Technology & Science

MDA president dismisses concerns over Radarsat-2 sale

Canada will retain final control over data obtained and sent by Radarsat-2, even if the satellite is sold to a U.S.-based weapons maker, the president of the company that built it said on Tuesday.

Canada will retain final control over data obtained and sent by Radarsat-2, even if the satellite is sold to a U.S.-based weapons maker, the president of the company that built it said on Tuesday.

MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates president and chief executive officer Daniel Friedmann told the Commons industry committee that Canada's licensing agreement with MDA gives the government the ability to deny access to information obtained by the satellite it deems in the national interest.

The committee is holding hearings into MDA's proposed sale of its information and robotics units to U.S.-based Alliant Techsystems (ATK).

"This license provides the government with control over operation of the satellite and the use and distribution of the data received from the satellite. It is important to note that this control is not dependent on corporate nationality of the licensee," Friedmann said.

"I believe the government of Canada has all the necessary powers and authority to ensure that in future it will continue to exercise full control over Radarsat-2."

The proposed $1.3-billion sale involves the divisions behind the Radarsat satellites and the Canadarm technology in use on the U.S. space shuttles and International Space Station.

The possible sale of Canada's largest space robotics manufacturer has attracted national interest over the future of the Canadian space industry, but some are more concerned about putting the Radarsat-2 satellite under the control of a company outside Canada.

Radarsat-2 was launched in December and hailed by government, space and military officials as a tool to protect Canada's sovereignty over the Arctic. The satellite is capable of peering through cloud cover and darkness to detect objects at resolutions of up to three metres.

The proposed sale has attracted enough interest that Minister of Industry Jim Prentice extended the deadline to approve or reject the deal under the Investment Canada Act until April 22.

Rejecting the deal would be an unprecedented move for the ministry. Since 1999, all of the reviews that have been undertaken by ministers of industry under the act have been approved, according to ministry spokesperson Annie Trépanier. The Minister of Cultural Heritage, however, has disallowed three proposals related to cultural industries.

Under the deal between MDA and the government — which contributed $430 million to the project through the Canadian Space Agency — MDA owns the satellite and can generate revenues from commercial contracts with other nations, while federal government departments in turn will be able to access information from the satellite at no cost.

Critics of the sale, including former Canadian Space Agency head Marc Garneau, have called on Prentice to block it, arguing it would hand over taxpayer-funded technology and, in the case of Radarsat-2, give away technology designed to protect Canada's sovereignty.

Friedmann, however, said Canadian taxpayers are getting their money's worth in the form of access to the data at a reasonable rate. He said he believes the government will more than recoup its investment during the lifetime of the satellite, which is expected to last seven to 10 years.

MDA is Canada's largest space technology firm but has decided to focus on its faster-growing information products business, which serves the property market with specialized mapping products.

Friedmann said MDA was limited in its ability to bid on defence contracts because it did not have operations in the U.S.

He said these contracts are essential to the satellite and space robotics units, which he said cannot survive without access to contracts outside Canada.

"There is not enough business in Canada under any government, under any plan," he said.

Earlier Tuesday the committee heard from Canadian Space Agency interim head Guy Bujold, who said the impact of the sale would depend largely on what form the resulting company will take.

Alliant Techsystems Inc. senior vice-president Steven Cortese is expected to appear before the committee when it resumes on Thursday.