Falcon 9 Backlog Delays Canada’s $1B Surveillance Project

The constellation of three satellites will surveil 90 percent of the Earth from orbit, but SpaceX's backlog has delayed the launch.

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Nov 13 2018, 4:40pm

Image: Canadian Space Agency

The launch of a $1 billion Canadian surveillance system that will cover 90 percent of the Earth and identify objects as small as one metre across from orbit, and through cloud cover, has been delayed for a fifth time. The cause of the latest delay, according to the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), is a backlog of launches at Elon Musk’s space exploration company SpaceX.

The RADARSAT Constellation Mission (RCM) will consist of three small satellites working together to surveil the vast majority of the planet in fine-grain detail using synthetic aperture radar, a technique for producing highly accurate images and models. The constellation of satellites will pass over key areas of strategic interest for Canada—like the Arctic—much more often than the existing RADARSAT-2 satellite, which is currently four years past its life expectancy.

The RCM project kicked off in 2004 and has been delayed numerous times, sometimes to due technical failures, and costs have ballooned from its original $600 million budget.

The surveillance satellites were finally slated for a November 2018 launch window but this was pushed back to February 2019 in mid-October.

"SpaceX, the subcontracted launch service provider for RCM, informed the CSA and MDA [the contractor building the satellites] that the launch schedule was affected by higher priority missions of the US Government and a backlog of launches from their Vandenberg facilities," where SpaceX launches Falcon 9 rockets, the CSA told Motherboard in an email. "Therefore, they are not able to support the RCM launch in November as planned."

In 2016, a Falcon 9 rocket exploded, taking a $200 million satellite with it. A launch failure with the RCM satellites would result in years of further delays and hundreds of millions of dollars more in costs, the CBC reported, and the CSA pegs the risk of failure at roughly five percent given SpaceX’s record.

SpaceX has completed 17 rocket flights in 2018 so far, mostly with the Falcon 9 rocket. SpaceX declined to comment on the record for this story.

If the 2019 launch of the RCM satellites succeeds, Canada will have three new sets of eagle eyes in orbit to scan the planet on its behalf.

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Update: This story was first published with the headline "Canada’s $1B Surveillance Project Is Delayed Because a SpaceX Rocket Exploded.” We have since updated the headline and story with a comment from the CSA, which said the cause for the delay was higher priority missions from the US Government and a backlog of launches from their Vandenberg facilities.