Canada's place in space

Canada's place in space

May 1, 2005

Ever since humans first gazed at the heavens, we have searched for the answers to the infinite questions and possibilities of existence.

Now, as humanity finds itself poised at the edge of what some say is the most ambitious era of space exploration ever experienced, we find those answers are tantalizingly within our reach.

We have indeed traveled far. Our telescopes now probe the deepest corners of distant galaxies. Our technology is allowing us to prepare for exploratory missions to other planets as though they were just around the corner. With growing excitement, we search for water and with it, perhaps, life under the dusty red rocks of our neighbour Mars.

Yet as great as our strides have been, space—with all its preternatural and interconnected riches—remains an under-utilized resource. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the application of space-based research in the stewardship of our own planet’s precious environment and natural resources.

A portal to our universe, space is also a reflecting mirror that not only reveals where we began, but more importantly where we are headed. When we look at the barren wasteland of Mars, for instance, is it possible that we are looking at the future of Earth?

Our science leads us to the conclusion that an eon ago, Mars and Earth were similar, not only in size and distance from the Sun, but also in the likelihood of a shared evolutionary rhythm. As well, we know that the two planets were in the path of a bombardment of comets and asteroids. As primitive life stirred then blossomed on Earth, something, somehow, caused their evolutionary paths to diverge.

What happened? Did Mars ever harbour life? Does it still?

Only by studying our planetary cousin can we find the answers to these questions. And only by applying what we learn for the benefit of life on Earth can we make our efforts worthwhile. Canadian space scientists have the knowledge and experience to make an important contribution to this quest.

Our forays into space suggest that it is both a classroom and a science laboratory of immense proportions and of largely untapped potential. In a world of finite resources, many of which are diminishing at an alarming rate, space could and should be recognized as a strategic global asset that is critical to the protection and preservation of our planet.

Our forests, arable land, and oceans are heavily taxed. Our global climate is changing. Before our eyes, our world is in the process of a transformation we don't fully understand.

A prime example is Canada’s North. Once considered unassailable, research suggests that Arctic sea ice has decreased at a rate of 3 percent each decade since the 1970s, its thickness decreasing by as much as 40 percent1. In high northern latitudes, the ozone layer has thinned by 6 percent since the mid-1980s, and as much as 40 percent temporarily in early spring.

For Northern species, melting ice tilts an already precarious balance that determines a way of life and can define the difference between survival and extinction. How well we tackle the pressing environmental and ecological repercussions of the changes wrought by nature and humans depends, in part, on how quickly and how well we utilize all that space has to offer.

History commands us to be bold. Experience teaches us that we are most ingenious when faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles. We are at our best when we make the most of every opportunity.

This is especially true from a uniquely Canadian perspective. Having carved a country from a wide array of landscapes and climatic conditions, Canada’s relatively small population of 32 million people is well aware of the challenges posed by nature and distance. Forging links to one another, no matter how far the thread must stretch, is a national preoccupation.

As the third country in space, Canada was the first to build its own national communication satellite system in the early 1970s—to connect Canadians no matter how remote their home or workplace. Today, our satellite communications sector, including Telesat Canada and its broadband flagship Anik-F2, is recognized around the world for its pioneering innovation in such spin-off fields as telemedicine, tele-learning, and e-government.

A diverse and dynamic Canadian space sector allows Canada to “shop at home” in meeting its space requirements. It also gives Canada an opportunity—not yet fully realized—to construct a comprehensive and coordinated approach to space-related research, whether it be in connecting Canadians; monitoring our precious farmlands, forests, and wetlands; studying ozone depletion; or ensuring sustainable development.

Our $2-billion-a-year space sector exports 40 percent of what it produces and competes successfully with little help in one of the most highly protectionist markets in the world.

Our expertise in space robotics is second to none. The Canadarm, the workhorse of NASA shuttles and the International Space Station, is one of the most visible and easily recognized Canadian ambassadors in space.

As stewards of a rich and varied natural-resource base—and the world’s longest coastline—Canada focuses its largest space-related investment in its Earth Observation sector, tailoring its activities as much to the country’s needs as to an export-driven industrial strategy.

In the early 1980s, the Government of Canada built the satellite “Radarsat-1” to monitor the build-up and flow of ice in our waters and to assert our sovereignty in the North. In the nine years since its launch, the satellite’s Canadian commercial operator, Radarsat International, has offered or sold radar imagery to some 600 clients in about 60 countries.

Able to pierce the worst weather conditions, day or night, Radarsat imagery was particularly helpful in the aftermath of last December’s tsunami disaster in Southeast Asia . Beaming back detailed images of the stricken area, Canada’s space-borne contribution to relief efforts helped direct humanitarian aid on the ground, and chronicled the devastation to the mangrove swamps and coral reefs that act as protective barriers to wave erosion.

We are proud of these accomplishments. And we are eager to develop a host of other Canadian programs waiting in the wings, such as hyperspectral technology, advanced radar satellite constellations, and global environmental monitoring. Founded upon a pioneering vision, Canada's Space program is indeed a crown jewel in terms of the benefits it yields and the successes it has achieved over four decades. But there is so much more to do.

Ahead lies a new chapter of space research and exploration, an era that the space community has aptly dubbed Moon, Mars and Beyond. To step back from opportunity at this critical juncture is to risk being left behind. Instead, we must seize the future that awaits us and, in doing so, fulfill dreams that have fueled our imagination and our ingenuity since humans first gazed upwards, into the heavens.

1John C. Falkingham, Richard Chagnon, and Steve McCourt, Canadian Ice Service, Environment Canada. “Sea Ice in the Canadian Arctic in the 21 st Century.” 16 th International Conference on Port and Ocean Engineering Under Arctic Conditions, POAC 01, August 12-17, 2001, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

Marc Garneau is President of the Canadian Space Agency.

The views and ideas expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the Canada Foundation for Innovation or its Board Directors and Members.