Frequently Asked Questions - RADARSAT Constellation Mission (RCM)

About RCM

What is RCM?

The RADARSAT Constellation Mission (RCM) is the evolution of the RADARSAT Program with the objective of ensuring data continuity from previous RADARSAT missions. It consists of three identical Synthetic Aperture Radar (C-Band) Earth observation satellites approximatively half the size of its predecessors.

The three-satellite configuration will provide daily revisits (on average) of Canada's vast territory and maritime approaches, including the Arctic up to 4 times a day, as well as daily access to any point of 90% of the world's surface.

The launch of the satellites took place .

What is the status of the project?

The three RCM spacecraft have been successfully delivered to California in preparation for the launch. The Primary Control Facility, located at the Canadian Space Agency headquarters in Saint-Hubert, Quebec, the Back-up Control Facility in Ottawa, as well as satellite control and data reception antennas in different regions of the country, are ready to support the launch, commissioning and operations of the constellation.

Learn more about how the satellites were tested in this Ask an Expert session on Facebook.

What will RCM data be used for?

RCM data will be used in a variety of areas, such as maritime surveillance, ecosystem monitoring, agriculture, climate change monitoring and helping disaster relief efforts. Learn more about RCM data.

How is RCM different from RADARSAT-2?

Because RCM will have three identical spacecraft that will fly together in a constellation instead of just one like RADARSAT-2, it will have the capacity to view any point over 90% of the world's surface every 24 hours (except around the South Pole); offer daily images (on average) of Canada's vast land mass, oceans and coasts; and cover areas in the High Arctic up to four times a day. This capacity will allow for the creation of composite images that highlight changes over time, which will be particularly useful for monitoring climate change, land use evolution, and even human impacts on the environment.

Contrary to RADARSAT-2, RCM is equipped with an Automated Identification System (AIS) for ships. It will be used independently or in conjunction with the radar, allowing improved detection and tracking of vessels of interest.

Comparative table of RADARSAT-1, RADARSAT-2 and RCM's system characteristics.

Why was it decided to build and launch this constellation if the previous satellite RADARSAT-2 is still active?

While RADARSAT-2 is still operational, an alternative and a successor was needed to respond to rapidly evolving needs. Fueled by Big Data analytics and growing use of Artificial Intelligence, among other things, the RADARSAT Constellation is the next step for the RADARSAT Program, ensuring continuous data availability to users.

Who is building it?

MDA Ltd. is the Prime Contractor for the project. As such, it is responsible for the design, construction and testing of the spacecraft, which was mainly done out of their facility in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, Quebec. Magellan, based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, built the bus – or the body – of the three satellites. At the peak of the project, approximately 300 people worked on the construction of RCM in some 50 companies across the country. In total, 125 suppliers across 7 Canadian provinces played a role in the project.

Learn more about how the satellites were tested by MDA in this Ask an Expert session on Facebook.

How big is the RCM?

The bus (the body) of each satellite is 3.6 m high, about the height of two average men, by 1.1 m wide and 1.7 m deep. The antenna is 6.98 m wide. The total mass of each of the three satellites at launch is 1,430 kg (approximately the weight of a black rhino). In comparison, the total mass of RADARSAT-2 is 2,200 kg.

Who will operate RCM?

The mission planning and operations of RCM will be conducted by the Canadian Space Agency in collaboration with industrial partners. To fulfill this function, a state-of-the-art Primary Control Facility at CSA headquarters in Saint-Hubert, Quebec, and a Back-up Control Facility in Ottawa, have been built.

In addition, the Department of National Defense, through the Polar Epsilon 2 Project, is also organized to order, process and receive data.

The Canada Centre for Mapping and Earth Observation, a division of Natural Resources Canada, will operate the network of Canadian ground stations, which will transmit commands to track and receive data from the spacecraft. It will also manage the SAR data archive and access to the archived SAR data through the Earth Observation Data Management System (EODMS).

Shared Services Canada is responsible for communications infrastructure between the various subsystems of the ground segment and the servers where will reside the RCM data archives and EODMS.

