It’s hard to make things work in space, and even harder to make money there.
With a long history in the space industry and a handful of healthy companies, Canadians are good at both. But industry executives and experts say the country needs a boost to maintain an edge in a sector poised to soar.
“We have a lot more experience with companies making their way into space than many countries,” said Iain Christie, a longtime space executive and analyst.
“(But) we’re still dining on the work that was done 20 years ago.”
Until about a decade ago, space was a place for government programs and large armies. The costs were too high for other players.
But factors such as miniaturization and the availability of off-the-shelf technologies have dramatically reduced these costs. The same goes for the entry of private launch companies.
In 2000, putting a satellite into orbit cost $25,000 per kilogram. Now, depending on the rocket carrying the payload, it could be as little as $4,000.
“The cost of technology and the cost of launch have gone down,” Christie said.
It created opportunities.
In 2011, Stéphane Germain realized that growing concerns about greenhouse gas emissions would create a demand to measure them, which can best be done from space. Today, his company GHGSat has six satellites in orbit, with four more planned over the next year. They are able to measure gases such as methane with unprecedented resolution for emitting companies and investors wishing to quantify their risk.
“Miniaturization got to the point where you could do something useful with a very small satellite,” Germain said. “We were looking for this opportunity (and) it ended up being GHG emissions.”
It is an aspect of the spatial economy. Another is building infrastructure.
In November, Canadensys Aerospace Corporation announced that it would build a lunar rover for NASA’s next lunar mission. A few weeks earlier, MDA Ltd., which also operates satellites, announced the second sale of its Canadarm technology to a company building a private space station.
The significance of these sales goes well beyond their monetary value, said MDA CEO Mike Greenley. They put Canada where the puck is going.
“There are opportunities to invest in lunar infrastructure,” Greenley said — communications networks, electric vehicles and even space mining.
“There is a combination of new areas.”
Canada’s long history in space — it was the third country to launch a satellite — has also given it recognized expertise in techniques such as Synthetic Aperture Radar, which allows satellites to look through clouds or night with amazing precision.
All of this adds up to an industry worth about $5.5 billion a year that employs about 23,000 highly skilled Canadians, according to the latest report from the Canadian Space Agency.
But this is only a small slice of the global pie.
European research agency Euroconsult has pegged the total value of the space economy – rocket launchers, satellite communications and Earth observation – at around $500 billion in 2021. By 2030, Euroconsult says it will reach 860 billion dollars.
If Canada wants a slice, it will have to sharpen its knife, said Ryan Anderson of the Canadian Space Society, a grassroots organization that promotes space and space education.
“Canada has lost its step in terms of market share,” he said. “We are victims of our own success.
While the country’s space economy is good at spawning promising startups, not enough of them are finding ways to scale, Anderson said. It is the fault of the government and the investment community, he said.
“Canada is not as brave or risky as other investment pools,” Anderson said.
“Canada is starting to fall a little behind.
Greenley said that when the International Space Station was the big game in town, five space agencies were involved. Now, he said, 21 countries are participating in NASA’s Artemis program to the Moon.
He cites the Euroconsult report which concludes that Canada’s share of the global space budget is half of what it was before.
“A lot of countries want to participate,” he said. “We have to keep pace with the rest of the world.”
Countries like the United States and the United Kingdom have a high-level body to ensure that the interests of the space economy remain at the forefront. Many Canadian industry members say this country needs the same thing.
“Someone needs to get the key decision makers in Ottawa to understand the importance of space,” Greenley said. “At the end of the day, it’s a business environment, but the government has a role to play.”
Christie said the federal government needs to take a much more coherent interest in space. Canada must go beyond funding individual projects and develop a comprehensive plan for the industry.
“The federal government doesn’t invest as much in the space industry as it gets in return,” he said. “Canadian support for space is well in the middle of the pack.
After all, he says, there is a tradition to uphold. Canada has been a leader in space for decades.
“We should be spending a lot more time on a hard-won position.”
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on December 11, 2022.
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