The crown of the media event was the James Webb Space Telescope's fine guidance sensor (FGS), veiled behind a clear plastic cover designed to keep damaging dust away from the sensitive instrument.
It was a high-profile day for the usually quiet Canadian Space Agency's David Florida Laboratory, which tests satellites at the Shirley's Bay facility.
For FGS designer and manufactuer Com Dev International Ltd. (TSX:CDV), it was also a day of celebration. The event represented an opportunity to tout NASA as a reference customer for Com Dev's optical technology, said Com Dev Canada president David Lizius in an OBJ interview.
FGS is designed to tell the telescope where to point. This crucial optical instrument will guide James Webb – the successor to the famous, aging Hubble Space Telescope – as it probes far-away planets and the remnants of the early universe.
"The applications are a whole range of down-to-earth technologies," Mr. Lizius said. Applications could include imaging Earth at high precision for urban planners, or working with firms that resell maps to larger entities such as Google Maps.
Com Dev is among Canadian space firms seeking outside markets in the wake of ongoing cutbacks at the CSA. Following a round of stimulus funding just after the recession, the agency's budget was pared back this year and is forecasting further reductions in the near future.
The company used to ask for government funding before launching many of its satellites, Mr. Lizius said. In light of budget cuts, Com Dev has a new strategy: launch the satellite first and recoup the cost later through services.
Com Dev subsidiary exactEarth, after just four years of this model, is on the cusp of breaking even. The subsidiary launched a series of ship-tracking satellites – the latest went up this week – and now offers data services to some 40 customers. The most prominent client is the Canadian government.
In comments to media Wednesday, Industry Minister Christian Paradis said the strategy for companies such as Com Dev should be to seek agreements with outside partners, since CSA funding is tight.
Meanwhile, the government is undertaking a long-awaited aerospace review (announced in February and following on from a stalled project first started in 2008) to determine in what direction to go next; the report is due later this year.
"We believe in the future of this sector," Mr. Paradis said.
CSA president Steve MacLean, he added, is pitching the capabilities of Canadian companies to international partners to try to drum up business. In a separate interview with OBJ, Mr. MacLean said Com Dev is an example of a cluster of optical expertise that Canada and Ottawa possesses.
The Canadian Space Agency spent $146 million on James Webb in the last decade. The money went to the FGS and a Com Dev-manufactured spectrograph instrument. Both components will arrive at NASA July 30.
Prominent research entities assisting on the components include the National Research Council of Canada and the Université de Montréal.
Com Dev is based in Cambridge, Ont. but has a large presence in Ottawa.