Monday, February 18, 2019

Space Could be the Most Perfect Construction Site for the Most Perfect Fiber Optics

          By Chuck Black

According to Mountain View CA based Flawless Photonics President and CEO Chandra (CK) Singla, the real future of manufacturing in space could begin with a small automated, fiber optic fabrication laboratory (the "Fab Lab") currently scheduled to launch in April, 2019 with the next SpaceX Falcon-9 resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

The December 2018 cover of "Upward Magazine," the official publication of the ISS National Lab explored the increasing efforts to manufacture exotic fiber optics in a micro-gravity environment in the article "Exotic Glass Fibers from Space. The Race to Manufacture ZBLAN." Graphic c/o Upward Magazine.

Singla is currently working with co-founder Rob Loughan, plus a small team of material science, optical fiber and micro-gravity experts to bring a new generation of innovation and creativity to the final frontier.

He spoke about the upcoming mission, and about why optical fibers are an order of magnitude more useful when manufactured in space, with this blog last Friday.

"We've been focusing in this area to understand how to achieve the theoretical promise of several glass compositions to provide a 10 times or greater improvement in performance of optical fibers, by increasing the operational spectrum at far lower attenuation. Our work builds upon the research on the effects of microgravity on ZBLAN optical fibers by NASA materials scientist Dennis Tucker," said Singla. "The upcoming mission is our proof-of-concept."

CK Singla. Photo c/o CK Singla.
Optical fibers are flexible, transparent strands made by drawing glass (silica or fluoride gas) or plastic to a diameter slightly thicker than that of a human hair.

The strands are used in many industries including telecommunications, aerospace and healthcare because optical information travels over longer distances and at higher bandwidths (data rates) than is possible with electrical information traveling over electrical cables.

But on Earth, gravity influences strand formation by encouraging flaws and crystals to develop within the fibers made from the more promising fluoride glasses during the manufacturing process. Those flaws slow down the transmission of optical information in much the same way as a cloudy window makes it difficult to see through.

According to Singla, as data transmission needs grow exponentially, telecom and data network operators looking for new solutions are closely following our development roadmap due to the possibility of  "sending ten time the data ten times further" using far less infrastructure, provided the influence of gravity is removed from the manufacturing process

The simpler infrastructure will save more than enough money to cover the cost of the added ISS portion of the manufacturing process.

"We're going to use the Fab Lab to test out our theories. If the mission succeeds, it will have a transformative effect on healthcare, telecommunications and other industries," he stated.

The fibers manufactured on board the ISS will be returned to Earth for testing several weeks later on board the Dragon capsule during its return trip.

Flawless Photonics is currently in the midst of plans to raise $20Mln US ($26.5Mln CDN) to commercialize their work.

As outlined on the Mahwah NJ based private equity and venture capital firm Moe Funding LLC undated post, "Space Manufacturing Platform." the technology is
... optimized for the size constraints and the rigors of space travel in order to cost effectively launch our equipment on existing rocket technologies such as those from SpaceX, and can easily be handled and installed by astronauts at the International Space Station’s commercial research lab, 360 miles above the Earth. 
The result is FlawlessFiber™ which has better attenuation and spectrum bandwidth than any fiber made on Earth today. It is composed of a special glass called ZBLAN rather than silica, and its capabilities far exceed the physical properties of silica glass fibers.  So what’s the catch?  ZBLAN optical fibers can only achieve their ideal performance if they are produced in the absence of Earth’s gravity.  Which of course means, we go to space! 
​FlawlessFiber™ will revolutionize many industries that currently use optical fibers while creating entirely new products and markets that do not yet exist because these perfect fibers simply can’t be produced here on Earth.
According to the May 11th, 2018 post, "Making Stuff in Space: Off-Earth Manufacturing Is Just Getting Started," Singla and his team aren't the only people working on the process, although they do seem to be the closest to creating a commercially salable product.
Our plans are to begin quarterly flights to the ISS with enough supplies to create commercial sized quantities of our fibers, just as soon as we complete our proof of concept and complete our fund raising.
It's also worth noting that high-quality ZBLAN fiber optic cables manufactured in the traditional manner on Earth are currently quite pricey, despite being limited by attenuation that is greater than silica.

Any manufacturing process able to increase the performance 10X or more would change the economic equation and the resulting product could end up with significant market share while being very profitable.

Given that, we can reasonably expect to hear more from Flawless Photonics, CK Singla and their partners in the near future.
Chuck Black.

Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog. 

A New Generation of 3D Printed Nano-Material Sensor Platforms

          By Brian Orlotti

A NASA team has received a $2Mln US ($2.65Mln CDN) grant to develop a 3D-printed nanomaterial-based sensor platform. The small, low-power, high sensitivity platform could greatly enhance space exploration efforts.

The team, headed by technologist Mahmooda Sultana and located at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre in Maryland, will spend the next two years developing the platform.

