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Space Flight Laboratory Canada – Smaller satellites big performances

The Space Flight Laboratory (SFL) develops complete space missions for international customers with high performance demands but tight budgets and short schedules. For over 17 years, SFL has been pushing the performance envelope by building big satellite performance into smaller satellites. By doing this, SFL intends to not simply be disruptive, but to continually set the high bar of what is achievable in smaller packages and lower than expected cost. 

SFL develops missions for all applications — earth observation, monitoring and remote sensing, asset tracking, communications, science, and technology demonstration. SFL’s goal is to make it easier for the entrepreneur to start a new business in data services without the need to take on the sometimes underestimated risk of satellite manufacturing or the constant demand for technology refresh. SFL helps companies, governments, and other institutions achieve their space data objectives by providing professionally built, high-quality satellites so that they can focus on their business rather than on the engineering and continual improvement of satellites. This allows the world to harness regular advances made by SFL while resting assured that the technology is of high quality and reliability. SFL’s capabilities are complete end-to-end services, from initial mission conception, to satellite integration and test, to arranging launches on a regular basis, to commissioning and operating satellites. These satellites can be replicated by SFL or through the customer’s mass production facilities if so desired, for large constellation projects where it is desirable to bring production in house.

Figure 1 illustrates some of the satellites that SFL has launched and operated in orbit. These satellites are surprisingly small for their high performance capabilities. The cumulative on-orbit heritage from these satellites exceeds 50 years. Each satellite has broken barriers of performance and exceeded the state-of-the-art at time of launch. 

At only 53 kg, the “most” micro satellite was Canada’s first space telescope, and the world’s first microsatellite with high precision attitude control, taking microsatellites from simple “toy” missions to an entirely new regime of serious applications. Another paradigm shift occurred when CanX-2, as one of the first cubesats in orbit, was, to SFL’s knowledge, the first 3.5-kg satellite to demonstrate three-axis attitude stabilization, propulsion, and a high speed S-band downlink with a 1 Mbps data rate (note at the time, others were stuck with kilobits per second). NTS was another revolutionary satellite, demonstrating responsive space capabilities before the catch phrase came into being, having been developed in only six months and launched in the seventh, and providing time-critical commercial Automatic Identification System (AIS) demonstration for COM DEV. The success of NTS led to the creation of exactEarth, a leading provider of ship tracking solutions internationally. 


SFL broke more barriers with the launch of AISSat-1, a 7-kg ship tracking satellite for Norway. AISSat-1 was the first 7-kg satellite to have full three-axis attitude control and also represented Norway’s first operational satellite in orbit. Based on the overwhelming success of the first satellite, a subsequent satellite, AISSat-2, was ordered and launched, marking the beginning of a Norwegian constellation of ship tracking satellites. EV9 (exactView 9) was developed for exactEarth with advanced ship tracking technology and is believed to be the smallest satellite to have operational ground target tracking capability. 

BRight Target Explorer (BRITE) Constellation is the world’s first space astronomy constellation with high precision pointing capability 
(12 arcsec RMS), believed to be a first for satellites this small. The five-satellite constellation is comprised of satellites funded by three countries: Austria, Poland and Canada. Scientific discoveries are being published with BRITE representing the only high-precision means available to study luminous stars in the galaxy. 

Finally, CanX-4 and CanX-5 represent the world’s first 7-kg precise, autonomous formation flying satellites, having completed their mission in only four months after launch. Relative position determination was demonstrated with precision to a few centimeters, while relative position control was accomplished to the sub-meter level. Formations ranged from 50 to 1,000 meter separations.

SFL has additional satellites under development that are expected to launch soon (Figure 2). At 15 kg, NEMO-AM is India’s first aerosol monitoring satellite to assist in measuring pollutants that directly affect quality of life and climate change. GHGSat-D is a 16-kg satellite with the mission of measuring greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions over targeted sites, to assist site owners with measuring, reporting and controlling their emissions. 

This satellite will lead to a commercial constellation for GHGSat that will provide GHG target monitoring services globally. CanX-7 is a 3.5-kg satellite that will demonstrate deorbiting drag sails for debris mitigation purposes — instrumental technology to assist with regulatory approvals and to ensure small satellites do not contribute to the growing debris problem in space. 


NORSAT-1 is Norway’s first scientific satellite, measuring total solar output, studying space plasma, and using an advanced AIS receiver to track ships. Also at 16 kg, NORSAT-2 is poised to be the world’s first VHF data exchange satellite. This will augment AIS detection with higher bandwidth two-way ship messaging capability. AISSat-3 is the third AIS satellite in Norway’s AISSat Constellation with the latest advance in AIS receiver technology. 

M3MSat is an 80-kg satellite developed for high bandwidth, high detection-rate ship tracking for the government of Canada. NEMO-HD is a 72-kg earth observation satellite for Slovenia, observing in four spectral bands, and pan-sharpening to 2.8m true resolution. The compact 60x60x30cm NEMO-HD will provide high definition images and video to monitor land and coastlines.

Throughout its history, missions have been flown that exceeded the state-of-the-art at the time. SFL’s mandate is to break barriers but also to do it in a way that surprises the market in terms of data capacity, computational agility, power density, attitude control accuracy and precision, at prices that are amenable to tomorrow’s mass production needs for commercial constellations. 

Commercial business models are sensitive to cost, and SFL solutions allow businesses to close financial models for new satellite services. Government programs worldwide have benefited from SFL’s low cost missions, enabling them to operate in space for a fraction of the traditional cost and to accomplish big things within small budgets