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Canada’s key satellite system hit with another launch delay

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Canada’s showpiece satellite project has been hit with another launch delay, five years after the first of three spacecraft was scheduled for orbit.

The RADARSAT Constellation Mission (RCM) is now set to be launched from a California air force base sometime between Feb. 18 and Feb. 24, 2019. It’s the fifth such delay since the $1 billion project was hit with technical troubles and other problems.

The mission follows RADARSAT-1 (1995-2012) and RADARSAT-2 (2007-present), pioneering Canadian satellite projects that use synthetic aperture radar to observe the Earth’s surface in fine detail, even through cloud cover and bad weather.

Technicians put the final touches on the second of three Radarsat Constellation Mission satellites at the MDA facility Thursday, June 21, 2018 in Montreal. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

The RCM, a project first proposed to the federal cabinet in 2004, will use three identical satellites in polar orbits to provide coverage of 90 per cent of the planet, with the ability to show objects as small as one metre across. Their images will help safeguard the sovereignty of Canadian coastlines and the North, among other benefits.

But getting the project off the ground — literally — has been a challenge.

It was finally green-lit by cabinet in 2008, with a $600 million budget. The price tag quickly escalated and the initial launch date of 2014 for the first of the three satellites was pushed back.

A fixed-price $706 million contract was signed in 2013 with MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (now MDA, a unit of U.S.-based Maxar Technologies) to build, assemble, launch and operate the trio of satellites for the first year.

Owned by government

The contract, drawing on MDA’s success with the first two RADARSATs, specified a launch date of July 17, 2018. MDA owns and operates RADARSAT-2, but the new RCM will be owned by the government of Canada, feeding surveillance data to the Canadian Forces and a dozen other government departments.

New costs are being picked up by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), adding another $300 million to the package, which has pushed the total cost to more than a billion dollars.

The current plan has the three identical satellites being launched together on a Falcon 9 rocket, built by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, with a Swedish-built “dispenser” inserting them into orbits that will have the satellites circling the Earth roughly once every 90 minutes.

But thermal-vacuum testing in Montreal of the three MDA-delivered satellites late in 2017 showed a problem with No. 2.

“Such testing of the RCM satellite at the CSA’s laboratory identified a problem with components – in one of the satellites – which send the data acquired by the satellite to the ground,” says an internal document, obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act.

“The failed components were removed from the satellite and returned to MDA’s supplier in Germany in early December.”

Launch failure ‘would results in major schedule delays (years) and a cost of $600 million or more’– Internal Canadian Space Agency report on the delayed RADARSAT Constellation Mission

Space Agency spokesperson Audrey Barbier said the faulty component was fixed, tested and reinstalled, and a new launch date at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California was set for sometime between Oct. 30 and Nov. 29, 2018.

But SpaceX saw one of its Falcon 9 rockets explode after launch in June 2015, triggering a delay and a growing backlog for launches since then. The corporation now says a Falcon 9 won’t be able to get the RCM into orbit until sometime between Feb. 18 and Feb. 24, 2019.

The mission will then require another three to six months to make the satellites operational.

The delay, according to an internal government document, means the Canadian Space Agency will need to rely on less-comprehensive RADARSAT-2 data from MDA for much longer than expected, pushing the budget for that data to over $500 million, up from the original $446 million.

The design lifespan of RADARSAT-2 was seven years, and the spacecraft now is almost four years beyond its life expectancy, although it’s still functional.

Another disaster with a Falcon 9 rocket, or a failure of the system that inserts the satellites into their 600-kilometre-high orbits, would be costly for the Canadian government.

No insurance

Ottawa has only once taken out insurance on a launch of Canadian space hardware — $80 million for RADARSAT-1 — and will have to eat any losses if the RCM project fails after liftoff.

The agency pegs the risk of failure at 5.5 per cent, given SpaceX’s record to date, but the consequences would be severe for the project.

“Would result in major schedule delays (years) and a cost of $600 millions or more to build and launch three replacement spacecraft and/or acquire substitute data, if such data would be available,” says a March 2018 briefing package on the risks, obtained under the Access to Information Act.

“Rebuilding would require at least 3 more, likely 4 years.”

An illustration of the Radarsat-2 satellite orbiting the Earth. The satellite was designed to last seven years but is approaching its 11th year in space. Its imaging will be needed to fill in the gap caused by the delayed launch of the RADARSAT Constellation Mission.

Barbier confirmed those numbers are still valid, adding that the “knowledge and expertise gained while building the constellation would most certainly alleviate the process, and the infrastructure built to support the 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 personnel — to rise because of the recent delays.

The new satellites are each designed to have a service life of seven years.

Follow @DeanBeeby on Twitter

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The ‘Maple Majestic’ wants to be Canada’s homegrown Tesla

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Look out Tesla, Canada has a homegrown electric sedan on the way. Well, that’s if AK International Motor Corporation can drum up enough investment to make its EV a reality. Dubbed the “Maple Majestic,” the vehicle is a battery-electric designed to “excel in extreme climate performance without adversely affecting the climate, as befits a vehicle from Canada,” according to its website.

What’s in a name? — The company says the maple leaf is a “symbol of Canada’s warmth and friendliness towards all cultures,” while “majestic” refers to the country’s “status as a Constitutional Monarchy.”