The platform will be capable of sensing a wide variety of data such as minute concentrations of gases, atmospheric pressure and temperature, then transmitting them wirelessly from a self-contained platform measuring just two-by-three-inches. Such tiny platforms could be deployed on planetary rovers to detect small quantities of water and methane or serve as biological sensors to monitor astronauts’ health.

Key to the effort is a 3D printing system developed by Ahmed Busnina and his group at Northeastern University in Boston. The 3D printing system deposits nanomaterials (such as carbon nanotubes, graphene, molybdenum disulfide and others), layer-by-layer, onto a substrate to create tiny sensors. Each sensor can detect different gas, pressure level or temperature.

Nanomaterials are highly sensitive and stable at extreme conditions. They are also lightweight, radiation-hardened and require less power, making them ideal for space applications.

Under the partnership with Northeastern University, Sultana and her team will design the sensor platform, determining which combination of materials are best for measuring minute, parts-per-billion concentrations of water, ammonia, methane and hydrogen.

Northeastern University will then use its 3D printing system to apply the nano-materials.

The approach differs dramatically from how multi-functional sensor platforms are currently made.

Rather than building one sensor at a time and then integrating it with other components, 3D printing enables the printing of an entire suite of sensors onto one platform, dramatically simplifying integration and packaging. In another innovative twist, Sultana’s team plans to print a wireless antenna and circuitry onto the same silicon wafer as the sensors, further simplifying instrument design and fabrication.

According to Sultana, the project addresses NASA’s need for small, low-power, lightweight, and highly sensitive sensors as an alternative to the mass spectrometers currently used on space missions to detect molecules of interest. Although mass spectrometers can detect a wide variety of molecules, they have difficulty distinguishing between types such as water, methane and ammonia.

A suite of small yet powerful sensors built into a compact package recalls the iconic ‘tricorder’ devices seen in the ‘Star Trek’ franchise. The work done by Sultana’s team reminds us that the science fiction of yesterday can become the science fact of tomorrow.
Brian Orlotti.

Brian Orlotti is a network operator at the Ontario Research and Innovation Optical Network (ORION), a not-for-profit network service provider to the education and research sectors.

Friday, February 15, 2019

And Now for a Moment to Discuss the Upcoming EU Copyright Directive and Small News Outlets

          By Chuck Black

European Union (EU) negotiators have agreed to the wording of Articles 11 and 13 of the infamous EU Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market, known more commonly as the EU copyright directive.

As outlined in the February 13th, 2019 IPPro Magazine post, "EU copyright directive: article 11 and 13 text agreed," the final vote on whether to implement the directives could occur as soon as March 25th - 27th.

As noted in this blog, most recently in the August 20th, 2018 post, "Breaking for Vacation and to Research Issues Relating to Online Press Freedom: Back on September 4th," the legislation will have a substantial effect on freedom of speech on the internet, news coverage in general and the ability to link directly to primary source material for news and commentary.

The BBC has weighed in on the EU copyright directive with its February 13th, 2019 post, "What is Article 13? The EU's copyright directive explained," which noted that  "Google has been particularly vocal about the proposed law, which it says could 'change the web as we know it'" and "Article 13 of the EU Copyright Directive states services such as YouTube could be held responsible if their users upload copyright-protected movies and music."

Its worth noting that this blog will also be affected, since it often links to sources and uses tools and services provided by major US based internet giants such as Google, YouTube and others targeted by the EU copyright directive.

Change is almost certainly coming over the next few months, although very few are aware of the specifics of those changes.

We'd better stand by for adventure.
Chuck Black.

Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog. 

Thursday, February 14, 2019

A Short History of Canada's Military Space Policy and How it Fits into the Current US Space Force Discussions

Part 5: The Current Liberal Government

          By Chuck Black
This series of posts is attempting to answer some of the questions surrounding the appropriate Canadian response to the recently announced US plan to create an expanded United States Space Force. 
Part one ("The Axworthy Doctrine") focused on how the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 1990's led to a new Canadian focus on aggressive, international peacekeeping missions requiring space focused communication and surveillance capabilities of a type which Canada didn't then possess.
Part two ("The Changing Political Landscape") discussed why Canada never had a military space policy prior to 1998 by going back to the 1960's and the federal liberal party under Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau. 
Part three ("Towards Northern Sovereignty") dealt with the changing focus of Canadian foreign policy from international peacekeeping towards northern sovereignty, a policy developed in the 1990's under then Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chr├ętien which also required a substantial space-focused component, and what happened when the Canadian government realized that it still didn't possess those capabilities.
Part four ("Funding an Appropriate Force") outlined Conservative Prime Prime  Minister Stephen Harper's reaction to the policies of the previous Liberal government. It would have been a great strategy, if only the Canadian government didn't keep cutting back on the budget. 
Here is part five of this series. 

PM Trudeau in 2019. Photo c/o CP/ Darryl Dyck.
In the run up to the 2015 Federal Election, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau (the eldest son of Canada's fifteenth PM, Pierre Trudeau) instinctively understood that the problem with the Stephen Harper Conservative government (at least when it came to defence policy) was simply that no one could find the funding for the Conservative "Canada First Defence Strategy."

