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Radarsat-2 was launched last December and hailed by government, space and military officials as a tool to protect Canada's sovereignty over the Arctic.

The Canadian Space Agency on Friday awarded a $40-million contract to MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (MDA) to begin designing the successors to the Radarsat-2 satellite.

The 16-month contract to begin design work on the Radarsat Constellation satellites is the first major announcement for the agency since astronaut Steve MacLean took over as its president and Tony Clement replaced Jim Prentice as federal minister of Industry. But it's an announcement that has been a few years in coming.

The CSA had awarded Richmond, B.C.-based MDA a $7-million contract to start work on the concept of the fleet of three satellites in March, 2006, but hadn't followed up with further funding in 2007 as expected.

Steve Oldham, vice-president and general manager of satellite missions and robotics at MDA, said the funding "took longer than we would have liked" in part because of unstable leadership at the CSA, which before MacLean had one president and two acting presidents in the less than three years after the first contract was awarded.

Space plan announcement on the horizon

The announcement could also be the first of many for the space agency, as MacLean is expected to outline Canada's long-term space plan later this month.

"This announcement takes the project out of limbo," said Andrew Eddy, president of the Montreal-based aerospace think tank Athena Global. "A lot of projects stop at the concept phase and don't go to the design phase. That the government has committed to the design of the project tells me they fully intend to follow through with the mission."

Like Radarsat-1 and Radarsat-2, the three Constellation satellites are designed to function day and night in all weather conditions and will provide complete daily coverage of Canada's land and oceans. They will also be designed to provide resolution of up to three metres, or about the size of an automobile, allowing the satellite to spot smaller fishing vessels.

Unlike Radarsat-2, these satellites are expected to be smaller, lighter and fly in a lower orbit, according to Michel Gamache, the deputy project manager for the Radarsat Constellation project.

While Radarsat-2 had a launch mass of 2,400 kg and was 15 metres in length, the Constellation satellites will be about 1,200 kg and less than 10 metres in length. They will also orbit at a distance of 600 kilometres from Earth, 200 kilometres closer than Radarsat-2.

"One of the goals of the project was to achieve many of the requirements of Radarsat-2 but at a lower cost and smaller scale," said Gamache.

Launch expected in 2014

The first satellite is expected to launch in the spring of 2014, right around the time Radarsat-2 nears the end of its planned life. The following two satellites are expected to launch in the summer of 2015 and fall of 2016. The mission is also designed to accommodate the inclusion of a further three satellites in the future.

"The development of this constellation will support the government in its efforts to assure sustainable development, manage natural resources, and exercise security and sovereignty, especially in the Arctic," said Steve MacLean, president of the Canadian Space Agency, in a statement. "It will also allow Canada to continue to contribute significantly to global disaster management and rescue efforts."

The CSA and MDA have had a strong relationship over the years, with the federal agency awarding numerous contracts to the space robotics and satellite provider, but that relationship became complicated this year when MDA attempted to sell its space and satellite units to U.S. defence contractor Alliant Techsystems Inc.

The proposed $1.3-billion sale sparked national outrage over the loss of taxpayer-funded technology, especially Radarsat-2, which is designed to protect Canada's sovereignty.

Prentice blocked the sale in April after determining the deal was not "of net benefit to Canada."

Radarsat-2, launched in December of 2007, became an issue not only because of its importance to sovereignty, but also because under the previous contract, MDA — and not the Canadian government — actually owned the satellite.

Government will own satellites

The Canadian government, on the other hand, will own the Radarsat Constellation satellites, according to MDA, although Oldham said the deal could be structured to allow MDA the rights to sell excess data commercially.

Eddy said the company and agency are likely to continue their previously strong relationship in part because the two sides need each other.

"If MDA is going to be a player in the space and satellite business, it's going to need the CSA, and I think the CSA recognizes that MDA is an industry leader and wants to ensure that they remain competitive," he said.

Oldham said MDA would like to continue work in the area of space exploration — where the company gained a reputation building robotics such as the space shuttle Canadarm and space station Canadarm 2. But he said contracts in that field come from governments, and so far Canada hasn't made a commitment to a space program, he said.

"We're hoping Steve MacLean and the agency will come with a long-term vision that says, yes, we want to be involved in future space initiatives," said Oldham.