Engineering firm’s Space Agency contract isn’t their first – and it won’t be their last
C-CORE’s new contract with the Canadian Space Agency isn’t the first one for the St. John’s-based research and development firm, CEO Charles Randell is the first to point out.
“We’ve been doing a lot of work for the Canadian Space Agency and the European Space Agency,” says Randell. “A lot of what we’ve been doing is around remote sensing, satellite surveillance. We probably have one of the largest satellite monitoring groups in Canada.” The company has also built satellite transponders (“some of the fancy hardware,” Randell calls it), mainly for the European Space Agency.
At a little over $700,000, the newest contract isn’t the biggest the firm has ever seen, either. The significance of the job, for Randell, is that it’s a direct result of the hard work and reliability over 40 years of operations for C-CORE, housed in a warren of corridors and rooms in a building at Memorial University (the university founded C-CORE but does not provide it with any funding).
“It gives us another point of connection, and another thing that we’re now providing to the space agency,” he said. “This is some very early work on future satellites, so it’s great to be on the ground floor for those sorts of things.”
Even better for Randell: it positions the company, which sustains itself entirely through contract revenue from clients in the public and private sectors, for a lot of potential future work.
“The sort of thing that we’re providing under this space agency contract, we’ve done for terrestrial radar stations or radar systems,” he said. “So now when you’re getting in at the early stage and looking at the next generation of satellites they’re going to have to operate 800 kilometres above the earth, it’s a great place to be. It’s almost like taking it to the next level.”
In this case, that next level is developing a multi-channel radar that improves satellite image detail by up to eight times its current resolution. Forget the classic movie and television images of circular green screens with sweeping lines and blips; the new technology would be like a leap into high-definition television.
Desmond Power, C-CORE’s vice-president of remote sensing, remembers C-CORE’s first contract that took the corporation into space in the early ‘90s, just after he joined the organization. Much of the initial work had to do with looking for potential benefits for the oil and gas industry when gravity is removed from the equation.
“We had a series of experiments that had to do with fluid flow in reservoirs,” says Power. “We started out on these ‘Vomit Comets,’ they’re called, DC-10s that do these parabolic flights. We did a couple of space shuttle missions, and then we moved to these cheaper Russian rockets, Soyuz rockets. Soyuz are used to launch big satellites. They’re big, and they work.”
C-CORE’s work then was to connect the people doing the experimenting with the people who could benefit from the results, explains Power.
“We brought in the end users, the people who were interested in the experiments,” he says. “We didn’t do the experiments; we had another group that did the experiments. We did what’s called the control box, the electronic box, which controls the experiments. So somebody else created these oil cells that studied fluid diffusion. They created them, and we integrated that into a box and put it up into space.”
C-CORE, with 70 employees and an annual budget of nearly $15 million, has been out among the stars ever since. Radar satellites have been single and dual-channel due to the limitations of space travel: the bigger and heavier something is, the more expensive it is to shoot it up in a rocket. But as technology has improved, multi-channel has become more feasible.
“More channels means more information,” says Power. “This new (contract) that we’ve got is to look at a four-channel radar, possibly an eight-channel radar.”
Satellites see the earth in strips as they orbit, explains Power. “But wouldn’t it be great if you could just see big, huge things at the same resolution? You can’t do that, because the satellite is limited, and you can only see a strip at a time. But what if, on the satellite, you put more channels up there, so you can see this strip, this strip, this strip and this strip, all at the same time?”
That’s what multi-channel radar will do, says Power. “It’s to create a satellite that can see a much wider area at the same time,” he said. “So instead of having to fly 10 satellites that capture this big area, you fly one that can see wide at a very high resolution. The more channels we can put on that satellite, the bigger the image we can see.”
Randell says it’s fair to assume the work C-CORE does for space agencies was not envisioned when the firm was formed in 1975, to solve problems facing the burgeoning offshore oil industry in Newfoundland and Labrador.
“(It’s) understanding that environment and using things like satellite monitoring and our engineering expertise to understand how you would design a structure like Hibernia or Hebron or Terra Nova to operate year-round out there,” he says. “Over the last 20 years, as we’ve continued to build that understanding, probably more to the point is reducing the uncertainty about how you operate out there.”
The enhanced ability to protect offshore rigs from the harsh environment and potentially disastrous icebergs has a financial benefit for the industry. “Going from Hibernia to Hebron, and what we understand now about the risk of ice and things has saved hundreds of millions of dollars in the design of Hebron versus what would have gone into Hibernia at the time,” he said. “By understanding how we can improve design, new technologies brought to bear, is really making the designs of structures off Newfoundland less expensive, much more feasible.”
C-CORE’s name itself reflects both its origins and the fact it has moved past them; the corporation was founded as the Centre for Cold Ocean Resources Engineering, but in 1991 the legal name was changed to simply C-CORE — capital letters that are no longer actually an acronym.
Randell adds he doesn’t believe anyone around at C-CORE’s inception envisioned the company would still be going four decades later.
“The thinking was that it was going to be one of these things that goes for about five years, hopefully does some good work around understanding Newfoundland’s offshore environment, and then probably fold up shop,” he says. “So the fact that we’re here forty-odd years later and we’ve got offices in Ottawa and in Halifax and we’ve worked on every continent, we’ve built hardware in space — I don’t think anyone anticipated that.”
Randell admits he wouldn’t mind if the company’s work was better known outside industry circles.
“I know what it is and what it does, and I’m really proud of it,” he says. “The fact that a lot of other people don’t recognize it is — well, it’s not frustrating, I suppose, but it is disappointing. I wish we were better known. I think certainly in Atlantic Canada, if people understood some of the things that have come out of here, it’s really something to be celebrated.”
Some of the details of transponders and multi-channel radars can be difficult to get across at cocktail parties, says Randell, so he usually simplifies it for people.
“I just tell them we do research and development, mainly for oil and gas and other industries,” he says. “My wife just tells them, ‘I don’t know what he does, but he travels a lot.”
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