Design Engineering

Canada is going bonkers for low Earth orbit satellites

Devin Jones   

General Aerospace satellites

The recent $52 million in funding for NorthStar Earth and Space Inc's 40 satellite cluster, is just the latest in an aerospace boom that's poised for launch.


Photo courtesy of ESA

NorthStar Earth and Space Inc. announced it has received CAD$52 million in first round funding. The windfall will help the Montreal based information services company develop its NorthStar platform, a constellation of 40 low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites that will track natural resources and potential hazardous events like forest fires and oil spills. In addition, the double equipped satellites will simultaneously provide space situational awareness to help track the more than 1 million objects currently in low Earth orbit.

Of that $52 million, the Canadian and Quebec governments invested $13 million. The rest comes from private investors, including Telesystem Space Inc. of Montreal and the Space Alliance, a strategic partnership between European aerospace firms, Thales of France and Italy’s Leonardo Company. This $52 million adds to the $31 million already invested by NorthStar E&S’ Canadian and U.S. founding partners.

While still in its infancy, NorthStar E&S expects to create an estimated 400 skilled jobs and 1200 indirect jobs related to big data and information analytics, when the company and its platform become fully operational. Currently, there’s no specific date given for the launch of the NorthStar platform.

On the ground, NorthStar will provide data services through its Applications for Global Innovation and Leadership (AGILE) Centre platform. In conjunction with applications developers, AGILE Centres will develop the first generation of smart environmental protection apps. According to NorthStar CEO Bain, the first AGILE Centre will be based in Montreal.


“With its talent base in the IT, AI and aerospace sectors – and its general quality-of-life – Montreal is the ideal home for the NorthStar platform,” says Bain.

LEO platforms like Northstar’s are currently all the rage in satellite technology. According to Canadian space news site, SpaceQ, 13 Canadian commercial satellite constellations are in development with roughly 384 satellites planned for launch and five already on-orbit.

Canadian LEO constellations in development as of November 2018 (graph courtesy of Telestat)

One of the appealing things about LEO satellites is the low amount of energy (and therefore cost) associated with launching them into low Earth orbit. Besides being smaller and lighter than traditional geosynchronous satellites, LEOs have an orbiting range roughly between 300-1,000km (200-400 mi) above the Earth, significantly less than a typical GEO satellite – roughly 36,000km (22,369 mi).

Due to LEOs relative proximity, data transmission also requires less energy and communication latency is reduced relative to GEO satellites. This makes LEO satellites extremely popular with countries looking to develop telecommunication services for areas too costly or remote for terrestrial landlines.

The LEO satellite constellation developed by satellite operator Telestat is a good example. Made up of 117 satellites, Ottawa-based company’s LEO constellation will purportedly provide “fiber-like broadband anywhere on the globe, oceans, deserts, hostile areas, and the north and south polar regions,” the company says.

In contrast, Northstar’s LEO constellation will focus on two main objectives: Environmental observation and space situational awareness. According to the company, most earth observation satellites in operation rely on optical and radar technology. To the mix, Northstar’s constellation will add hyperspectral sensors, which deduce the chemical and mineral composition of matter on Earth. With this data, the company will be able to provide big data analysis to the agriculture, forestry, fishery, urban planning, oil & gas markets.


Along side its Earth facing tasks, Northstar’s LEO will also help track the approximately 8,100 tons of debris littering Earth’s orbit as of 2017. According to the European Space Agency, there are 29,000 objects greater than 10 cm and an estimated 166 million objects from 1mm to 1cm rotating in orbit.  These bits of space garbage pose a significant threat to satellites, the international space station and other valuable space assets. The NorthStar platform will focus on tracking the larger objects “to reduce the probability of collisions and protect high-value assets in space.” 


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