For more details on the ground stations:

  • Prince-Albert, Saskatchewan; Inuvik, Northwest Territories; and Gatineau, Quebec for S-Band command and telemetry reception as well as X-band data reception;
  • X-band receiving stations in Aldergrove, British Columbia and Masstown, Nova Scotia;
  • Northern Ground Terminal (Kiruna station from Swedish Space Corporation) used mainly for Launch, Early Operation and fast-tasking of the constellation.

Learn more about how RCM will be controlled by watching this Ask an Expert session on Facebook.

What is the expected lifespan of the RADARSAT Constellation?

The expected lifespan of RCM is seven years for each satellite.

How far apart will the three spacecraft be from one another?

The three spacecraft will be evenly spaced on the same orbital plane, separated around the globe by 32 minutes or approximately 14,600 km.

How high above the planet will the RCM be?

The RCM will orbit Earth at an altitude of 600 km. The satellites will move at 27,200 km/h and take about 96 minutes to circle the globe. The orbit of each spacecraft will be maintained precisely within an orbital "tube" of 100 m in diameter.

RCM images

How many images of Earth will the RCM take?

We estimate that the Government of Canada will use approximately 250,000 RCM images per year, that is 50 times more than the first generation of RADARSAT.

Will the RCM take images 24/7?

As opposed to an optical sensor, which is able to detect energy naturally emitted from Earth's surface (visible light, ultraviolet rays and infrared rays) to generate images, a radar is an active sensor that provides its own energy source for imaging. That is why radar satellites can image Earth anytime, regardless of the time of day or the season. However, this capacity requires a fairly large amount of energy to adequately highlight targets. For that reason, the satellites can only take images upon request and not continuously, with a limit of 15 minutes per orbit for imaging (an orbit lasts 96 minutes).

How often will each spacecraft return over a given point?

Each satellite has a 12-day repeat cycle. In other words, each satellite will fly over a given point every 12 days. However, the constellation approach will offer exact revisits every four days, which means that one of the three spacecraft will fly above a point every four days. By way of contrast, RADARSAT-1 and RADARSAT-2 had a 24-day exact revisit time (one satellite vs. three with the RCM).

What are the imaging modes of the RCM?

The system is designed as a medium-resolution mission primarily dedicated to regular monitoring of broad geographic areas. This provides a "big picture" overview of Canada's land mass and proximate water areas. The system also includes high-resolution modes, primarily designed for disaster management.

Learn more about the RCM's imaging modes and system characteristics.

How much time will it take to receive an image once it's captured by the RCM?

The data latency, from acquisition to delivery, depends on the application area and the user requirements. It will vary from 10 to 30 minutes for near-real-time requests to a maximum of 24 hours for standard ones.

For example:

  • For ship detection in Canadian and adjacent waters within the coverage area of Canadian ground stations: 10 minutes
  • Other maritime surveillance applications: 30 minutes
  • Global and Canadian disaster management applications: 2 hours
  • Ecosystem monitoring applications: 24 hours

Technical characteristics

What are some of the key features of the new satellites?
  • Multi-polarization options: In addition to all the RADARSAT-2 polarimetric modes, the RCM has new compact polarization modes that involve transmitting circular polarization. These modes combine wide-swath performance with enhanced polarimetric classification capabilities.
  • Multiple imaging modes: The satellites have a wide variety of imaging modes from high-resolution spotlight modes (with 1 m × 3 m resolution) suitable for imaging small areas, to wide-swath imaging modes with swaths of up to 500 km wide. The wide-swath imaging modes are suitable for broad-area maritime and land surveillance. For example, in the ship detection mode which has a 350-km imaging swath, the RCM satellites can detect ships of 25 m in length over all the maritime areas within 2,000 km of the coasts of Canada, every day.
  • Automatic Identification System (AIS): Each RCM satellite carries an AIS receiver. It will be used independently or in conjunction with the radar, allowing improved detection and tracking of vessels of interest.
  • Coherent Change Detection (CCD): Using a technique called interferometry, change between images can be detected on a centimetre scale. This allows detection of small motions such as ground subsidence and land use change in general.
  • Applications include geo-hazard monitoring, infrastructure monitoring (such as pipelines and rail lines), and glacier motion.
  • The RCM is designed to support CCD through enhanced orbit control ("tube flying"), better attitude control, and special imaging techniques designed for CCD.


