Success Stories

Canadian companies combine skills to develop high-accuracy antenna reflector

Medium-sized reflector exceeds established standards

Under a contract with the Canadian Space Agency's Space Technology Development Program (STDP), the Montreal division of the B.C.-based MDA Corporation developed a high-accuracy antenna shaped reflector—one that fully met industry standards—for use on communications satellites. In 2008, in collaboration with a Nova Scotia–based supplier, Composites Atlantic Ltd. (CAL), MDA succeeded in creating a medium-sized (0.9-m diameter) reflector that actually exceeds the established standards. MDA and CAL reflectors are lighter and stiffer than the standard ones, and because they are thermally stable, they are also effective over a wider range of temperatures.

Almost immediately, their success was acknowledged by the European Space Agency (ESA). The result? A technology fully developed in Canada and an opportunity to participate in ESA's highly successful Sentinel satellite program.

Although only one of many major MDA achievements, developing the first Canadian composites reflector was a highlight for the Montreal division. Working closely with world-class suppliers like CAL, MDA has acquired a wealth of experience—and a well-earned reputation for excellence—in designing and building reflectors for the communications satellite industry. Their expertise in developing and working with advanced composites is especially important since such composites are rapidly overtaking metal components, particularly in the aerospace industry.

Continued collaboration means continued success

The invitation to contribute to the ESA's Sentinel program, coupled with strong market demand for their composites reflectors, led to a second STDP contract for MDA and CAL in 2010. The two firms continued their collaboration, this time to build a larger reflector, one with a diameter of 2.3 meters. With larger reflectors, the radiated power is optimally distributed over the intended service area on Earth, resulting in improved efficiency.

Again, the MDA and CAL partnership exceeded expectations thereby attracting attention from important industry players. Only this time the client knocking on their door was the U.S. aerospace giant Boeing, asking the two firms to supply 16 of the larger reflectors.

Technology has far-reaching benefits

MDA's and CAL's achievements are noteworthy for several reasons. Not only are their reflectors the first Canadian solution in this area, they are not subject to the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), often a stumbling block for firms dealing with the United States. The technology behind the reflectors also has far-reaching benefits, and not just for Boeing and ESA. By providing optimal in-orbit antenna performance and better thermal stability, the reflectors make it possible to significantly enhance the quality of satellite services around the globe.

As an added bonus, both MDA and CAL say their participation in the STDP has improved their understanding of composites' behaviour and properties. That bodes well for the future of both companies.

The opportunity to contribute to ESA's Sentinel-3 mission is certainly significant as well. For one thing, it will allow MDA and CAL to demonstrate their new technology in space for the first time. Set to launch in 2013, Sentinel-3 is the third of five ESA missions specifically designed to meet the operational needs of the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) services.

Small contract, large results

While the original STDP contract was relatively small—$939,000—the results have been anything but. Technology developed under the contract was almost immediately commercialized, enabling MDA and CAL to secure contracts that previously might have been out of reach for both firms. In addition to ESA and Boeing, organizations now using this Canadian technology include Intelsat, one of the world's largest providers of satellite services.

Technology generated by MDA and CAL is being used on the following satellites: EXPRESS AM5, EXPRESS AM6, ASTRA 1N, ASTRA 2E, ASTRA 2F, ASTRA 2G, ASTRA 5B, JUPITER-1 and HYLAS-2. In addition, the MDA and CAL reflectors and panels have also been used on W5A – a commercial Eutelsat program. Clearly, the products developed by both companies have seen wide industry adoption.

Marketplace embraces new technology

Bringing the new technology to the marketplace is already paying dividends. MDA estimates that the revenue generated by these reflectors is around $5 million every year. As well, the opportunity afforded through the STDP contracts created a need for highly qualified people to work on reflector projects. Fifteen full-time positions were added as a result of the contracts.

Finally, the experience and knowledge acquired by MDA and CAL in the area of solid space composites is almost certain to lead to more contracts, more sales and more employment opportunities in the future. In fact, new opportunities have already been created for CAL to expand into other areas of spacecraft design such as the development of solar panel substrates. For the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and for Canada the success of MDA and CAL underlines the ongoing benefits of collaboration and partnership. For the international community, it reinforces the growing view that Canada is the place to go for innovation and quality.