The Top Five Canadian Space Stories of 2017

ISED Minister Bains and the Space Advisory Board. Credit: ISED.

SpaceQ present the top Canadian space stories of the year. From the creation of Maxar, a potential new spaceport and more, read what mattered in 2017.

1. The Future of Canada’s Civil Space Program

Our top story of the year is about the direction of the civil space program.

Phrases to describe the state of the program we’ve heard used this year include; turning the corner, falling off a cliff, urgent call to action; Canada’s space program at a crossroads etc.

The direction of the civil space program has not been clear for over a decade.

When Marc Garneau left the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) on November 28, 2005 for politics the agency began a downward spiral with respect to direction until September 2008 when Steve MacLean was appointed president. While MacLean provided stability and leadership, the Conservative government ultimately failed him, the space program and the citizens of Canada by not accepting the premise that a long term space plan would need funding to implement and chart a new direction.

When MacLean quit in early 2013 another downward spiral began until current president Sylvain Laporte was appointed in February 2015. While Laporte has provided leadership and stability at the agency, he is still waiting on new direction in the form of a promised space strategy by the Liberal government which has been in power now for just over two years. That new space strategy will also need new funding.

So what happened this year that might build on the stable leadership Laporte has brought to the agency?

In late 2016 the government announced it was creating a new Space Advisory Board (SAB). Most insiders expected the announcement of who would be on the new board by early January. They had to wait until late April at which point an immediate and short consultation with the public was set in motion. The result was a report titled Consultations on Canada’s future in space: What we heard published in mid-August.

The report had two recommendations but importantly outlined six key themes with proposals;

  • Designating space as a National Strategic Asset
  • Strengthen world-class Canadian capabilities
  • Adopting new policies and regulations to capitalize on technological advances
  • Continuity of policies and sustainable funding
  • Outreach and educational activities to inspire and prepare Canadians
  • An urgent call to action

The government had planned on releasing a high level document of Canada’s new space strategy before the SAB report came out, but based on feedback and the contents of the report, delayed the release. SpaceQ sources at first thought a fall roll-out of the new strategy happen with a promise of new project funding in the 2018 budget. However, that did not happen and now the expectation is that budget will contain new funding and that a new space strategy will be announced.

The message the space community sent to Ottawa, we expect action, not just words.

One other important note related to the space sector, is jobs. According to the CSA State of the Space Sector reports, jobs directly related to the space sector plateaued in 2014 at 10,012. In 2015 that dropped to 9,927.  The CSA report on the space sector for 2016 won’t be available until next summer. So we don’t know exactly how jobs fared that year. We do know that Honeywell took over Cambridge based COM DEV in early 2016 and began laying off people. Honeywell told SpaceQ there were approximately 800 people at the Cambridge location at the time of the acquisition. That number of employed in Cambridge was down to 515 as of September 1, 2017 according to documents the Ontario government provided SpaceQ through the  Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. Of those currently employed as of September 1, 327 were salaried employees while 188 were hourly workers.

While the government is committed to increasing the highly qualified space workforce in Canada, part of that burden rests on their shoulders through new policy and programs.

Remote Sensing Space Systems Act Canada
Credit: SpaceQ.

2. Government Regulatory Update to Meet 21st Century Reality

In April SpaceQ had an exclusive story on the ultra-quiet release of a very important report, the Independent Review of the Remote Sensing Space Systems Act by the Institute of Air & Space Law at McGill University . The report included a recommendation that there is a need for a new General Outer Space Act.

The governments reaction to the report was to post it on their website and not comment on it. That is until SpaceQ brought it to the public’s attention, at which point they acknowledged the review had taken place. Subsequently, industry organizations including the Canadian Space Commerce Association made efforts to engage Global Affairs with their members to discuss the review and necessary changes.

The Act itself has not been amended since April of 2007 and has frustrated new entrants into the space sector. In particular, for commercial space companies the review states that “although the objective of the Act is to balance the public interests of Canada with the private interests of commercial remote sensing operators, the Act leans more in favour of protecting Canadian national security interests at the expense of technological development and commercial interests.”

One of the other findings states that “the GAC (Global Affairs Canada) office in charge of implementing the Act is underfunded and under-staffed; additional resources are required to maintain the proper implementation of the Act, especially as remote sensing space system applications increase.”

Global Affairs Canada is currently assessing the recommendations of the independent review.

For Canada to remain competitive, the regulatory regime needs to be updated to meet current realities. As well, new staff and funding need to find its way to Global Affairs Canada to deal with the increase in demand.

MDA to become Maxar Technologies
MDA to become Maxar Technologies. Credit: MDA/SpaceQ.

3. MDA Becomes Maxar and Grows

For MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates it was the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. The iconic company acquired U.S. based DigitalGlobe combining the power of complementary businesses SSL, MDA, DigitalGlobe, Radiant Solutions into one new larger company known as Maxar Technologies with 6,500 employees and $3B in 2016 revenues.

The deal, when announced in February was a blockbuster. Facing a limited domestic market and needing a stronger U.S. presence to grow, the company did what was needed. Some Canadians were worried what it would mean for jobs in Canada, but MDA president Don Osborne emphasized to SpaceQ in an interview in mid-August that the acquisition could mean new opportunities.  Once the deal was done we wrote As MDA Becomes Maxar Technologies Context is King.

MDA announced a new subsidiary, Space Infrastructure Services in May to handle a new market segment, satellite servicing. And as expected sold a majority stake in the company to Finance Technology Leverage LLC and also announced SES as its first customer.

SSL, MDA’s Palo Alto, California based satellite builder announced a reduction in workforce in May with sales in the larger satellite market segment slowing.

As the U.S. began to pivot its focus from the Journey to Mars to let’s go back to the moon and then Mars, MDA positioned itself to take full advantage of this both in Canada and the U.S. In Canada that meant working on concept studies for a Deep Space Gateway.

Just before the holiday season, SpaceQ first published the news in Canada that MDA was going to use a refurbished SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage, or in SpaceX marketing speak, a flight proven Falcon 9, for the launch of Canada’s next three satellites that make up the RADARSAT Constellation Mission.

Lastly, the name MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates has been retired, the Canadian company will simply be known as MDA now.


Maritime Launch Services Cyclone 4M rocket
Maritime Launch Services Cyclone 4M rocket. Credit: Maritime Launch Services.

4. A Spaceport May be Coming to Canada, It’s About Time

Maritime Launch Services (MLS) captured the imagination of our readers like no other story this year.  For the space community though, it ranks lower than the need for a new space strategy, funding , an update to the regulatory regime and the creation of Maxar.

In mid-March Maritime Launch Services announced it had selected Nova Scotia as its preferred site for a new spaceport. SpaceQ had an exclusive story leading up to the announcement. The company created by Americans is relying on it’s Ukrainian partners to provide an updated launch vehicle and is targeting the medium payload segment. The company was up front with its plans, engaged the local community in Nova Scotia, made the rounds in Ottawa to garner government support, though not including funding.

An environmental assessment is almost complete and the company is hoping to break ground in May. The one issue the company is not as open to discuss is funding. In an interview with SpaceQ MLS CEO Steve Matier said their series A round of funding was just about done. That was in early November. For MLS to succeed they’ll need that funding along with the commitments they’ve already received from potential customers.

Even if MLS fails to launch, sorry for the pun, there is a need for a spaceport in Canada.

To date this year there have been 90 orbital launches with six failures with one commercial Ukrainian/Russian launch left. While the number of launches is up slightly from last year, 90 versus 85, we’ve only seen a 25% increase in launches over the last decade. The backlog of launches is growing. SpaceX which launched 18 times this year has a manifest of 52 publicly listed launches waiting to happen.

Small payload launch providers such as Rocket Lab, Vector Space Systems, Generation Orbit and a host of wannabes all have yet to launch a payload to orbit. While some within industry will argue there is a glut of upcoming launch providers, that glut will only exist if they actually succeed in building and launching their new launch vehicles. Until then, there is a deficit of launch capability for smaller payloads.

With new space companies demanding a launch within months, not waiting years, there is a demand for small payload launch services. Morgan Stanley is bullish on the space sector including the satellite launch segment and have identified 19 launch providers they are tracking. Not one of them is Canadian.

Morgan Stanley satellite launch providers they've identified as worthy of following
Morgan Stanley satellite launch providers they’ve identified as worthy of following. Credit: Morgan Stanley.

Canadian companies and the government have to find launch providers in the U.S. or overseas for their payloads. That can sometimes mean waiting for years for a launch opportunity. That’s a problem that needs to be fixed sooner rather than later. The Conservative government and even Marc Garneau have stated that Canada does not need indigenous launch capability. They are wrong. To compete in the future, Canada’s space sector will need indigenous launch capability. Thankfully there are a couple of credible efforts underway and one or more may succeed as long as the government doesn’t get in the way and possibly provides some support. The government must include an updated regulatory regime as well.

President Trump signs Space Policy Directive 1
President Trump signs Space Policy Directive 1. Credit: White House.

5. Back to the Moon

With the signature of President Trump on December 11 on the Space Policy Directive 1, the U.S. made it official policy, humans are headed back to the moon. It was the culmination of a year where the moon took centre stage and Mars was shuffled off to a side stage. But does it really mean humans are heading back to the moon? After all, we’ve seen this narrative before. President Bush in 2004 put forward the Vision for Space Exploration which included a human return to the moon by 2020. Then President Obama changed the plan and left human exploration of space beyond low Earth orbit in limbo .

This time though, it may be different. For several years now space agencies around the world, including Canada, have been working on a Global Exploration Roadmap. The next iteration of that roadmap is due out in January. It will feature the moon prominently. It’s been clear for several years now that there’s a push to go back to the moon. And it’s not just government civil space programs. The commercial space sector is poised to make its first foray on the moon in 2018 with potentially more than one company landing a spacecraft on the surface. That includes companies participating in the Google Lunar X Prize. As we discussed a week ago, there may not be a winner of the Google Lunar X Prize, but winners have already emerged.

In Canada, Canadensys expanded its operations to Waterloo and brought three key staff from ODG to the company. ODG had been working on lunar rovers. That work now moves forward at Canadensys. Neptec and MDA have also been working on rovers.

The CSA issued requests for information and requests for proposals related to the moon and in particular the much discussed Deep Space Gateway, a space station orbiting the moon.

Clearly 2017 was the year the moon went centre stage.

About Marc Boucher

Boucher is an entrepreneur, writer, editor & publisher. He is the founder of SpaceQ Media Inc. and CEO and co-founder of SpaceRef Interactive LLC. Boucher has 20+ years working in various roles in the space industry and a total of 30 years as a technology entrepreneur including creating Maple Square, Canada's first internet directory and search engine.

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