As outlined on the Liberal Party website:
We will maintain current National Defence spending levels, including current planned increases. 
Under Stephen Harper, investments in the Canadian Armed Forces have been erratic, promised increases in funding have been scaled back, and more than $10 billion of approved funding was left unspent. 
This mismanagement has left Canada’s Armed Forces underfunded and ill-equipped, and the courageous members of the Forces unsupported after years of dedicated service.
It sounded good. It's just a shame the new policy took until June 2017, well after the Trudeau government had won the October 15th, 2015 Federal election, to roll out..

As well, the new policy seemed to be more of a reaction to US policy which, under current US President Donald Trump, simply wasn't prepared to let Canada have as much of a free ride as had been true in previous eras.

If Canada could borrow military assets from its allies in order to complete a mission, then it would need to build up its indigenous capabilities.

The current statement of Liberal Defence policy (at least until after the next election, scheduled for October 21st, 2019) is the June 6th, 2017 "Strong, Secure, Engaged – Canada’s Defence Policy."

As outlined by Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan in his July 7th, 2017 statement in the House of Commons, "Strong, Secure, Engaged" – A new defence policy for Canada," the new plan will:
... recapitalize the Royal Canadian Air Force, with a full fleet of 88 advanced fighter jets to replace the aging CF-18s. This should have been done years ago. 
The previous government planned to purchase just 65 fighters, but didn’t actually purchase any, and didn’t budget adequately even for that inadequate fleet. 88 fighters are required to fully meet our NORAD and NATO obligations simultaneously, not just risk manage them, as the RCAF has had to do for a number of years. 
This plan fully funds, for the first time, the Royal Canadian Navy’s full complement of 15 Canadian Surface Combatant ships necessary to replace the existing frigates and retired destroyers. Fifteen. Not “up to” 15 and not 12. And definitely not six, which is the number the previous government’s plan would have paid for, as the Parliamentary Budget Officer reported last week.
Minister Sajjan. Photo c/o Chris Wattie/ Reuters.
The minister also promised to "recapitalize much of the Canadian Army’s land combat capabilities and aging vehicle fleets" and made "new commitments to emerging domains, particularly space, cyber and remotely piloted systems" in order to "address current and looming gaps in existing capabilities."

All of which sounds well and good, except when you note that, as outlined in the October 30th, 2018 Defence News post, "Canada to accept bids for new fighter jet in May — here are the potential competitors," Canada hasn't purchased any new fighter jets yet and doesn't even plan on taking bids for the replacement aircraft until May 2019.

As for the ships, it's worth noting that, as outlined in the February 8th, 2019 CBC News post, "Ottawa makes its $60B frigate project official, even as rival's court challenge goes forward," while a contract was awarded, no money seems to have changed hands.

Military procurement is a mess, and not likely to clean itself up anytime soon.

Most importantly, and as outlined in the March 6th, 2018 MacLeans post, "What’s happening to Canada’s defence spending?," no new funding was allocated in the 2018 Federal budget for the military, which kinda suggests that the Liberal defence policy is slowly walking down the same path as the previous Conservative plan.

As for Canada's space capabilities, there has been some movement, as outlined in the February 4th, 2019 post, "UTIAS-SFL and Raytheon Canada Building Military Funded Spy Sats," which noted $46.2Mln CDN for new funding under the Department of National Defence (DND) All Domain Situational Awareness Science & Technology (ADSA S&T) program. 

Also noteworthy were the eight Canadian companies which received multiple contracts totaling $6.7Mln CDN through the Department of National Defence (DND) in late 2018 in order to develop "situational awareness" applications focused around the analysis and assessment of synthetic aperture radar(SAR) data generated through Canada's Radarsat program. 

In this case, it was the funding mechanism, not the military strategy, which was noteworthy.

As outlined in the December 17th, 2018 post, "New Radarsat R&D Funding is Mostly for Software Analytics But Includes Some Interesting Surprises," the DND contracts were structured as public private partnerships with costs split 50-50 between DND and the various private sector participants.

But dropping a few million here or there for a few new programs doesn't amount to much compared to the total Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) annual budget of approximately $25Bln CDN. 

Canada's military space strategy remains mired in ideas generated decades before and still focuses on how to more effectively gain low-cost access to civilian and military US satellite command, control, communications and space situational awareness assets.

Although the strategy remains the same, most would agree that space is a far more complex environment to operate in today, than it was when Lloyd Axworthy held public office.

Is this our only choice in the matter or are there other options? That will be the subject of our final post on this topic.
Chuck Black.

Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog. 

Last episode: "Funding an Appropriate Force," as part four of "A Short History of Canada's Military Space Policy and How it Fits into the Current US Space Force Discussions," continues.

Next episode: "Conclusions," as part six of "A Short History of Canada's Military Space Policy and How it Fits into the Current US Space Force Discussions," finishes up.

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