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MDA’s technology would have saved the Titanic

By Lorraine Graves

Published 11:59 PDT, Wed June 26, 2019

Last Updated: 2:12 PDT, Wed May 12, 2021

With a roar of flame and blasting sound, the RADARSAT Constellation Mission successfully launched June 12. This Canadian Space Agency array of three radar satellites created, designed and built by Richmond’s MDA, will circle the globe daily with special attention played to the Canadian Arctic.

With a roar of flame and blasting sound, the RADARSAT Constellation Mission successfully launched June 12. This Canadian Space Agency array of three radar satellites created, designed and built by Richmond’s MDA, will circle the globe daily with special attention played to the Canadian Arctic.

“It’s exciting, a historic moment for Canada. I feel a lot of pride being part of it, ”says MDA president Mike Greenley.

He says the culmination of this 15-year project now “gives Canada the ability to monitor over 90 per cent of earth’s surface at least once a day.”

We use satellites in everyday life. Greenley says that every time we use our phones to navigate, to find a friend or a nearby store, we are using satellite information. In fact, he says, data from low earth orbit adds quality to our lives everyday in many unseen ways.

Naming just one aspect of these new satellites’ information, he says, “Ice floes are changing all the time. RADARSAT data is used for tracking pack ice and in providing navigation data for ships at sea.”

Able to spot objects the size of a small shipping container, had RADARSAT Constellation’s information been available to the Titanic, the luxury ship could have steered around both the deadly iceberg and the entire ice field it was steaming towards. Not knowing where the icebergs were cost 1,517 people their lives.

Hoping to save Canadian and international shipping from a similar fate, the three satellites cut a wide swath, orbiting in tandem to send information back to the main ground station in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, along with receiving stations in Prince Albert SK, and Gatineau PQ. From there, data is disseminated around the world.

Not only for spotting ships and icebergs, the RADARSAT constellation also keeps an eye on agriculture and disasters.

With computer scientists able to massage the data to show before and after pictures superimposed, searchers can find inundated villages, plan escape routes and guide post-disaster aid.

“Earth observation satellites like (these) are all used for daily imaging of the earth and to be able to make calculations and detect and track change in the earth’s surface,” says Greenley.

Now that countries with no land in the arctic are claiming sovereignty, these satellites can monitor ships in Canadian waters without having to confront them directly.

Durable hardware and electronics in space are nothing new to Canadians. The Canadarm, also an MDA project, was first tested on the space shuttle in 1981. The remote manipulator, Canadarm 2, on the International Space Station continues to function well 18 years after its first installation.

So too the RADARSAT program.

Launched 24 years ago, “RADARSAT-1 is no longer operational. It had a design life of five years. It lasted 17 years and worked well. MDA’s RADARSAT-2 is currently operational. It had a design life of seven years and we are now five years past that and it continues to operate very well. All measurements and diagnostics suggest many more years of solid operational service,” says Greenley.

Offering six times the information of MDA’s RADARSAT-2, and with greater finesse, this set of three leading edge satellites can warn of impending environmental disasters as well.

“We can detect millimetre to centimetre level changes in the earth’s elevation,” he says.

Greenley says it supports a number of tasks including tracking changes to permafrost, the frozen base of arctic land upon which many things rely. Climate change is wreaking havoc upon the artic and the peoples living there.

“The arctic has a high revisit rate for this RADARSAT constellation. It gives us the ability to image activity in the arctic ice and permafrost which is a key activity on the environmental side of radar satellites.”

Also on the environmental side, Greenley says the satellites will be able to see and find sources of illegal dumping as well as illegal ships.

“They allow us to take large swaths of ocean and detect ships. The radar used on ships, we can detect. We can also identify ships without beacons to investigate them further. We also have the ability to track large size debris in the ocean. We can help diagnose oil slicks and flows.”

The radar satellites also look to the land for information on forests, agriculture, mining, exploration and landslides.

The newest satellites also look to be built to last, offering Canadians and the world, high tech data for years to come.

Using radar instead of light means images can be gathered at every hour of the day through any weather. Even their launch took place on a foggy day, presaging their useful life in space.

Greenley sums it up: “This extends Canada’s legacy in earth observation with our third generation of RADARSAT.”

And with 125 firms contracted over seven provinces to support MDA in this project, hundreds to thousands of jobs have been created and sustained according to Greenley.

Of the launch, Greenley says, “It’s a big moment. It’s a tremendous source of pride, to have all the people across MDA and what they’ve accomplished, a Richmond-led program to design, build and deliver.”

In 1969 John MacDonald and Vern Dettwiler founded MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates, now shortened to MDA, to keep high tech jobs in Canada.

Speaking of today’s Richmond-based company, Greenley says, “Certainly they succeeded. When John and Vern created MDA 50 years ago, engineers in BC stayed in BC and Richmond. With this launch, hundreds of employees at MDA, with the main project offices in Richmond, it’s another testament to the success of their original plan.”

Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie says, “Richmond is recognized as an international hub for aerospace technology, with some of the world leaders in the industry based right here.  MDA has long been at the forefront of this field, which creates hundreds of local jobs and spurs significant investment and spending here in Richmond.”

Local MLA Linda Reid says, “MDA continues to lead the world and will always brighten the light where they stand.”

Speaking of Dettwiler and MacDonald’s original plan Greenley says, “They definitely overachieved in their ability to create a company that retains and develops engineering talent in Canada.”

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