Arctic satellite ground station caught up in bureaucratic delays

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More than a year and a half ago, Kongsberg Satellite Services (KSAT) built five new satellite receivers in Inuvik, in northwest Canada, as part of a contract with the European Space Agency (ESA). The ground station has remained untouched since 2016.

Norway’s Kongsberg Satellite Services (KSAT) and American satellite company Planet Lab spent millions to build the Inuvik installations, that include one large antenna installation costing $6.0 million and four smaller installations costing around $8.0 million in total.

KSAT has now been waiting for almost 18 months for Ottawa to grant a license the company expected would take around 180 days. “We’re quite frustrated with the pace of the Canadian bureaucracy,” said Rolf Skatteboe, president of KSAT, reports CTV News.

Inuvik is on the northern tip of N.W.T. and is considered a prime location for receiving stations for Earth observation satellites (EOS). As a matter of fact, the federal government built the first receiving station in Inuvik in the mid-2000s for its own EOS, RADARSAT.

However, since that time, these satellites have become privatized. According to PixAlytics, there were 1 738 operational satellites in orbit around the Earth at the end of August 2017, and 620 have a main purpose of either EO or Earth Science.

PixAlytics’ data shows that 44.6 percent of the satellites belonged to commercial users, up from 21 percent in 2016. It is estimated global revenues from earth observation satellites is close to $100 billion a year, growing at 11 percent.

KSAT came to town in 2015

Skatteboe said his company built its installations in Inuvik before receiving a license because the short building season in the North doesn’t allow for flexible time lines. Plus, they really didn’t expect any licensing delays. KSAT also has a contract with the European Space Agency (ESA).

The ESA contract would use the Inuvik ground station for the agency’s environmental Earth monitoring project called the Copernicus program. “[Kongsberg Satellite] has 21 ground stations around the world and they have all been licensed without any problems,” Skatteboe said.

“So [Kongsberg] did not expect any problems related to approval to receive … data from an ESA satellite, an organization where Canada also is an associated member.” The Canadian Space Agency has a co-operation agreement with the European Space Agency.

Licensing red tape in Canada

For a number of reasons, including national security, satellite receiving stations must be federally licensed under the Remote Sensing Space Systems Act. However, in a report from the McGill Institute of Air and Space Law says that legislation, written when only governments launched satellites, has become outdated.

“This industry is really evolving very quickly,” said Aram Kerkonian, who helped write the report. “The commercialization of space is the direction we’re headed now.”

What’s interesting about the report is that it recommends the licensing process be streamlined, yet it says Global Affairs Canada staff on the file are severely under-resourced. “We spoke with the regulators and it was their position that the resources just weren’t there,” Kerkonian said.

In the meantime, KSAT is still frustrated and ESA is still waiting on a receiving station that was supposed to be operational by January 2017. “If Canada decided what we’re doing is a threat to national security, fine, I accept that,” Skatteboe said. “The frustrating part is that we haven’t gotten any feedback on the timescale for them to rule on this one.”

In an email statement from Global Affairs Canada, department spokesperson Brittany Venhola-Fletcher said “Global Affairs Canada continues to work closely” with Kongsberg and Planet Labs to finalize their licensing application.

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