Technology & Science

U.S. arms maker says it bought Radarsat-2 with eye on future satellites

The U.S. weapons maker seeking to purchase a high-tech satellite designed to guard Canadian sovereignty said it plans to use the technology to build a fleet of similar satellites.

The U.S. weapons maker seeking to purchase a high-tech satellite designed to guard Canadian sovereignty said it plans to use the technology to build a fleet of similar satellites.

Steve Cortese, the Washington vice-president for Alliant Techsystems told a House of Commons committee that while Canadian government control over the Radarsat-2 is guaranteed under the country's agreement with MDA, the next generation of the satellites wouldn't be bound to the same guarantees.

The comments, toward the end of a two-hour session of the standing committee on industry, science and technology, raised the issue that even if the Canadian government maintains control over Radarsat-2 imagery, it might lose command of that technology when the satellite expires in seven to 10 years.

The proposed $1.3 billion sale of Richmond, B.C.-based MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates — the company behind the Radarsat satellites and the Canadarm technology — has attracted national interest over the future of the Canadian space industry, with criticism of the proposed sale focusing on handing control of the Radarsat-2 satellite to 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 bulk of questioning during Thursday's committee hearing focused on whether Canada or the U.S. would have final control over Radarsat-2 data.

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.

Canadian Auto Workers legal counsel Steven Shrybman and International Space University faculty member Lucy Stojak, appearing before the committee earlier Thursday, both raised concerns that regulations related to the 1992 U.S. Land Remote Sensing Policy Act would override any agreement between MDA and the government of Canada once the MDA units in question were bought by a U.S. firm.

But when asked about those regulations, Cortese and ATK Space Systems president Carl Marchetto said they believed the MDA-government of Canada agreement would still take precedence.

It also did not appear to satisfy the members of the bipartisan committee, who repeatedly asked the executives to clarify the question Conservative committee chairman James Rajotte said was a central concern to the proposed $1.3-billion sale.

On Tuesday, the committee agreed to call Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier to appear before them to clarify the legal issue over what agreements between Canada and the U.S. would govern control of the satellite.

In January, MDA announced it was selling the divisions behind the Radarsat satellites and the Canadarm technology in use on U.S. space shuttles and the International Space Station to ATK. MDA shareholders overwhelmingly approved the deal in March.

Critics of the sale, including former Canadian Space Agency head Marc Garneau, have called on Industry Minister Jim 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.

Prentice extended the deadline to approve or reject the deal under the Investment Canada Act until April 21. Since 1999, all of the reviews that have been undertaken by ministers of industry under the act have been approved.