Artists concept of PCW. Credit: CSA.

The Polar Communications and Weather Mission Can’t Come Soon Enough

The Canadian north’s need for reliable satellites was vividly illustrated in October 2011, when a software error aboard Telesat satellite Anik F2 caused it to malfunction.

For 16 hours, hundreds of people in 56 satellite communities found themselves without Internet or long-distance telephone service. Around 1,000 First Air passengers had delayed or cancelled flights, just before the Thanksgiving long weekend. Even the RCMP found itself lacking in communications, out in the field.

Telesat quickly informed its customers and addressed the problem – a loss of Earth lock on the satellite caused by a software update – and service was restored relatively painlessly. Still, the incident illustrates just how important communications is to people in northern Canada.

There is a solution on the drawing board. Although still in the planning stages, the Canadian Space Agency promises the Polar Communications and Weather mission (PCW), comprised of two satellites, will provide better weather forecasting and communications to an area that is poorly served by geostationary satellites. Orbital mechanics dictates geostationary satellites must “hover” above the equator, providing only peripheral coverage to the poles because the signals at the equator of the earth cannot fully reach the north and south. This makes it hard to send and receive data.

“People in the north are very avid consumers in media, particularly television and radio as well as Internet,” said Katherine Graham, a Carleton University professor and former dean who studies northern community development, in an interview with Space Quarterly.

“To the extent that these satellite resources provide better information, more localized information, and that can be then transmitted by whatever medium to people in communities, so much the better.”

“A key element is the actual development of the North over the next few years,” added Luc Brul, director-general for space utilization at the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

“We see an increased level of activities in the economic sector, so we need to be in a position to provide the required infrastructure in terms of communications, and better forecasts, so that people can work and live up there safely.”

PCW will involve two satellites that constantly pass over the poles, most likely in some kind of highly elliptical orbit that has an apogee or peak about 39,900 km above the Northern Hemisphere.
The orbit types being considered would put the satellites above the North for most of the orbit, although some of the time they will be quite close and some of the time, very far away.

As of early 2012, the CSA was considering three orbits for the mission:

  • Molniya, an elliptical orbit often used by the Russians for communication and spy satellites. These provide fixed apogees and perigees, or closest and furthest approaches from Earth, over certain latitudes. Constant coverage using this orbit usually requires at least three satellites; PCW will have two.
  • A Tundra orbit, a less common elliptical orbit which will trace a “figure eight” of coverage on the target area. .
  • A “three apogee” highly elliptical orbit, which has three closest approaches to Earth separated by about 120 degrees, or 1/3 of a circle’s circumference. It will likely take longer to orbit around the Earth than the Molinya. It would also be less exposed to radiation. Three Canadian researchers espoused this approach for Arctic observation in the November 2011 edition of the Journal of Atmospheric and Oceanic Technology.

The main concern in selecting an orbit is how much fuel it will take to maintain it, according to Guennadi Kroupnik, the CSA project manager for PCW.

“It will be challenging in terms of additive control, and orbit control, and maintaining orbit positioning,” he noted, “… especially for the meteorological instrument. In a highly elliptic orbit, everything is changing all the time. Altitude, speed, sun angles, you name it.”

If PCW lives up to its promise, it will give northerners reliable weather forecasts as well as constant communications, two things that are taken for granted down south – but which are not very present north of the 60th parallel.

The project does have some buy-in from the senior levels of the Canadian government. MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) received $4.3 million from the CSA in 2009 to establish the basic parameters of the PCW mission. This includes orbit, instruments and overall goals in co-ordination with other federal departments. ABB Canada also received $5.7 million for a multi-spectral imager aboard PCW, the firm announced in late November 2011.

The federal government is currently undertaking at least three studies to determine the infrastructure and support needed in the north to both support this mission and deal with issues such as climate change and sovereignty.

Natural Resources Canada recently announced an up to $250,000 study to develop a Canadian Geospatial Data Infrastructure, particularly focusing on marine areas. This will facilitate ship traffic and environmental protection, among other items, the National Research Council (NRC) stated in a notice in January. Bids for the project closed in mid-February, with the expected award to come later in 2012.

EuroConsult North America won a $235,800 contract in November 2011 from the CSA to study the socioeconomic benefits of PCW. That work, which will focus on weather forecasts, space weather events and communications, will conclude in May.

Ernst & Young and Public Works and Government Services Canada are working on a business case study comparing traditional government procurement to public-private partnerships, according to Mr. Kroupnik. This will determine which is the best way to fund the satellite program.


It must be emphasized that PCW is still in Phase A, which is one of the very first steps in satellite development. This means that the mission still has a long way to go before any of its parameters are finalized. A lot can happen between now and the projected launch date of no earlier than 2018.
Space Quarterly could not determine a cost for PCW as it is so preliminary, but comparisons with other Canadian satellites are useful.

RADARSAT-1 cost about $620 million in 1995 dollars, which would be close to $851 million today. The private sector chipped in $63 million, the federal government $500 million, and several provincial governments picked up the rest either through direct funding or data agreements.

