier this month.

This most recent Space Technology Development Program (STDP) funding from CSA was asking for “significantly enhanced information, including high-resolution and wide-swath SAR [synthetic aperture radar] imagery as well as a much greater imaging capacity,” Minda Suchan, MDA’s vice-president of geointelligence, said in a statement provided to SpaceQ. 

“That capability requires the development of a new generation of SAR sensors, data exploitation strategies, and software systems to deliver content with even higher quality and reliability,” added Suchan, who was speaking about Earth Observation Service Continuity (EOSC).

More generally, the role of STDP is not only to provide money for newer technologies to foster innovation, but to seek to reduce risk for future missions by developing and testing those technologies to make sure that they are space-ready for future CSA needs.

MDA officials outlined to SpaceQ more details about the “priority technologies” it will develop for CSA, which you can learn more about below. Note that CHORUS, referred to in the list, is MDA’s planned next-generation multi-sensor constellation that will include C-band and X-band SAR to provide higher resolution and near real-time information; like older generations of SAR, CHORUS will be able to collect data regardless of daylight or weather.

Multi-Aperture SAR Exploitation

This is what MDA had to say about this contract, which is worth up to $500,000: it “will define imaging modes of a next-generation SAR instrument that exploits advanced multi-aperture SAR technology to meet the improved information content requirements of future EOSC Missions. As the designer, owner and operator of RADARSAT-2, which employs the first commercial dual-aperture SAR instrument for selected imaging modes, MDA is uniquely positioned for this work. MDA’s next generation CHORUS mission, currently being developed, will enhance their capabilities even further by employing dual-aperture technology for the entire suite of imaging modes.”

CSA explains on its award page that MDA will be seeking to improve radar satellite resolution by dividing a single antenna into several smaller ones and creating high-resolution images using “advance-processing techniques.” The technology has already been tested on RADARSAT-2, which divides an antenna into two sub-apertures, but MDA is seeking to refine the performance on systems with more than two sub-antennas.

Multi-Aperture SAR Hardware Development

MDA says this contract, worth up to $1 million, “will develop next generation RF [radiofrequency] frontends, with high power density transmit/receive modules. This new technology will be used in a multi-aperture SAR payload architecture to meet the high resolution and wide swath requirements of future EOSC missions.”

CSA explains that using multi-aperture allows for higher-resolution images, but also forces the antenna to boost power. MDA will test gallium nitrate transmitters to make the required power needs more efficient than the gallium arsenate panels used on RADARSAT-2 and RCM.

Multi-Mission Ordering and Planning

MDA says this contract, worth up to $1.5 million, “will create a prototype for a centralized order desk and an integrated scheduling system to support the effective distribution of acquisition requests to downstream missions, providing the Canadian government with easier and faster access to SAR imagery collections and improving the utilization of Canadian space assets.”

CSA adds on its webpage that CSA wants to diversify its data sources from the single-source system used now, specifically with regard to RCM. Since users’ requests will need to be co-ordinated among these sources, MDA is developing a tool to prioritize tasks and speed up responses to requests.

Autonomous SAR Image Quality Validation

MDA says this contract, worth up to $750,000, “will advance an autonomous SAR image quality validation system required to improve the quality and reliability of SAR image products while keeping up with the anticipated larger imaging capacity of future SAR missions.” (Note that EarthDaily Analytics has also received a CSA contract for this category, also for $750,000.)

CSA, speaking to both MDA’s and EarthDaily Analytics’ contracts, said SAR images require interpretation of an electromagnetic signal that the satellite instrument measures. The current generation of quality control uses verification of small image subsets and feedback by users; the CSA is seeking a newer tool that will correct image quality and alert users of issues.

CSA Commentary

SpaceQ also spoke with Guennadi Kroupnik, CSA’s director-general of space utilization, to seek more information about how this STDP fits into CSA priorities. Kroupnik recalled that the genesis of this STDP was a three-minister announcement in 2022 concerning EOSC, which sought continuity in observation and data services. The money originated in Budget 2021, in which CSA received close to $10 million for technology development and options to follow on from RCM, he added.

More than a dozen Government of Canada departments rely on the Earth observation data of RCM (along with other sources) to support more than 70 services and applications to Canadians, Kroupnik said. He emphasized again the needs for data continuity and the role of STDP in testing innovative technology that could eventually be used for Earth observation needs such as climate change, resource management, infrastructure, emergency situations and disaster management.

“In this specific [STDP] case, a lot of emphasis is on synthetic aperture radar, and MDA is among the world leaders in this domain,” Kroupnik said. “So it’s not surprising that based on their skills, knowledge and experience they have put forward very good proposals – and four contracts have been awarded.”

He emphasized that MDA “is a very important player in this domain”, but said the other four Canadian companies also have capabilities and that their work will be of benefit across the country as they are “nicely, geographically distributed.” CSA overall, he concluded, is looking to grow the industrial base across Canada for SAR and more generally, Earth observation – but MDA does play an important role.

About Elizabeth Howell

Is SpaceQ's Associate Editor as well as a business and science reporter, researcher and consultant. She recently received her Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota and is communications Instructor instructor at Algonquin College.

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