Canada’s space industry set for relaunch decades after its biggest achievements
By Michael O’Shea
Renée Hložek is in a pretty good place to observe Canada’s place and possible future in space. A renowned cosmologist and frequent media commentator on all things related to astronomy, she was born and educated in South Africa, she studied as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford and is a TedX Fellow.
She has also made Canada her academic home, as a professor at the University of Toronto’s Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics and was mostly recently named Azrieli Global Scholar within the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.
“Canadians are really ambitious,” Hložek said. “We have a lot of great things happening in Canada in space.”
She believes Canadian astrophysicists are “outperforming by a lot of metrics,” relative to the community’s small size.
Canada in 2018 spent the least amount on its space program in the G8, which also includes the United States, Japan and the United Kingdom. Possibly the most famous Canadian aerospace achievement was the Canadarm, the robotic space arm proudly featured on the $5 bill and first tested in orbit in 1981. The company that made the Canadarm, MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (MDA), was sold to an American company in 2017.
But after years of muddling through, Canada’s space industry may be about to enjoy a relaunch of sorts, one that includes a growing role for the private sector.
And last February, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) learned it would receive a large cash infusion — $2.05 billion over the next 24 years — when Prime Minister Trudeau announced that Canada would be joining the Lunar Gateway project led by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Canadian robotics prowess will help develop the Moon-orbiting space station that may one day serve as a launchpad to Mars.
We’re at one of those thresholds
Chris Hadfield, Canadian astronaut
“If you’re just looking at headlines, you’re doomed,” said Chris Hadfield, Canadian astronaut, space ambassador and military veteran. “The facts are really important.”
Hadfield was the first Canadian to perform a space walk, the only Canadian to enter the Russian space station, Mir, and the first Canadian to command the International Space Station.
He also became famous for his educational and musical broadcasts from the International Space Station and is bullish about the future of space exploration and the role Canada will play, pointing out that the cost of launching satellites has never been cheaper, Canada maintains a global edge in space robotics, and the private aerospace sector is growing by leaps and bounds.
“It’s a really interesting time,” Hadfield said. Comparing space exploration today to the first voyages to Antarctica, he added, “We’re at one of those thresholds.”
An Early Edge in the Space Race
Canada was the third country, behind only Russia and the United States, to enter the space race, when it launched Alouette, a 145-kilogram satellite designed to study Earth’s ionosphere, in 1962.
Canada followed up its achievement in 1972 by launching the world’s first telecommunications satellite, Anik, which allowed Canadian radio and television stations to be accessible across the country’s vast landmass, even the Far North. Anik is an Inuit word meaning “brother.”
And just before Hadfield blasted into space aboard the Atlantis Space Shuttle in 1995, Canada launched its first Earth observation (EO) satellite, Radarsat-1.
Data from orbiting spacecraft and later EO satellites allow the Canadian government and companies to keep an eye on, say, flooding in Quebec or monitor fires in Fort McMurray, Alta. Satellite data can also help monitor other environmental disasters, climate change and agricultural yields.
“We observe the Earth to make sure Canadians are going to be safe,” said Sylvain Laporte, president of the 30-year-old Canadian Space Agency.
Canada has excelled at more than just satellite technology. Talk to any leader in the industry and you’ll hear about the country’s historic strengths in robotics. They might also mention Canadian leadership in artificial intelligence space medicine, and how the CSA does a good job of spreading the wealth of public spending and investing in the next generation of astronauts through education.
Of course, Canada’s most famous space effort is its robotic contribution to the NASA-led Space Shuttle program, Canadarm, which served as the spacecraft’s mechanical arm for 30 years. Its younger brother, Canadarm2, helped build the International Space Station.
The newest member, Canadarm3, will play a role in the NASA-led Lunar Gateway, a scaled-down version of the International Space Station that will orbit the moon. Canadarm3 is a “smart robotic system” that will maintain and operate the orbiting lunar space station, especially when astronauts aren’t aboard.
In announcing Canada’s involvement with the Lunar Gateway last February, Justin Trudeau called it “one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken.” By contributing Canadarm3, Canada will “continue to push the boundaries of human ambition,” he added.
Trudeau matched these lofty words by announcing an investment of $2.05 billion over 24 years for Canada’s space program.
“The Canadian space community will maintain global leadership in robotics, and capitalize on our world-leading expertise in AI, and health,” said Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, echoing Trudeau’s sentiments.
CSA head Laporte said the cash infusion is a lot of money.
“We are funded for 24 years. We’re very fortunate we’re getting such outstanding support,” he said. “To be successful in space you need that long-term perspective.”
University of Toronto professor Hložek said she is grateful for government support from the Canadian Space Agency and the Tri-Council, the research funding arm of the federal government, that funds her work and that of others, but she notes that such support can be uncertain, limited and doesn’t always back basic science, that is, science for science’s sake without a direct application to business or industry.
The space agency’s limited budget can also make it hard for scientists to plan ahead for big projects.
“Year to year, the budget is quite small. CSA didn’t grow for a long time. The most recent budget (increase) is great, but a lot of that is not going to basic science research,” she said. “I would love to petition government to increase the funds available and long-term planning available for astrophysics and fundamental science research in space.”
During 2019-2020, the CSA expects to spend about $345 million, which is less than 0.1 per cent of the federal government’s total budget of $355.6 billion. By comparison, NASA received US$21.5 billion out of the US$4.7 trillion federal budget in 2019. If funded at NASA’s level of support, CSA would receive approximately $1.7 billion each year.
Though the new budget increased spending for the CSA, some have pointed out that the agency is not just underfunded, it also underspent its budget by $802 million from 2001 to 2018, though some of the planned spending was merely deferred.
In releasing the plan, Bains emphasized Canadian strengths in robotics, space medicine and artificial intelligence. He also connected investments in the space program with socio-economic benefits for all Canadians.
“Canada’s space strategy will foster our next generation of astronauts, engineers and scientists and will ensure Canadians and Canadian businesses benefit from the growing opportunities in the space economy,” the report said.
Business in the Final Frontier
Canada, it also turns out, is a good place to be an aerospace company, especially a startup.
“The CSA has been super helpful,” said Mina Mitry, chief executive of Kepler Communications Inc., a Toronto-based startup that wants to provide internet access in outer space.
Mitry founded the company in 2015 with the aspirational goal of building the “infrastructure for space-based connectivity” for “space stations, vehicles, habitats, and other satellites,” according to his website.
In the meantime, the company provides internet access to remote parts of the Earth, such as for scientists in the High Arctic carrying out a climate-change study, by launching small satellites. In 2018, it launched its first satellite, which “was able to demonstrate the highest data rate ever achieved in a nanosatellite,” the company’s website said.
Mitry said Canada is a great place for his company to be headquartered: it has access to a terrific “knowledge base” due to the proximity of local university talent and the Canadian government has invested in research and development and supported trade missions for the young company. More specifically, the CSA helped Kepler secure permission to launch its satellites and navigate regulatory frameworks.
Still, Mitry would like to see the Canadian government update its regulations to recognize the growing role of the private sector in space exploration and to revise its procurement strategy, making it easier for private companies to operate in the space industry.
“Most of the regulation that has been put in place in Canada is based on predominantly government-owned entities,” he said.
Mitry also suggested the CSA might look to NASA for an example of how to improve its procurement mechanisms — how it buys equipment and services from the private sector.
“The U.S. is a great analogy, where there is a really well-known procurement mechanism to help early-stage businesses sell into government,” he said.
Trudeau believes partnering with the U.S. on Lunar Gateway will boost gross domestic product by $100 million annually. Canada’s space sector already employs 10,000 workers and generated $2.3 billion for the economy in 2017, with more than $2.1 billion in export sales, according to figures from the Prime Minister’s Office.
Through Canada’s new space strategy, the government can invest in the “biggest bang for its buck, the biggest social and economic benefits,” said Laporte.
Mitry’s company emerged from the Creative Destruction Lab (CDL), a startup accelerator and incubator based at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. Each year, CDL selects companies in a highly competitive process to receive mentorship, business advice, technical feedback and a chance to bid for investment. Since 2012, CDL has invested in nearly 400 fledgling companies.
Ajay Agrawal, an entrepreneur and professor at Rotman, founded the non-profit CDL in 2012 to solve a problem in commercializing deep science and technology companies.
“There is a lot of research and scientific breakthrough that happens in several parts of the world,” CDL’s associate director Shray Mehra said, but “the commercialization of deep science and technology is concentrated in … (Silicon) Valley.”
The non-profit has since expanded to eight cities in Canada, Europe and the U.S. Entrepreneurs can apply to one of eight streams, which include quantum computing and artificial intelligence.
Another one of those streams is space. In 2018, Hadfield joined the group to launch the space stream, which “brings together astronauts, entrepreneurs, investors, and scientists from fields related to space exploration and transportation, satellite communications,” according to its website.
Hadfield is enthusiastic about the possibilities of CDL, calling it a place “where future ideas are made.”
Last year, 25 startups came through the space program, hoping to replicate the success of Kepler and Waterloo, Ont.-based Skywatch Space Applications Inc. (another satellite data company), both of which flourished under CDL’s watch. Skywatch in early January announced a $10-million Series A financing round.
“I’m very optimistic about the future of space in Canada,” Mehra said. “I’m not saying we don’t have work to do, but I’m hopeful.”
Like Mitry, Mehra thinks Canada is a good place for space business and that the CSA is doing its job.
“They play a significant role, an elevating role. From CDL’s perspective, it’s well-intentioned,” he said.
Outside the startup scene, Canada is also active in shaping the future of space policy.
“Canada is a permanent observer to the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space,” said Zaid Rana of the Space Generation Advisory Council, an international group that advises the United Nations on space policy while representing the global youth voice.
In Canada’s role as current chair of the committee, it recently helped build consensus on an agreement for sustainable approaches to outer space and for tackling the growing amount of space debris orbiting earth from space collisions, explosions and defunct satellites.
“Canada has a pre-eminent position internationally,” Laporte said. “As the chair, we were able to get the UN spacefaring nations to all agree on a sustainable approach to using space.”
The CSA could do a better job of supporting basic sciences and have more consistent funding streams, something Trudeau’s announcement about the Lunar Gateway Project might help with, but industry participants said there’s a lot to be hopeful and excited about.
All Canada has to do is reach out and grab it, maybe with help from Canadarm.