RADARSAT-2 cost close to $525 million when it was launched in 2007. This was funded through a private-public partnership with MDA. At the time RADARSAT-2 launched, the federal government had a “credit” of $446 million for data services with MDA, and will thus receive this information for free until the credit is fulfilled.

RADARSAT Constellation is expected to cost about $600 million, according to media reports.
SCISAT-1, which launched in 2003, cost $65 million. Part of its lower cost compared with the RADARSATs comes from its relatively small size (150 kilograms) and lower orbit, which required less fuel to get there.

The cost of PCW will depend on the size of the spacecraft, the amount of fuel it carries, the degree of reliability required, and the power requirements for the various instruments it will carry.

The future and viability of PCW greatly depend on balancing its requirements against priorities in a cost-conscious government looking to slash departmental budgets to balance the federal books as soon as possible.

Every department in the government, including the Canadian Space Agency, has been required to submit budget scenarios detailing how to cut up to 10 per cent.

These will be examined and then, in some form, implemented in the 2012 federal budget and, most likely, budgets beyond that. Whether the cuts will come in the form of programs, personnel or both has yet to be seen.

As such, the Canadian Space Agency is cautious when making predictions about PCW’s viability, although it is fighting to keep it through painting its value to other departments and gaining their support.

The Department of National Defence is one of the stakeholders, given its position regarding sovereignty in the north.

Although more military patrols and exactEarth’s automatic identification of ships technology are tracking land and marine traffic around the territories, more satellite coverage is an integral part of monitoring what’s happening.

Melting ice in major channels such as the Northwest Passage is making it easier for foreign vessels to make their way up there – and, possibly, claim territories themselves.

DND declined comment for Space Quarterly, referring all inquiries to the Canadian Space Agency.
“In the case of (the Department of) National Defence, it’s really about sovereignty and security in the north,” said Brul.

When asked by Space Quarterly, Environment Canada noted PCW could specifically improve public weather warnings and marine forecasts. More frequent monitoring of cloud, ocean, sea and ice surfaces would help climatologists seeking data about climate change.

“The PCW mission would improve our weather observations and services in Canada’s north,” added spokesperson Henry Lau in an exclusive e-mail to Space Quarterly.

“Specifically, the meteorological instruments could fill a significant international observational gap by providing improved imagery of the Arctic that is currently only available operationally for southern latitudes (below 55 to 60 degrees north) from geostationary satellites.”

The department, he added, is the largest user of federal remote sensing data dealing with environmental change due to its need to provide accurate forecasts.

Environment Canada, DND and the CSA are all part of a very large PCW users and science team, which was formed in 2007 to determine potential uses of the satellite. Some of the other members include Natural Resources Canada, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Transport Canada, and territorial governments.

With so many partners in the project, determining what instruments will fly on it will be a lengthy process. So far, it appears at least two major payloads have been decided upon, although anything could change in the coming years.

The main instrument is an imaging spectroradiometer. These instruments measure photon flux and energy flux across different wavebands, and are often used to study the energy output of the Sun.
On the Earth observation side, a spectroradiometer dubbed MODIS (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer) is used on the Terra and Aqua satellites to measure changes in the water and atmosphere.

NASA places so much importance on the data that it makes much of it available through a “rapid response” program in near real-time, just 2.5 hours after a satellite makes a pass over a particular geographic area.

Communications on PCW will be provided through a Ka-band payload, which covers frequencies between 26 and 40 gigahertz. Telesat Holdings Inc., for example, uses Ka-band to deliver satellite broadband.

The PCW website also promises “a suite of compact space weather instruments to study ionizing radiation”, which is present in the solar wind that produces both the northern lights and possible communications blackouts when it interacts with Earth’s magnetic field. Predicting these events is thus key to communications reliability.

But a number of other instruments are still up in the air, providing opportunities for these various stakeholders to jostle and negotiate their own priorities in relation to the others.

Of course, all that depends on whether the federal government actually funds the project.
“This project is not approved by the government, and at this point in time we are looking into alternative delivery mechanisms for this project, which will be presented to the federal government for approval in the coming months,” Kroupnik said.

He added it was too early to provide specifics of those mechanisms, although he hinted it could involve having the private sector take on some of the procurement responsibilities. This could streamline the usual steps needed to get a project approved, posted, evaluated and funded.

Brul said there still are many financial hurdles to overcome, including working with the Department of Finance, Treasury Board, the Privy Council Office and – of course – federal contracting powerhouse Public Works to lay the framework for budgetary approvals.

“We are not at a stage where the discussions are in shape and precise detail. It could be a year or two,” he cautioned.

“For us at the CSA, we’re really looking at options and alternatives so that we can provide better infrastructure and … as we go through the feasibility study, we’ll engage our stakeholder departments and other departments to see if there’s any interest or support in it.”

Launching PCW will take a massive amount of political will in an era dominated by talk of government cutbacks. That said, the promise of reliable communications and weather forecasting in the north is one that has preoccupied the people there, and the federal government, since the late 1960s. It is thus likely that an investment in the satellite now will pay off in terms of economic benefits a few years down the road.

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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