Winnipeg's Bristol Aerospace has won a $110-million contract to build three more satellites for the Canadian Space Agency just as the last one it built is about to launch into orbit.
The Winnipeg unit of Magellan Aerospace is a supplier to MacDonald Dettwiler & Associates for the construction of three Earth-orbit spacecraft called the RadarSat Constellation Mission (RCM).
The satellites will provide maritime surveillance for ship detection, ice monitoring and oil-spill detection, disaster management and ecosystem monitoring.
It's the third satellite bus (as the satellite structures are called) contract Bristol will undertake. The first one, SciSat-1, was launched in 2003 and was the first new Canadian scientific satellite since the 1970s. It is still in orbit and sending data, even though it was designed for only a two- to three-year lifespan.
The second one, called Cassiope (Cascade, Smallsat and Ionospheric Polar Explorer) is scheduled for launch this weekend by California-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX), the private-sector company founded by Elon Musk, who also founded PayPal and Tesla Motors.
The 50 to 75 technologists and scientists at Bristol Aerospace, who will spend the next three to four years building the satellites, are becoming experts in the field.
Don Boitson, Magellan's vice-president and general manager of Bristol, said his crew is building a critical mass of expertise in the space field that includes the development and manufacture of the Black Brant rockets.
About 1,000 of those small rockets have been launched worldwide in the last 50 years and NASA still uses 15 to 20 of them a year for scientific research.
Boitson hopes the fairly rare skill sets being developed will lead to more work, including international exports. "This new contract is significant for us in terms of sustainability and maintaining that capability," he said. "We are developing this for the Canadian market, but our plans are to tap into the export market."
It's an interesting example of the high-value aerospace work that goes on in Winnipeg. It's the kind of thing the Manitoba Aerospace Association wants more people across the country to be aware of, especially now during Manitoba Aerospace Week.
Winnipeg's mini-aerospace cluster is much smaller than Montreal's and Toronto's, but it is responsible for about 5,500 jobs here and about $1.5 billion in annual revenue, all without the presence of an original equipment manufacturer or a final-assembly plant. Canada's aerospace sector generates about $22 billion in sales.
That's why one of the key events for the local group this week was hosting six members of Parliament's all-party aerospace caucus, including four MPs and two senators.
Ken Webb, executive director of the Manitoba Aerospace Association, said consciousness-raising among the parliamentarians is important. "We want to show there is a significant aerospace presence in Manitoba," he said.
That's as important as ever with the completion last fall of the aerospace review by former federal cabinet minister David Emerson.
The review makes a number of recommendations to help preserve the strength of the Canadian aerospace industry, which has recently slipped from fourth to fifth place in the world.
Manitoba is keen to get full credit for being the third-largest aerospace cluster in the country, and the Ottawa delegation was duly impressed.
"I am absolutely impressed with what's going on here," said Joe Daniel, the Conservative MP for Ontario's Don Valley East riding and chairman of the committee. He worked in the aerospace sector for more than 20 years before being elected to the House of Commons last May. "I'm dumbstruck at how little I knew about what's going on here."
Never mind the space technology that has been on display in Winnipeg, Daniel said it was quite impressive to see Red River College training labs right on the shop floor at both Bristol and Standard Aero, the engine maintenance, repair and overhaul facility.
"There is certainly not anything like that in Ontario," Daniel said.
At stake for Manitoba is a fair share of future support from the federal government.
"There was one part of the Emerson report regarding supporting industry hubs that identify Montreal and Toronto," Webb said. "That's true; they are hubs, but they're not the only ones."