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There are advantages and drawbacks to being a niche producer, and we explore both sides in today’s post.

In mid-March, I had the pleasure of attending a small student-run conference in the interest of space involvement called SEDS Ascension 2016, SEDS standing for the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space, organized by the London Chapter at the University of Western Ontario. This is Part 1 in a 3-part post series, inspired by the talks I attended at Ascension.

Canada is very good at space. We were the third space-faring nation with the weather satellite Allouette in 1962, and since then we have incorporated space into many aspects of Canadian daily life, notably in weather tracking, satellite imaging and communications (you can thank satellites for Wi-Fi and cellphone towers.)

There are some things we’re better at than others, things we’re internationally renowned for. Those things are:

1) Robotics. The best example of this is onboard the ISS, where Canada’s main contribution has been the Mobile Servicing Station (MSS) that provides maintenance to the space station. This includes our famous Canadarm2, Dextre, and their mobile base.

2) Scientific Instrumentation. A current example is on NASA’s OSIRIS-REx satellite that aims to collect samples from an asteroid (remember the euphoria surrounding Bennu?) and return them to Earth. Canada’s contribution is a laser altimeter that will measure the topology of the asteroid. I like this example because it also showcases a sub-niche that Canada has become rather good at, which is optical components. This means any component that uses photonics to obtain data, either through lasers, masers, lidar, radar, infrared, you name it.

3) Sat-com. AKA Satellite communications. Canada is a very large and relatively empty landmass, and we’ve always had to overcome obstacles associated with our major cities being so spread out. It’s no surprise then that we capitalize on having a third dimension to establish lines of communication, so sat-com allows for artic monitoring, maritime navigation, remote accessibility, remote sensing and imaging. There are many companies and government agencies in Canada that use frequent and extensive imaging. Some applications you might expect, say for defense or geological mapping. Others however are often surprises to people unfamiliar with the space industry, for example the percentage of Canadian farmers that use satellite imaging to analyse their land for more efficient crop yield.

Having niches is great, because it means that Canada often receives funding and contracts due to our reputable experts and highly reliable products. However an alarming drawback is that areas of space tech outside these niches are often not explored or exploited, and as a result innovators and experts in these fields end up leaving and taking their ideas to Europe, Asia, South America or the US.

This is especially true for rocketry and manned spacecraft, where Canada’s lack of a launch site has made it extremely difficult for companies to get a foothold. Eloquently summarized by Adam Trumpour, a DIY rocket enthusiast working out of Toronto, rocketry is seen as “not our role” within the space community, and so it is difficult to find national support. In fact, out of 176 registered space-capable companies in Canada, only two build and develop propulsion technologies (I’ll be backing up this claim in a post in the near future focusing exclusively on rocketry in Canada). The vast majority work in either Sat-com, instrumentation, or robotics. And while he said that it is “absolutely appropriate that we cultivate the things we’re good at”, he made a good point: we weren’t always good at space robotics. But after relentless pursuit and support from both the CSA and the public interest, eventually it became a niche.

“We can’t just stick to one thing in Canada”, concluded Adam in his talk at Ascension. There are many more fields that have relatively unscratched surfaces that aren’t propulsion or rocketry, things like life support systems, fuels, Big Data, or really novel applications like junk removal and extraterrestrial mining.

At the end of the day, even if they may seem to create boundaries, niches can be great. I’d like to see space become Canada’s niche.

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