Radarsat-2: Launched and Lost?

Tasneem Jamal

Jessica West

The Plougshares Monitor Spring 2008 Volume 29 Issue 1

On December 14, 2007, one of the “world’s most advanced” commercial Earth observation satellites was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket. After almost a decade of design, construction, and delays, not to mention $445-million in public investment, Canada’s long-anticipated Radarsat-2 was positioning itself to provide images of Earth to customers around the world using synthetic aperture radar (SAR).

Three weeks after the launch, it was announced that the satellite’s owner, MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates (MDA), had sold the space side of its business to US weapons manufacturer Alliant Techsystems Inc. (ATK) for $1.325-billion. This purchase followed ATK’s purchase of Swales Aerospace in 2007, reinforcing the “space systems” component of its longstanding identity as an “advanced weapon and space systems company” (ATK 2008). MDA’s former space business will now be part of a new business unit called ATK Space Systems.

The pending sale of MDA’s space unit, perhaps best known for taking over production of the famed Canadarm on the US Space Shuttle, has garnered some negative reactions. Former Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy has demanded a stop to the sale on the basis that ATK makes landmines. He has been joined by several MDA engineers, who have quit rather than work for an American weapons manufacturer. Others fear that the sale means that the technology will now be used by the US military in waging war, although, in fact, the US Department of Defense, along with many other NATO allies, were lined up as key clients prior to the sale. And some worry about the integrity of Canada’s national security or accuse the government of an inadequate space policy and making a gift of public monies to US interests. However, an examination of the current situation reveals that all we can be certain of is uncertainty.

Since the announcement of the sale of MDA, not many details have surfaced about the future of the company or of the Radarsat program in particular, leaving both the public and the government with many unknowns. To be sure, as of mid-March the sale is not a done deal. MDA shareholders have yet to vote on it and a Canadian government review process is ongoing. The Radarsat-2 satellite is operating in orbit, and the government is receiving its data via ground stations formerly owned by MDA. According to both MDA and ATK, the company and its operations will remain in Canada. So, the current situation might not change.

This sort of business relationship is not entirely new for Canada. MDA was a subsidiary of the US company Orbital Sciences when the original Radarsat-2 partnership was established in 1998, before it was sold back to Canadian ownership in 2000. It remains to be seen if ATK Space Systems will maintain its new Canadian subsidiary or move it to the US. The question also remains of whether or not the sale to ATK will have implications for Canadian access to Radarsat images.

While the immediate aftermath of the sale of MDA’s space business and Radarsat-2 seems to reflect business as usual, it leaves us with lingering questions about the future of Canada’s participation in space.

The all-purpose satellite

The Radarsat project “was born out [of] the need for effective monitoring of Canada’s icy waters” (Canada Space Agency 2007). Through project Polar Epsilon, data from the satellite will be made available to the Canadian Forces, providing a critical resource. This data supports surveillance of the Arctic, maritime approaches, and other areas in the world where the Forces might be engaged. The satellite also carries an experimental ground movement target identification (GMTI) sensor that is part of a Department of National Defence project to develop and test the integration of space-based GMTI with SAR observation capabilities.1 Users can classify and track objects such as ships and other large vehicles.

Although Radarsat-2 clearly supports terrestrial military activities, it is also representative of the civilianization and commercialization of space applications. For every military use there are several more civilian and commercial uses. As one of the most advanced SAR Earth observation satellites launched to date, Radarsat-2 provides a powerful tool for all users.

In the parlance of arms control, Earth observation satellites are first among equals in the world of dual-use space applications. Unlike photographic and other optical imaging capabilities, SAR captures high resolution Earth images, free of the constraints of darkness, cloud cover, or even ice. Radarsat-2 is able to “see” objects and details on Earth’s terrain that are as small as three metres in diameter.

And because it provides daily coverage of northern regions, it can continually monitor details in these regions. So, Radarsat-2 has many scientific, civilian, security, and military applications. It can be used in ice monitoring, disaster management, hydrology, mapping, geology, agriculture, and forestry, as well as surveillance.

Like GPS before it, Earth imaging is a military technology that has been overtaken by other uses and has become indispensable to civilians. The broad application of such dual-use technologies reinforces the need for sustainable access to space and increases the potential collateral damage if space were to be weaponized. The uncertainties surrounding the sale of MDA’s space business and the Radarsat program extend to these two key areas of space policy, highlighting the need to reflect on future directions.

Canadian access to space

Space applications such as Earth observation, communications, and navigation play a crucial role in civilian, military, and commercial sectors in Canada, as in many other countries. The sale of MDA and Radarsat-2 raises old questions about how the Canadian government will ensure that Canadians can access and use space on a sustainable basis. The major space powers have developed independent launch capabilities and supported national industries that provide space technologies. Canada long ago passed up independent physical access to space in favour of the affordable launch services offered by others. As access to Canadian-based space technologies is potentially threatened, we must ask if Canada needs this capacity, or if it can confidently secure the access and applications it needs from the private sector or allies.

Potential connections with weapons and BMD

The purchase of MDA by ATK also raises the controversial issue of ballistic missile defence (BMD) and the weaponization of space, not because Radarsat-2 is somehow linked to BMD, but because ATK most certainly is, specializing in rocketry, including rockets for the Ground-based Midcourse Defense portion of BMD and for intercontinental ballistic missiles. And now ATK may own MDA’s space-based radar systems, space robotics, satellite systems, and imaging satellite ground stations and processing capabilities.

In the future, what were formerly MDA’s advanced space capabilities could become entwined with BMD, particularly with the door open for this Canadian subsidiary to work on large, classified US projects. Moreover, Canadian funding is likely to flow to the new ATK Space Systems, particularly if it maintains MDA’s former operations in Canada. The Canadian government has existing contracts with what was MDA’s space sector to build Sapphire, Canada’s contribution to US space situational awareness capabilities, as well as three smaller remote sensing satellites to complement and enhance Radarsat-2.

This relationship does not mean that current or future Canadian space projects will be linked to US weapons programs. But because both money and technology are fungible, the question can be raised about whether or not there is a line between an explicit and implicit relationship to an activity, and if so, where that line lies. With the sale of MDA’s space systems, including Radarsat-2, pending, uncertainties arise about Canada’s independent access to space technology and its future relationship to BMD and potential space weapons. The raising of these questions now offers an important opportunity to reflect on Canadian space policy and to reconfirm a commitment to sustainable access to and use of space, including non-weaponization, so that satellites such as Radarsat-2 can continue to serve a broad public.

Satellites take on lives of their own in orbit, circling the Earth and sending down their signals without concern for the geopolitics below. So, while Radarsat may soon no longer belong to Canada (or rather to a Canadian company), it continues to operate as it did. The potential sale of MDA’s space division does, however, raise questions about the future of Canada’s access to independent space technology and its relationship to BMD and the non-weaponization of space.



In 2007 Germany and Italy also launched the satellites TerraSar-X and CosmosSkymed to help develop this technology.


Alliant Techsystems Inc. [ATK]. 2008.

Canada Space Agency. 2007. Applications.

MacDonald, Dettwiler & Assoc. Ltd. 2008. Backgrounder.

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