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Canada.gov blocks sale of space company to US

Wants to keep timeshare rights on Arctic spy-sat

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The Canadian government has stepped in to block the sale to America of a company which owns and operates a key surveillance satellite. The move will also safeguard Canada's space robotics technology, for which US space agency NASA says the nation is "world renowned".

CBC reports that the proposed $1.3bn deal under which the space division of MacDonald Dettweiler Associates (MDA) would be sold to US aerospace behemoth Alliant Techsystems (ATK) has received an unprecedented government smackdown.

"We don't see net benefits to Canada in this transaction," said Canadian Industry Minister Jim Prentice, adding that he was "very confident" his decision was the right one.

MDA produced the well-known, enormous "Dextre" space robot, now operational at the International space station (ISS). The company also made the "Canadarm2" articulated robo limb which is used to move Dextre about and accomplish other orbital grapplings required at the ISS. NASA has said that Canada - being world-renowned for such kit - was the natural choice to make it.

However, it appears that the sticking point regarding the sale of MDA is actually more to do with Radarsat-2, a synthetic-aperture-radar orbiter. Radarsat-2 was developed by MDA with the aid of Canadian taxpayer funding, and is used for ground and maritime earth-observation tasks. It has some use as a spy satellite, able to monitor shipping movements at sea.

Under the Canadian Space Agency deal with MDA, the government has free access to Radarsat-2 imagery for its operational life. MDA can also sell the data to commercial clients: however, former Canadian space agency chief Marc Garneau has said that sale of Radarsat to America would give away technology designed to protect Canada's sovereignty.

Prentice appeared to confirm that sovereignty issues with Radarsat-2 lay behind the government's decision to block the sale under the Investment Canada Act - the first time the 23-year-old law has been used in this way.

"The jurisdictional aspect in relation to the satellite is a relevant consideration and specifically, where jurisdictional law would sit for the satellite, post transaction, is a relevant consideration," he told reporters last week. Radarsat-2 is seen as being especially useful in protecting Canadian rights in the Arctic, as it offers all-weather surveillance and ability to monitor not just shipping but the state of the ice pack and other environmental variables.

For their part, ATK and MDA both say that the Canadian government would retain full access to the sat if the sale went ahead.

Iain Christie, head of Neptec (another Canadian company which does contract work for NASA), suggested that the Canadian government would need to put in more money if it genuinely wanted to be a spacegoing power independent of its mighty southern neighbour.

"Canada's role as a space leader is a fragile thing," he told CBC. "If the government is concerned about securing our strategic assests, there is a price to pay." ®

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