When and where was the RCM launched?

The RADARSAT Constellation satellites were launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, on .


How will RCM benefit Canadians?

Data generated by RCM will enable the development of innovative information products benefitting Canadians in a number of ways. Here are a few examples:

Through more frequent ice monitoring, RCM will help create precise sea ice maps of Canada's oceans and the Great Lakes to facilitate navigation and commercial maritime transportation, which is essential to our economy and in our daily lives.

Similarly, radar data is used to monitor changes in permafrost and ground movement to support northern communities in planning municipal infrastructure. The information enables decision makers to identify where to safely build houses as well as to plan airport runways and their operation and maintenance.

RCM will also be used to monitor the integrity of critical infrastructure like highways, overpasses and bridges, making them safer for Canadians.

Using RADARSAT-2 imagery, along with that of other satellites, Natural Resources Canada produced maps that aided Public Safety Canada's relief efforts during the severe flooding in Quebec, Ontario and New Brunswick earlier this spring. RCM will also have this capability, but with a higher revisit rate.

Radar is a powerful tool since it has the capability to view through clouds, haze and smoke, to map burn scars and is sensitive to the changes in the structural characteristics of forest ecosystems that occur due to wildfire.

Satellite data help farmers grow crops to their full potential and produce better quality products for Canadians.

  • RCM will accurately detect crop characteristics over thousands of square metres, regardless of weather conditions.
  • The data will be extremely useful in monitoring moisture levels in the top few centimetres of soil, assessing soil and crop health, and avoiding waste of fertilizer, pesticides and water.
  • In other words, the highly accurate data collected by RCM will enable farmers to maximize crop yields while reducing energy consumption and the use of potential pollutants.

For more details on the numerous benefits of satellites, visit Satellites in our everyday lives.

Access to data

Will RCM data be available to everyone?

The RCM's prime objective is to respond to the radar data needs of the Government of Canada. Over a dozen federal departments already use RADARSAT data to deliver services to Canadians.

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) is making science data about our planet publicly available in order to develop applications that benefit Canadians in their daily lives and to advance knowledge in areas that are important for our future. For example, Earth observation images beyond those produced by the RCM and data on atmospheric science, space weather and planetary exploration are available on the CSA's Open Data page and through the Open Government portal.

The RCM SAR Data Policy refers to data and image products. What is the difference?

RCM synthetic aperture radar (SAR) data will be made available in the form of image products created from the raw data acquired by the system. These image products can be further processed into value-added products and be used to provide information services.

Who can access and use RCM data and image products?

The RCM system and its data will be used first and foremost in support of Government of Canada services and needs.

A certain portion of RCM image products will be made freely and openly available to users outside the Government of Canada, subject to exceptions in terms of security, privacy and confidentiality. Registration and the creation of a user profile will be required for anyone to access RCM image products. The user profile will define the level of access to RCM image products.

A vetting process, which will include a security screening, will be put in place for users outside the Government of Canada wishing to access additional RCM image products. The details are currently being finalized and will be made public at a later date.

The use of image products will require adherence to the accompanying End User Licence Agreement, which is expected to be published before the RCM is fully operational in fall .

How can I access RCM data?

The CSA will be the coordinator of data ordering and dissemination, whereas access to data will be provided by the Canada Centre for Mapping and Earth Observation (CCMEO), a division of Natural Resources Canada. CCMEO will also be responsible for the long-term archiving of data.

Image products will be made available free of charge through CCMEO's Earth Observation Data Management System, subject to exceptions in terms of security, privacy and confidentiality. Registration and the creation of a user profile will be required to access RCM image products. Every user will have access to the entire growing catalogue, but their user profile will determine which image products they are able to view and/or download.

Predefined recurrent observation plans (known as "Standard Coverage Plans"), which set out what image products will be collected and available to the public, will be published online on the Government of Canada Open Maps portal after the RCM is fully operational in fall .

The RCM SAR Data Policy states that vetted users may be granted greater access to RCM image products. What is a vetted user and how do I become a vetted user?

Vetted users are those who have successfully passed a security screening process and have been granted a type of account that aims to provide better access to archived RCM data products. The details of the vetting process are being finalized and will be published at a later date.

