Polar Communication and Weather mission (PCW)

Polar Communication and Weather mission (PCW)

Mission overview (as defined by the Canadian Space Agency during the Definition Phase completed in 2011)

Telecommunication services are the backbone of a modern society. Currently, most of the telecommunication needs in remote areas are served by geostationary (GEO) communications satellites. These satellites are placed into the equatorial plane at the altitude of 36,000 km. The GEO satellites today offer a variety of communications and entertainment services to Canadians. However, due to the orbit geometry, there are parts of the Canadian territory that cannot be covered at all by GEO satellites. There are also limitations to what GEO satellites can offer in the High Arctic, particularly for mobile services used by ships, planes and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). That leaves part of the Canadian territory in the Arctic region without access to secure, highly reliable and high-capacity telecommunication solutions.

Picture of the Areas of Interest for the PCW mission located in the arctic region of the earth

  1. Meteorological coverage: 50o north latitude (minimum requirement) white line
  2. Meteorological coverage: 45o north latitude (goal) white dotted line
  3. Communications coverage: 70o north latitude (minimum requirement) blue line
  4. Communications coverage: 66o north latitude (goal) blue dotted line

(Credit: Canadian Space Agency)

Weather in the arctic can be harsh and fast-changing. It is the role of government to ensure accurate short-term weather and long-term climate forecasts. These forecasts are important to the functioning of the economy and for the safety and quality of life of Canadians. At present, the data for the Numerical Weather Prediction models is collected by GEO and Low Earth Orbit (LEO) polar orbiting satellites operated by other nations (The Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) and Polar Operational Environmental Satellite (POES) - National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration); Meteosat Second Generation (MSG) and MetOp (European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT))). The current development of the third generation of GEO satellites will provide an image of the Earth disc every 15 minutes, from 60° south to 60° north at 0.5-2.0 km spatial resolution. That is a "golden standard" in modern state-of-the-art meteorology. However, the spatial resolution rapidly degrades above 60o, due to the Earth curvature, leaving Polar Regions without coverage from GEO. LEO polar orbiting satellites are capable of providing much better spatial resolution over high latitudes, but on a narrow swath. Thus, they are unable to cover the whole circumpolar area at once, and it may require up to 6 hours for the satellite to image the same target area. In summary, currently there is no source of meteorological data over the Arctic with sufficient temporal and spatial resolution to be used in weather prediction. That not only makes weather forecasting in the Arctic extremely difficult, but also has a detrimental effect on the accuracy of weather forecasting in Canada, North America and globally, as the processes in the Arctic have a significant effect on global weather.

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA), in partnership with Environment Canada (EC), the Department of National Defense (DND) and supported by other Government Departments, completed in September 2008 the Concept Development and Requirements Identification study (Phase 0) for the PCW project. The outcomes of this study proved that a system of two satellites operating in Highly Elliptical Orbit (HEO) could provide continuous 24/7 broadband communications services and monitor arctic weather and climate change at the required temporal and spatial resolution, throughout all of the Arctic. In July 2009, CSA and its Government partners awarded a contract to a Canadian industrial consortium led by MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (MDA) of Richmond, BC to conduct a 20-month Mission Analysis and Concept Definition study. The results of the study confirmed the pertinence and feasibility of a mission like PCW.

CSA also works on the development of related critical technology.

Since 2011, the PCW mission definition has evolved and more recent information can be obtained under the following link:

Typical communication Application for PCW

Typical communication Application for PCW

Typical meteorological application for PCW

Typical meteorological application for PCW

Mission objectives

The mission has three main objectives:

  1. Provide reliable 24/7 high data rate (HDR) communications services in order to:
    • enable Canadian Forces, Canadian Coast Guard, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Nav Canada, Transport Canada, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) and Environment Canada activities in the high Arctic;
    • enhance the connectivity of northern communities to the broadband information backbone infrastructure;
    • facilitate exploration and exploitation of natural resources;
    • enhance efficiency of the research in the Arctic;
    • ensure that Canadians are benefiting from increased air and marine traffic in the Polar region.
  2. Monitor Arctic weather and climate change for the benefits of Canadians and the Global community in order to:
    • significantly improve the accuracy of weather forecasting, including severe weather event warnings;
    • improve the understanding of global climate change and the ability to model and predict phenomena associated with it;
    • provide unique high-quality operational data acquired over the entire polar region, which is currently not available from any source.
  3. Monitor space weather in order to:
    • support the development of an alerting system for Polar Cap Absorption (PCA) events which strongly affect High Frequency (HF) communication in the Arctic;
    • enhance the services of NRCan's Canadian Space Weather Forecast Centre (CSPWFC) and enable NRCan to develop a new service called "Space Anomaly Investigation System" which will identify Space Weather phenomena that contribute to satellite operation anomalies;
    • support satellite developers and operators by improving existing models of Space Weather environment;
    • support national and international Solar and Earth System scientific research in general.


The PCW project from its inception was a close collaboration between the CSA, DND and EC, whom recognized the gaps in the communications and weather observation coverage over the Arctic and jointly funded the initial phase of the project.

In order to respond to a wide spectrum of needs of Government Departments, a PCW Users and Science Team (U&ST) was formed in 2007 and is comprised of experts from the CSA, Environment Canada, Department of National Defence, National Resources Canada, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the Canadian Coast Guard, Transport Canada, Nav Canada, the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, and Territorial Governments. The U&ST, co-chaired by DND and EC as main government users of the PCW services, is responsible for capturing needs and requirements and assessing the merits of the project.

The PCW project encouraged international cooperation and collaboration. On the user side an International User & Science Team has been created to support the interactions between the international community and the project team. Membership included parties from countries such as the United States of America, Finland, Norway, Denmark and Sweden as well as from international organizations like EUMETSAT, the European Space Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.