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RADARSAT Constellation Makes It to Orbit

By James Careless

Liftoff! On June 12, 2019 at 7:17 am PT, the Canadian Space Agency’s (CSA) three RADARSAT Constellation Mission (RCM) satellites were successfully launched from Vanderberg Air Force Base in California. Mounted atop a reused SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, the trio of MDA-built satellites will provide the CSA with unprecedented Earth observational capabilities. The RCM trio will ultimately replace the CSA’s RADARSAT-2 satellite, which was launched in 2007. They are currently undergoing a series of in-orbit manoeuvres and tests, before entering service later this year.

The RCM launch was a triumph for prime contractor MDA (a Maxar company), which also built RADARSAT-2. (RADARSAT-1, CSA’s initial Earth observation satellite in the series, was launched in 1995 and served until 2013.) Each RCM satellite orbits once every 96 minutes at al altitude of 600 km above the Earth’s surface.

“For everybody in Canada, it’s certainly a proud moment,” said Mike Greenley, MDA’s Group President. “It’s Canada’s third generation of radar satellites. It’s a very powerful constellation — three satellites working together in one constellation – enabling us to have Earth observation data of over 90 percent of Earth’s surface once a day. This is a very powerful tool for the Government of Canada for security, sovereignty and environmental protection.”

Designed to work as a orbital satellite ‘tag team’, each RCM satellite is equipped with a Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) sensor integrated with an Automated Identification System AIS sensor. (The use of SAR allows the RCM’s sensor to see through cloud cover and darkness.)

As one RCM satellite moves away from an area, the next one follows up to take its place. Thanks to the power of three, the RCM satellites can provide much more coverage than was possible with the solitary RADARSAT-1 and RADARSAT-2.

According to MDA, RCM will give the Canadian government enhanced surveillance, monitoring and management capabilities with respect to Canada’s coastal and Arctic regions, fisheries, icy waterways, agricultural lands, natural resources, climate and ecosystems. RCM can also support operational defence capabilities and global disaster relief efforts.

The CSA website (www.asc-csa.gc.ca) says the RCM will be able to shoot about 250,000 Earth observation images annually, which is “50 times more than the first generation of RADARSAT.”

The same website also reports that at 1,430 kg apiece, each RCM satellite’s mass is “like a black rhino”

Looking ahead, MDA has its sights firmly locked onto NASA’s Lunar Gateway space station, which will be assembled in Moon orbit. Drawing on its Canadarm experience, MDA is a frontrunner to build the ‘Canadarm 3′ robotic arm on Lunar Gateway.

According to Greenley, recent plans by the White House to move a manned Moon landing up from 2029 to 2024 – a move that could take resources away from the Lunar Gateway project – shouldn’t affect the Canadarm 3 project. “The need for robotics in the 2024 timeframe continues to exist,” he told CDR. “NASA has been public about that. They want to see robotics up on Lunar Gateway as soon as possible.”

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