Lights Out on Canadian Space Science

ISS_from_spaceJulie Payette, Chris Hadfield, Roberta Bondar, and Marc Garneau—all took off as household Canadian names because of their involvement with space science. But beyond shooting astronauts into orbit, Canadian endeavors in space science have also included a network of observatories, astronomers, satellites, researchers and facilities—all making significant contributions to humanity’s understanding and use of celestial space.

Unbeknownst to most Canadians is our country’s slow withdrawal from the international forefront of space science. Our contributions to space science are in jeopardy because of the current government’s science policies, lack of support for basic research and a lack of funding.

GOVERNMENT SCIENCE:

Canada’s iconic Canadarm was made possible because of an understanding between the National Research Council (NRC) and NASA. However, reoriented by the Harper government to focus on commercialization, designated a “concierge” for industry, it is doubtful the NRC of today would ever be involved in the non-commercial basic science associated with a project like the Canadarm. One-off projects, even one as significant as this one, lack a viable direct commercial application. The Canadian government is no longer interested in science for its own sake; rather, our government is only interested in science for the sake of business.

Meanwhile, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) has in recent years seen its budget slashed, “compounding a virtual budget freeze” dating back almost a decade. Further, the previous head of the CSA, famed Canadian astronaut Steve MacLean, left suddenly in early 2013 to be replaced by Canada’s former top soldier, Walter Natynczyk—a marked shift alarming many to the possibility the agency is moving away from space science towards space militarization.  Cuts to the CSA have in part delayed the launch until at least 2018of key satellites needed to study and survey the Canadian arctic. Meanwhile the government has been warned extant satellites absolutely must be replaced “by 2015 at the latest or Canada [will] be left without any space-based surveillance capability”. Other countries have already launched their own satellites allowing them to observe our Arctic.

SUPPORTING SPACE SCIENCE RESEARCH and EDUCATION FACILITIES:

The 2012 moratorium of the Major Resources Support (MRS) program at NSERC has put into jeopardy several facilities that support space science. There is no way to guess the number of potential future facilities that could have been funded by the MRS program had the program not been slashed. These potential facilities will never be realized.

SuperDARN by Drm310

One facility that was made possible in part because of MRS support is the SuperDARN which had received a large MRS grant from 2008-2012. Researchers at SuperDARN study the near-Earth space environment and the effect of space weather. Given our status as a northern nation, Canada is especially reliant on technology vulnerable to space weather effects (which include: pipeline corrosion, damage to electrical power grids, degradation of satellitenavigation accuracy, loss of radio communications, radiation from space causing polar flights to be diverted, and damage to telecommunications satellites that facilitate billions of dollars of business every day).

Another world class Canadian facility which had been supported by the MRS program was the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory. For many years this internationally unique laboratory measured particulars emitted by the sun and was a joint collaboration between over 100 different universities around the world. Also the recipient of a generous MRS grant, theCanadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics (CITA) in Toronto is devoted to studying the origin and development of the universe.

Meanwhile, only the personal intervention of a cabinet minister, on behalf of the Mont Megantic Observatory in his constituency, was able to save academics’ access to this particular Quebec facility. Access to this telescope was almost certainly eliminated when a surprise withdrawal of its $325,000 annual contribution from NSERC was announced in 2009.

james clerk maxwell telescope mirrors

Another facility put into jeopardy by a lack of government support is the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) in Hawaii, jointly funded by the UK, Canada and Netherlands. This is one of the biggest telescopes of its kind in the world. Canada’s cumulative investment in this facility over the past three decades is around $80 million, however, the government declined in 2014 to provide the facility with a mere $700,000 to guarantee continued Canadian access to the facility. This left researchers scrambling. It would appear that without government support several of these researchers are working out an agreement with the primary operator of the telescope for limited access in exchange for the researchers’ expertise and in-kind contributions. Is it acceptable to put this kind of burden onto researchers? Is it the best use of Canada’s scientists’ time to have them lobbying government and coming up with bartering agreements with facilities to exchange volunteer hours for facility access? No. Our government must support scientists so they can do research.  Scientific talent and expertise is wasted if preoccupied with fundraising and campaigns.

The community education outreach centre in Saanich, BC, the so-called Centre of the Universe, has struggled for the past couple of years. Shuttered in 2013 after the NRC slashed the centre’s $277,000 budget, significant public pressure resulted in a very minimal re-opening of the centre for special events during the summer of 2014. The Saanich community continues to fight for its centre but without a re-orientation of the government’s science policies, it is unclear whether an end is in sight for this battle.

CONCLUSION:

Unaware of the presence of space science in our everyday lives, some people might wonder whether it has any value to regular Canadians. But remember our reliance on GPSs and that remote internet and phone access relies on satellites, remember that our vast country relies on satellites to relay information from far flung corners back to authorities, remember the value of inspiring scientific curiosity in youth, and remember the untold value of belonging to and engaging with an international community of scientists.

Space science is important to Canadians and we need our government to reinvest in this research and support this sector. We cannot allow Canadian space science to disappear into outer space.

Take action right away and lend your name to our Get Science Right petition

 

Photos: the first is of the International Space Station, the second is of the SuperDarn with photo credit to DRM310, the third is of the submillimeter James Clerk Maxwell Telescope primary mirror as seen from behind.