The role of government in space in a time of transformation


Dr. John Moores

Canadian Space Agency

Science Advisor to the President 

Disclaimer: The French version of this editorial has been auto-translated and has not been approved by the author.

Observing the Earth from space was once the sole responsibility of government agencies. Few other organizations could shoulder the substantial infrastructure costs of preparing payloads, launching them, and then operating them in space given the small commercial market for Earth Observation (EO) services. However, in recent years, two factors have changed. The cost of launch has decreased substantially while the proliferation and the miniaturization of sophisticated electronics that can survive the space environment has exploded. In addition, the downstream segment, and the commercial interest in EO services has continuously grown, opening the doors for substantial private investments. This has enabled an exponential increase in the number of private companies providing EO services from space.

For instance, Pixalytics, an independent consultancy, reports that the number of EO satellites has increased from 192 in 2014 to 684 in 2018 and has reached 971 by 2021. Much of the increase has been the growth of the commercial sector. Indeed, the top two operators and fully 2/3rds of the orbital assets of the top ten EO satellite operators are commercial. Looking further downstream at the users of EO satellite data, 96% of this data is used in some way by the commercial sector with only 18% used by governments as of 2021. This transformation of the EO satellite sector has certainly opened the playing field to a wider variety of actors, creating a net commercial benefit. However, this transformation has also changed how EO data is used and, ultimately, the quality of the data produced by new entrants to meet that need.

When governments were the primary operators, an important consideration was how the limited data returned from orbit would be used not only during but beyond the lifetime of any particular satellite. Typically, this future-looking usage was envisioned as scientific which motivated a rigorous calibration of any sensors that were flown and allowed the results from any one EO satellite to be compared to any other. Furthermore, on a project which cost hundreds of millions to billions of dollars, these kinds of sophisticated calibrations were relatively cost-effective, representing a small fraction of the total costs.

These days, there is a proliferation of EO data, and the challenge lies in our ability not only to use them for one specific purpose (e.g. detecting ships) but to integrate the huge amount of data coming from an heteroclite set of satellites, in various earth orbits with very different types of sensors to perform more science and analysis. Governments play a role on two fronts. One is encouraging an open-data policy to have the ability to continue to exploit the data after their primary usage. The second is to ensure that data can be trusted and combined with other datasets.

For the past decades, the private sector has played a leading role in satellite communications given the strong commercial interest. The success of satellite communication demonstrates the power of space-based infrastructure – technologies that by their very nature know no borders. However, even this well-established commercial market is changing radically with the proliferation of low-earth orbit constellation promising rapid communication on any point on the planet. Companies are jumping into this emerging market to supply services to, from, and using space-based assets. Altogether, space is a $4.9 billion business in Canada, and it is bound to grow exponentially. Again, in this domain, governments play two key roles. One is regulating the spectrum to ensure that all satellites can operate without interfering with others. The second, more recent but as critical, is to ensure that space remains accessible to all by developing codes of conduct to ensure deorbiting of older satellites and avoiding the proliferation of space debris.

But while this giant commercial leap must be encouraged, it is critical to ensure that space is developed in a sustainable way that provides benefits to all. Science is critical to better understand our planet and the universe. For instance, our satellites have been monitoring atmospheric trace gasses and other contaminants for a quarter of a century, identifying sources of pollution. More recently, Canada’s participation in the international Surface Water and Ocean Topography mission has started delivering real-time information on water in lakes, rivers and along coastlines across the country, allowing academic and government scientists to examine Canada’s hydrology like never before. These studies, in turn, will provide earlier warnings of incipient flooding and more accurate predictions of future flooding to the public and to local officials, building our climate resiliency.

Future missions will pierce wildfires’ obscuring veil of smoke to provide real-time data on hot spots to crews on the ground. Others will study high altitude aerosols, water vapor and clouds to improve our understanding of climate change and to improve weather prediction.

This development of space under the auspices of science can also be a source of national pride. Our signature made-only-in-Canada technologies are in demand worldwide to support high-profile international space missions. These include key instruments on the James Webb Space Telescope that has revolutionized our view of the universe. Or the laser altimeter onboard the OSIRIS-REx mission that recently returned the first macroscopic contextualized sample of an asteroid to the Earth. These endeavours enable our scientists to compete on the world stage at the highest level.

The upcoming Artemis II mission will make astronaut Jeremy Hansen the furthest travelled Canadian in history. Hansen’s mission of peaceful scientific cooperation will inspire citizens to become scientists and engineers. Many of those so-inspired will ultimately find their passion outside of the space sector, nevertheless enriching the science literacy of our citizenry and enhancing what we can achieve in science and technology across many fields.

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA)’s efforts to develop technologies that will allow humans to survive and to thrive in space have the potential to see some of their greatest benefits in remote communities: already, the CSA is developing methods to grow food in space and to provide healthcare to astronauts. It is therefore clear that we will need a deep and meaningful engagement with those who live in remote environments if we are to succeed in achieving our goals in space and to transfer the benefits we accrue to our own communities.

Since the beginning of the space age, governments have spearheaded the exploration of space for the benefit of humanity. Once the path is opened, commercial entities develop markets. Governments will continue to play a regulatory role while ensuring that data is shared for science benefits and more importantly by continuing to expand the boundary of space exploration.


  1.  How many Earth observation satellites are orbiting the planet in 2021?