Sunday, July 24, 2016

Fun and games with Arctic satellites

It seemed like a straightforward idea for a satellite project.

An article at SpaceNews, Canada eyes $2.4 billion Arctic satellite communications constellation, says that the Department of National Defence (DND) wants to build a communications satellite constellation up north. Everyone’s building satellite constellations now, right? Straightforward. Except it isn’t.

The DND project is a cut-down version of the original concept, the Polar and Communications Weather (PCW) mission.

PCW involved the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), the DND, and Environment Canada. In this plan, 2 satellites would orbit over the North Pole, providing communications and weather forecasting for both the military and the civilian population in the Canadian Arctic.

Recently, Environment Canada pulled out of the PCW project, taking $10 million a year in funding with them. DND didn’t wait long to jump.

According to a DND spokesperson, the projected cost of PCW, $4.5 billion, was too high, and anyway, PCW was only a concept, not a real project.

The SpaceNews article says the DND knew senior government officials saw the constellation as a “key project.” Knowing they had political support, DND suggested an alternative without the civil component for $2.4 billion. Other governments—the United States, Denmark, and Norway—have made verbal commitments to participate and to provide money toward the operating costs.

And the CSA? Well, they probably served their purpose and were no longer needed.

Wait, there’s more. Let's toss in some new information.

An article at Motherboard, How Satellites Will Enable Canada to Surveil the Arctic With Drones, says that the military wants to improve the effectiveness of their Arctic surveillance drones by connecting them to the new satellites. The drones will need new ground stations to communicate with those satellites.

Let's see: $4.5 billion for the original PCW project minus $2.4 billion for the DND's revised satellite project leaves $2.1 billion, enough to pay for a ground station or two.

Keep in mind, the project isn’t funded yet, but then playing with uncommitted money is more fun than the real thing, isn't it?

So a project intended for civil and military use is now 100% military, with nothing on the horizon for the taxpayers in the region.

Arctic residents are unhappy with the decision, as noted in an opinion piece at Nunatsiaq Online, Arctic satellites should serve northerners. They need a new satellite system to improve civil communications and weather forecasting, serious problems affecting businesses and government in the Arctic region.

Now they’re left dangling, along with a number of unanswered questions about why it went this way.

According to the article, the original project was proceeding fine...and suddenly it wasn’t.

DND isn’t unsympathetic to the plight of the locals. A DND spokesperson said, “Ultimately there is a need for a different satellite solution to provide communications coverage of Canada’s domestic interests in the Arctic.” Left unsaid, perhaps, was, “But this one’s ours now, so take off, eh?”

If you want all of the “known” details, read the background information in the article links. Just don't expect to find anything straightforward about this.