Lost in space?

Elizabeth Howell
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An Ottawa space company says its development of rover vehicles, designed to explore the rocky terrains of the moon and Mars, will likely grind to a halt as federal stimulus funding runs out.

Neptec president Iain Christie, with the company's Juno test rover. (Photo by Mark Holleron)

Neptec president Iain Christie says the prototypes developed with the millions of additional dollars that flowed through the Canadian Space Agency in recent years will be shelved unless the government renews its support for the project.

"It certainly will mean that we aren't able to continue our rover development project beyond what we will reach with current funding," he says.

"We basically built the prototypes, but we don't have plans in place to do any testing or development of instruments, or even working to find potential flight opportunities for the rovers with other space agencies. So it's all left hanging unless there's some plan."

Neptec is one of several local space firms concerned that the end of the federal stimulus program - and lack of a long-term government vision for the industry - will lead to a downturn in the sector.

Even those that didn't directly receive stimulus funding fear the dropoff in federal spending will lead to fewer government sales and the loss of a valuable reference customer that's seen as key to landing business abroad.

In Neptec's case, the company received $11 million in 2009 for a Lunar Exploration Light Rover, dubbed Artemis, which must be finished by March 31. Previously, Neptec had developed another rover in conjunction with the CSA, known as Juno.

The 85-employee firm is about 15 per cent larger than last year, partly on the strength of rover hires, although job descriptions aren't neatly tied to any one program.

Mr. Christie acknowledges the end of funding won't have an immediate negative impact on his business. Things will slow down, and the projects will cease, but he doesn't anticipate letting anyone go.

Other companies say the heightened profile of the CSA temporarily boosted the fortunes of other firms competing for overseas business.

Now, with stimulus funding drying up March 31 and CSA spending falling, companies worry the lack of domestic spending will translate into fewer foreign customers.

"About 80 per cent of the total global market for satellites belongs to government," says Ron Holdway, the Ottawa-based senior director of Com Dev's Canadian business development and government relations. "To have credibility in that market, you need to have your own government investing in it."

His Cambridge, Ont.-based company, which is developing naval technology to automatically identify and monitor ships from space, did not receive stimulus money.

But Com Dev does get about 10 per cent of its business from the government-run space agency - a small percentage, to be sure, but a crucial one as that investment convinces its other customers to buy equipment.

"(It) is an interesting dynamic that goes on in the global space market that I'm not sure is well understood at a policy level in Canada," he says.

For years, critics worried that CSA's budget, which remained around $310 million for the better part of the decade, was not enough to compete with similarly sized space powers.

That temporarily improved in 2009, when the agency received an additional $110 million to spend between then and March 31, 2012.

Most of the money went to rovers and in-orbit servicing, with some other contracts including more than $17 million to MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates for rover prototypes and $1.9 million to MPB Communications for a micro-rover platform.

As a result of the stimulus funding, CSA's budget reached $424.6 million this year, but that's expected to fall once the funding expires in 2012. By 2013-14, the agency will have an estimated $317.5 million to spend.

Emerging space players such as China and Brazil are already pouring more resources into space programs. Japan has its own robotics program, competing with the arms and other equipment for which Canada has been famous.

"We are lagging behind the developing world," Mr. Christie says.

Organizations: Canadian Space Agency, Com Dev, Lunar Exploration Light Rover MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates MPB Communications

Geographic location: Canada, Ottawa, Cambridge China Brazil Japan

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Recent comments

  • SJB
    December 15, 2011 - 10:01

    Is pumping $11M into building a "space rover" with no program to use it really good use of our tax dollars??? With no plans to test and no opportunities to ever launch it, this is destined to become a pile of junk, sold for scrap value in the near future. I recall a tour of Neptec a few years back, and was blown away by the excessive overhead they carried. What looked like 20-30K square feet of space dedicated to scale mock-ups of various space craft. Plus comments by the CEO as to how their quality was so high, they couldn't cross over to the military sector! Neptec have had a good run supporting NASA and the US shuttle program, and should be proud of that, but those days are over. For Canada to fund multiple rover projects is shocking, and is corporate welfare we can't afford and shouldn't support. Time to refocus your company and technology on something that has a tangible use a and real customers, or wind down like the steam shovel manufacturers of old...