Canada's showpiece satellite project has been met with another launch delay, five years after the first of three spacecraft was planned for orbit.
The RADARSAT Constellation Mission (RCM) will now start from a California Air Force Base sometime between February 18 and February 24, 2019. It is the fifth delay since the $ 1 billion project was struck by technical issues and other issues.
The mission follows RADARSAT-1 (1995-2012) and RADARSAT-2 (2007 current) groundbreaking Canadian satellite project using synthetic aperture radar to observe the Earth's surface in detail, even through cloud cover and bad weather.
RCM, a project first proposed to the 2004 federal cabinet, will use three identical satellites in polar lanes to provide coverage of 90 percent of the planet, with the ability to display objects as small as a meter across. Their images will help to protect the sovereignty of Canadian coastlines and north, among other benefits.
But getting the project from the ground – literally – has been a challenge.
It was finally framed by cabinet 2008, with a budget of $ 600 million. The price tag escalated quickly and the initial launch date 2014 for the first of the three satellites was dropped back.
A $ 706 million fixed price contract was signed in 2013 with MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (now MDA, a unit of US-based Maxar Technologies) to build, assemble, launch and run the trio of satellites for the first year.
Owned by the government
The contract, based on MDA's success with the first two RADARSATs, established a launch date on July 17, 2018. The MDA owns and operates RADARSAT-2, but the new RCM will be owned by the Canadian government and will provide surveillance data to Canadian forces and a dozen other authorities.
The new channel is retrieved by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and adds another $ 300 million to the package, which has pushed the total cost to more than one billion dollars.
The current plan has the three identical satellites launched together on a Falcon 9 rocket built by Elon Musk's SpaceX, with a Swedish-based "dispenser" that puts them in paths that will cause the satellites to circle around the earth about once every 90 : minute.
However, thermal vacuum testing in Montreal of the three MDA-delivered satellites since 2017 showed a problem with No. 2.
"Such a test of the RCM satellite at the CSA laboratory identified a problem with components – in one of the satellites – which sends data acquired from the satellite to the ground," says an internal document obtained by CBC News under Access to Information Play Theater .
"The incorrect components were removed from the satellite and returned to MDA's supplier in Germany in early December."
Start the failure "would result in major schema delays (years) and a cost of $ 600 million or more"– Internal Canadian Space Agency's report on the delayed RADARSAT Constellation Mission
Spokesman Spokesman Audrey Barbier said the wrong component was fixed, tested and installed, and a new launch date at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California was set once between 30 October and 29 November 2018.
But SpaceX saw one of its Falcon 9 rockets explode after its launch in June 2015, triggering a delay and a growing backlog for launches since then. The company now says that a Falcon 9 will not be able to get RCM in circulation until sometime between February 18 and February 24, 2019.
The assignment will then require an additional three to six months for the satellites to work.
The delay, according to an internal government document, means that the Canadian Space Agency has to rely on less extensive RADARSAT-2 data from the MDA for much longer than expected, putting the budget for that data to over $ 500 million, up from the original $ 446 million .
The life of RADARSAT-2 was seven years, and spacecraft is now almost four years beyond its useful life, even if it is still functional.
Another disaster with a Falcon 9 rocket or a failure of the system that sets the satellites into its 600 kilometer high lanes would be expensive for the Canadian government.
Ottawa has only once issued insurance on launch of Canadian hardware – $ 80 million for RADARSAT-1 – and will have to eat losses if the RCM project fails after the liftoff.
The Agency points to the risk of failure to 5.5 percent, considering SpaceX's record so far, but the consequences would be difficult for the project.
"Would result in major schematic delays (years) and a cost of $ 600 million or more to build and start three replacement rooms and / or obtain replacement data, if such data would be available," said a March 2018 information packet about the risks, obtained under the law about access to information.
"Rebuilding would require at least 3 more, probably 4 years."
Barbier confirmed that the numbers are still valid and adds that "the knowledge and expertise gained during the construction of constellation would really ease the process, and the infrastructure built to support RCM would already be in place."
She added that the agency so far does not expect its costs – including the costs of its 50 RCM staff – to rise due to the recent delays.
The new satellites are designed to have a lifespan of seven years.
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