Are RCM images available free of charge?

Yes. The data distribution approach being implemented for the RCM is aligned with the spirit of the Directive on Open Government and the global trends in Earth observation. It provides access to data (subject to security restrictions set out in Canadian legislation) for free to users.

I'm a Canadian student/scientist. Will I be able to use RCM images?

Yes. The RCM data distribution approach, aligned with the spirit of the Directive on Open Government and the global trends in Earth observation, aims to provide access to image products (subject to security requirements set out in Canadian legislation) for free to a variety of Canadian users, including the industry, government and academic users.

The use of image products will require adherence to the accompanying End User Licence Agreement, which is expected to be published before the RCM is fully operational in fall .

My business wants to use RCM images to develop commercial products and provide paid services. Is that possible?

Yes. To maximize the socio-economic benefits of the Government's investment in this mission, RCM image products will be made available, to the broadest extent possible, in order to promote the development of innovative products and services derived from SAR data. The use of image products will require adherence to the accompanying End User Licence Agreement, which is expected to be published before the RCM is fully operational in fall .

Will data and images be shared with international partners?

All Government of Canada department users will be able to share RCM data and images through sharing arrangements with their respective partners.

As a founding member of the International Charter "Space and Major Disasters," the CSA will continue to provide RADARSAT-2 and RCM imagery to support rescue teams and relief efforts on the ground when disasters strike anywhere in the world.

A portion of RCM image products will be made available to all users, including those from foreign countries, through the Earth Observation Data Management System (EODMS). To gain access to these products, those interested must register and create a user account.

If image products available to users are not adequate, a user may wish to apply for vetting of their user account in order to gain greater access. Access to additional image products will continue to be through the EODMS website. Special arrangements for international partners could be made for sharing data.

Any use of RCM image products or data will require adherence to the accompanying End User Licence Agreement, which is expected to be published before the RCM is fully operational in fall .

When will the data be available?

The satellites will be fully operational in fall , after the commissioning period.

RCM and other satellites

Do other countries operate remote sensing satellites similar to RCM?

Other space agencies like NASA and European Space Agency (ESA) operate various types of Earth observation satellites. In addition to Canada, radar satellites are also used by countries like Japan, Germany and Italy. Although they can work together to reach a common goal, like supplying images to support relief efforts as part of the International Charter Space and Major Disasters, each of the satellite has its own characteristics to fill national needs.


What happens if one or more of the 3 satellites malfunctions or breaks? Will the other ones still work? Is there a back-up plan if the RADARSAT Constellation explodes during its launch or once in space?

Each spacecraft functions independently. If one fails during or after launch, the others continue to operate. We have a comprehensive contingency plan that details different scenarios in case any of these situations arise.

Is it possible to repair the RADARSAT Constellation once it's out in space?

Some repairs can be done through software patches if required. However, any physical damages to the hardware of the spacecraft can't be repaired, but the critical components have redundancy systems that could be switched on if needed.

What will happen to RADARSAT Constellation once its lifespan ends? How will it be disposed of/what are you doing to make sure it doesn't add to the space debris?

Historically, Canadian satellites have remained operational way beyond their expected lifespan. However, the Canadian Space Agency takes the issue of space debris very seriously and in line with the Remote Sensing Space Systems Act requirements, a system disposal plan has been elaborated for RCM. When they stop being operational, the 3 spacecraft will be decommissioned and burn up into the atmosphere within 25 years.

This plan is in conformity with the rules and regulations that have been in place for a number of years now, both nationally and internationally, to prevent further proliferation of space debris. The Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC), in which the CSA is actively involved, developed Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines that Canada, other space-faring nations and commercial launch providers have adopted for a number of years now.

How will you ensure that RCM doesn't collide with other satellites or the space debris currently floating in space?

CSA's Collision Risk Assessment and Mitigation Systems (CRAMS) supports over 60 satellites, national and foreign, to assess risks of close approach or collisions and propose mitigation solutions. Three CSA staff support CRAMS activities and also perform re-entry analysis activities when required. Objects larger than about 10 cm in size are currently routinely tracked by Space Surveillance Network sensors. When a possible collision is identified, satellite operators are notified, allowing a collision avoidance maneuver to be made when deemed necessary.

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