That patriotism carries over into Maple Majestic’s parent company’s lofty goals. AK Motor founder Arkadiusz Kaminski says he wants the company, which he founded in 2012, to become “Canada’s first multi-brand automotive OEM,” and that the “Maple Majestic is intended to be Canada’s flagship brand of automobiles on the world stage.”

Partnerships are key — “We acknowledge that the best chance for the Maple Majestic brand to succeed, lies in continuing to build the relationship with Canada’s parts suppliers and technological innovators, whether they be academic institutions, corporations, or individual inventors,” the company explains. “We are currently seeking partners in automotive engineering, parts manufacturing, automotive assembly, electric propulsion technology, battery technology, autonomous technology, and hybrid power generation technology.”

In other words, don’t expect to be able to buy a Maple Majestic any time soon… and don’t expect to pour over 0-60 mph times, power output, range, or other key stats, because those don’t currently exist. For now, all we have are pictures and a short video clip. But at least those are arresting.

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PE-backed Quorum Software to merge with Canadian energy tech firm

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Houston-based energy technology company Quorum Software will merge with a Canadian tech firm to bolster its presence in oil and gas services.

Quorum announced Feb. 15 it plans to merge with Calgary, Alberta-based Aucerna, a global provider of planning, execution and reserves software for the energy sector. The combined firm will operate under the Quorum Software brand.

Gene Austin, CEO of Quorum Software, will continue in his capacity as chief executive of the combined firm. Austin, former CEO of Austin-based marketing tech firm Bazaarvoice Inc., became CEO of Quorum in December 2018.

Aucerna co-founder and CEO Wayne Sim will be appointed to the Quorum Software board of directors. Both companies are backed by San Francisco- and Chicago-based private equity firm Thoma Bravo.

“Over the last 20 years, Quorum has become the leading innovator of software deployed by North American energy companies,” said Austin. “Today, Quorum is expanding the scope of our technology and expertise to all energy-producing regions of the globe. Customers everywhere will have access to a cloud technology ecosystem that connects decision-ready data from operations to the boardroom.”

In addition to the merger announcement, Quorum Software announced it had entered into an agreement with Finnish IT firm TietoEvry to purchase TietoEvry’s entire oil and gas business. The agreement, which includes hydrocarbon management, personnel and material logistics software and related services, is valued at 155 million euros, or $188 million, according to a statement from TietoEvry.

“Our three organizations complement each other — from the software that our great people design to the energy markets where we operate,” said Sim. “Our new company will be able to deliver value to our stakeholders, while accelerating the growth of our combined business and the energy industry’s software transformation.”

The combined company will serve over 1,800 energy companies in 55 countries, according to the announcement. With its headquarters in Houston, Quorum will continue to have a significant presence in Calgary and in Norway, the headquarters for TietoEvry’s oil and gas software business. Quorum will have other offices throughout North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

As of Sept. 30, 2020, private equity firm Thoma Bravo had more than $73 billion in assets under management. In late December 2020, Thoma Bravo agreed to acquire Richardson, Texas-based tech firm RealPage in a roughly $10 billion acquisition.

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Piece of Kitchener technology lands on Mars on Perseverance rover

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KITCHENER — A piece of Kitchener technology has landed on Mars, thanks to NASA’s Perseverance rover.

The rover settled on the planet’s surface on Thursday afternoon. It’s been travelling through space since it was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. in July.

“The whole idea of being on a device that we’re sending to another plant with the express mission of looking for traces of past life, it’s pretty mind boggling actually,” said Rafal Pawluczyk, chief technical officer for FiberTech Optica.

The Kitchener-based company made fibre optic cables for the rover’s SuperCam that will examine samples with a camera, laser and spectrometers.

“The cables that we built take the light from that multiplexer and deliver it to each spectrograph,” Pawluczyk said.

The cables connect a device on the rover to the SuperCam, which will be used to examine rock and soil samples, to spectrometers. They’ll relay information from one device to another.

The project started four years ago with a connection to Los Alamos National Lab, where the instruments connected to the cables were developed.

“We could actually demonstrate we can design something that will meet their really hard engineering requirements,” Pawluczyk said.

The Jezero Crater is where the Perseverance rover, with FiberTech Optica’s technology onboard, landed Thursday. Scientists believe it was once flooded with water and is the best bet for finding any evidence of life. FiberTech’s cables will help that in that search.

Ioannis Haranas, an astrophysicist and professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said the rover isn’t looking for “green men.”

“They’re looking for microbial, single-cell life, any type of fossils and stuff like that,” Haranas said. “That’s why they chose a special landing site. This could be very fertile land for that.”

“It’s very ambitious,” said Ralf Gellert, a physics professor at the University of Guelph.

Gellert helped with previous rover missions and said it’s the first time a Mars rover has landed without a piece of Guelph technology on it. While he’s not part of Perseverance’s mission, he said the possibilities are exciting.

“Every new landing site is a new piece of the puzzle that you can put together with the new results that we have from the other landing sites,” he said.

“It’s scientifically very interesting because, even though we don’t have an instrument on that rover, we can compare what the new rover Perseverance finds at this new landing site,” he said.

Now that Perseverance has landed on Mars, FiberTech is looking ahead to its next possible mission into space.

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