Success Stories

Canadian company gives modern satellites a mind of their own

NGC Aerospace up to the task

Through its Project for On-Board Autonomy (PROBA) technology demonstration program, the European Space Agency (ESA) is seeking to determine if satellites can be programmed to navigate and control themselves; doing so would eliminate the need for a large team of human operators at a ground control station thereby reducing costs and improving satellite efficiency. NGC Aerospace Ltd., a company based in Sherbrooke, Quebec, plays a vital role in ESA's efforts.

Through the Canadian Space Agency's (CSA) collaboration with ESA, NGC received a $365,000 (€280,000) contract in 1998 to develop an on-board Guidance, Navigation and Control system for the PROBA-1 satellite.

Success strikes twice

Launched in the fall of 2001, PROBA-1—the first in ESA's PROBA series of satellites—uses a hyper-spectral imager (an instrument that uses a vast portion of the electromagnetic spectrum to observe the Earth) and a high-resolution camera to carry out its Earth-observation mission. But instead of operators controlling these instruments from the ground, the satellite's on-board software developed by NGC does the job autonomously. Essentially, the software predicts when PROBA-1 will fly over a specific target, then manoeuvres the spacecraft into the ideal position for the camera and imager to complete their tasks.

NGC's success with PROBA-1, led to a second $610,000 (€468,000) contract from ESA in 2009 to make the second PROBA satellite even more self-sufficient. Among other innovations, the second-generation guidance, navigation and control software installed on the sun-observation satellite PROBA-2 enables it to automatically calibrate its sensors, identify and compensate for environmental disturbances, and autonomously execute periodic manoeuvres to ensure that the star sensors are constantly pointing to the star field and avoid interference by the Earth.

The rise of new innovations

Through ESA's technology demonstration program, NGC has been able to flight-test up to six experimental and highly innovative guidance, navigation and control technologies for future Earth-observation and exploration missions. One of these experiments is the LOw Cost Orbit and Orientation State (LOCOOS) determination software funded by the CSA's Space Technology Development Program (STDP).

Using simple, reliable and low-cost sensors, LOCOOS can autonomously identify the country over which a spacecraft is flying and in what direction its payloads and cameras are pointing. The LOCOOS technology is thus ideal for positioning and controlling an emerging generation of smaller, low-cost satellites. Although flight tests of the LOCOOS software are ongoing, early results indicate that it will meet every expectation.

CSA contracts fuel future missions

While the idea behind LOCOOS navigation software emerged from NGC's participation in the PROBA missions, funding to bring the project to fruition was provided by the CSA. The initial $196,000 STDP contract was followed by a second $756,000 STDP contract to develop LOCOOS-2, a generic version of the navigation software that could be adapted to any type of small, low-cost satellite – a significant step forward in addressing CSA's need for innovative technologies for small satellite platforms.

Autonomy-enabling space technologies developed by NGC are also helping Canada and Europe prepare for future missions to the moon and to Mars. With its Canadian partners, NGC is developing autonomous navigation, guidance and control systems for projected planetary orbiters, landers and rovers. NGC is also involved in designing an ESA robotic mission to land a spacecraft on the south pole of the moon.

NGC's innovative software creates employment and attracts investment

NGC's contributions to the PROBA missions and projects like LOCOOS have had a profound impact on the company. Over the past 10 years, NGC has created and sustained employment opportunities for an average of six engineers (two Ph.D, four MSc) as well as four work-term student placements. Today the company employs approximately 14 engineers.

Attracted by the efficiency and cost savings of autonomous satellites, industry—both in Canada and in Europe—is beginning to embrace NGC's innovative software In fact, NGC is currently negotiating the first commercial sale of the PROBA technology along with a satellite manufacturer interested in selling autonomous satellites to foreign countries. At the same time, with the support of the CSA, the LOCOOS navigation software is rapidly nearing the point at which it will be ready for commercialization.

Meanwhile, thanks in large part to the support of the CSA, NGC's hands-on approach to developing hands-off technology has landed the company a role in the development and design of ESA's PROBA-3 satellites. PROBA-3 will foresee the formation flight of two satellites to image the sun for scientific research in order to develop better knowledge of its evolution. These two satellites will need to closely monitor and control their relative position and orientation autonomously to avoid collisions and to meet the very stringent position and pointing requirements of the mission. While the company is helping space agencies rely less on ground support to control their satellites, those same agencies are relying more and more on NGC Aerospace to make that happen.