Launch delayed again for showcase Canadian satellite system

There's been another delay for the troubled Radarsat Constellation Mission program, a $1-billion showcase project for the Canadian Space Agency. This sixth delay is the result of a faulty Falcon 9 first-stage booster built by SpaceX that failed to land properly in Florida. Officials say there's no new date scheduled yet.

Booster problem following Dec. 5 SpaceX launch postpones $1 billion Canadian satellite program

A used Falcon 9 first-stage rocket booster, in a hangar at Cape Canaveral, Fla., in 2016. A more modern version of this booster failed to touch down on land Dec. 5, 2018, delaying its re-use for the launch of a Canadian satellite system. (SpaceX/Associated Press)

Canada's $1-billion showcase satellite system remains stuck on the ground after the scrubbing of a planned launch next month.

A three-satellite package, known as the Radarsat Constellation Mission (RCM), was supposed roar into orbit from a California launch pad sometime between Feb. 18 and 24.

But a problem with a SpaceX booster rocket has postponed the launch indefinitely — the sixth delay to hit a project beset by technical and budget problems.

MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates built the Radarsat Constellation Mission (RCM) satellites for $705 million. The company has since been absorbed by U.S.-based Maxar Technologies. (Richard Lam/Canadian Press )

On Dec. 5, the Falcon 9 first-stage rocket booster successfully launched an unmanned cargo capsule from Florida, bound for the International Space Station.

The booster was supposed to make a soft, upright landing on the ground at Cape Canaveral eight minutes after launch. But SpaceX founder Elon Musk said a hydraulic pump failed, which affected a fin used to steer the booster, causing it to land in the sea just offshore.

That first-stage booster had been slated to be recycled for the February launch of the RCM satellite package from the Vandenberg Air Force Base, in California.

This delay is not expected to increase project costs ...- Spokesperson for Canadian Space Agency

"Unfortunately, the landing of the rocket was unsuccessful, preventing SpaceX from recuperating the reusable components for the launch of RCM," said Audrey Barbier, spokesperson for the Canadian Space Agency, which is responsible for the satellites.

"We continue to work closely with MDA [MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd., the satellite manufacturer] and SpaceX to confirm a launch date for RCM. This delay is not expected to increase the project costs for RCM."

MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) is the Vancouver-based firm that built the Canadarm and the first Radarsat satellites, which use synthetic aperture radar to capture fine images of the Earth's surface, even through clouds and fog. MDA owns and operates Radarsat 2, but the new Radarsat Constellation Mission will be owned by the Canadian government.

The Radarsat Constellation Mission will use a trio of Radarsats, launched together, to cover about 90 per cent of the Earth's surface, providing detailed images to help safeguard Canada's coastlines and the North.

MDA has since been absorbed by the U.S.-based firm Maxar Technologies, which was hit with a setback when its WorldView-4 earth observation satellite failed slightly more than two years after launch in November 2016. Maxar's stock plunged after the Jan. 7 announcement, as the loss will severely curtail revenue.

The Radarsat Constellation Mission, Canada's premiere space project, has missed a series of launch dates. The MDA fixed-price contract in 2013, for $706 million, called for a July 17, 2018, launch by a SpaceX Falcon 9.

Explosive failure

But the explosive failure of a Falcon 9 rocket in June 2015 had a ripple effect on launch schedules, pushing dates forward.

And MDA discovered a fault in one of the three Radarsats in late 2017, requiring repairs in Germany and another launch postponement.

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, tweeted that a hydraulic problem with the Falcon 9 booster rocket caused its unexpected landing in the sea. (Kyle Grillot/Reuters)

In 2008, cabinet approved a $600-million budget for the project. Costs have since topped $1 billion, with the Canadian Space Agency adding $300 million, apart from MDA's $706-million contract.

The agency has not taken out any insurance to cover a failed launch, and estimates it would cost $600 million or more over at least three years to replace the three satellites should they be destroyed or rendered unusable in orbit.

Follow @DeanBeeby on Twitter


Dean Beeby

Senior reporter, Parliamentary Bureau

Dean Beeby is a CBC journalist, author and specialist in freedom-of-information laws. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanBeeby