Monday, June 29, 2015

Tri-Alpha Energy Attempting to Create "Tri-Alpha" Particles via Fusion Reactions

          By Brian Orlotti

Tri-Alpha Energy Inc (TAE), a secretive and enigmatic Foothill Ranch, California based firm working to develop non-traditional fusion power, has published two papers that shed light on its latest progress.

Artists conception of the TAE colliding beam reactor and support equipment. As outlined in the October 9th, 2013 Alternative Energy Now post on "Tri Alpha Energy; Secretive Clean Fusion Power," the design uses boron-11 and protons from hydrogen nuclei to cause fusion to carbon-12, thence breaking up to three helium-4 nuclei (the three "tri-alpha particles") while producing little to no neutrons and therefore little to no significant radioactive products. Graphic c/o Alternative Energy Action Now.

As outlined in the June 2nd, 2015 article, "Mystery company blazes a trail in fusion energy," the papers revealed that its device, dubbed the colliding beam fusion reactor, has shown a "10-fold improvement in its ability to contain the hot particles needed for fusion over earlier devices at U.S. universities and national labs."

TAE was founded in 1998 by plasma physicists Norman Rostoker (an 86 year old Ontario born physics professor at the University of California, Irvine) and Hendrik J. Monkhorst (of the University of Florida) as a spin-off of their scientific work. TAE, in contrast to other alternative fusion power startups like Burnaby, BC based General Fusion (last profiled in the May 25th, 2015 post "Three Small Fusion Companies Approaching a Critical Funding Mass") and Lawrenceville Plasma Physics, has kept a very low profile.

The company has no website and had published little until last month. However, as of 2014, TAE is reported to have over 150 employees and has raised over $140 million USD in capital. The company's investors include Goldman Sachs and venture capital firms like Vulcan Inc (founded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen), Venrock (founded by Laurance S. Rockefeller), and Richard Kramlich's New Enterprise Associates.

Notably, TAE is also funded by Rusnano, a Russian Government-owned company focused on the development and commercialization of nanotechnology. Rusnano CEO Anatoly Chubais sits on the TAE board of directors.

TAE's device, called the colliding beam fusion reactor (CBFR), relies on a phenomenon called a field-reversed configuration (FRC) (essentially a smoke ring of plasma). The CBFR is a 23m long tube with numerous ring-shaped magnets and other devices along its length. It creates an FRC at both ends and fires them toward the middle at 250 kilometers per second. At the center they merge into a large vortex, converting their kinetic energy into heat to produce a high-temperature FRC. Because this FRC is made of swirling charged particles (i.e. electrons and nuclei), it creates a magnetic field that acts to hold the FRC together long enough to trigger nuclear fusion.

In May, TAE shed more light on their process when they published two papers in the science journals "Physics of Plasmas" and "Nature Communications," which revealed that the CBFR gained a factor-of-10 improvement (5ms) in the stability of the FRC by firing ion beams into the plasma. The ion beams both harden the plasma against instability and suppress turbulence that allows heat to escape.

To achieve a net energy gain, i.e. getting more energy out of a fusion reaction than being put into it, researchers will have to make FRCs last for at least one second. To this end, TAE researchers are already working on an upgraded reactor, with more powerful ion beams in a different orientation.

Brian Orlotti.
And the fruits of these efforts are likely years away.

With TAE racing with other firms to commercialize fusion power, the pressure to innovate has never been greater. Such pressure will bring this world changing technology to market faster, ultimately providing the greatest benefit to the public and the planet. 

Brian Orlotti is a network operations centre analyst at Shomi, a Canadian provider of on-demand internet streaming media and a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Canadian Space Industry Could Be In for a Bumpy Night

          By Glen Strom

According to political observers, the upcoming federal election in October will be one of the closest in years. Any of the three major parties could win. Add to that the possibility of a minority government, or even a Liberal/NDP coalition, and we’re facing what could be a long period of political instability.

Political cartoon c/o Graham Mackay/ Hamilton Spectator.

Uncertainty isn’t good for business, unless it’s the antacid business. For better or for worse, Canada needs the government of the day to take the lead in developing and implementing a comprehensive space policy. If any party can win, then each party’s space policy is of equal importance.

So what are the politicians saying about space?

Not much beyond the usual vague comments politicians make before an election. Despite the government’s recent scattering of the blossoms (money) through the Canadian Space Agency's (CSA) Space Technology Development Program (STDP), space isn’t at the top of their agenda—or any party’s agenda. It’s not a big vote-getter.

The Liberals have people with a passion for science and space, like Liberal MP and former astronaut Marc Garneau. So does the NDP. But passion doesn’t equal policy. If either of these two parties wins, they’ll have items on their agenda that are more important to them than the space industry.

And the current government? A Conservative win doesn’t guarantee that they’d continue with their space plans now that Industry Minister James Moore is leaving federal politics. His departure is outlined in the June 19th, 2015 edition of the Globe and Mail, “Tory Cabinet Minister James Moore Won’t Run for Re-election.”

Astronaut Chris Hadfield, politician David Emerson and Industry Minister James Moore. It's worth noting that, of the three most effective personalities involved with the Canadian space program over the last few years, only one came from a traditional science or engineering background. Photo's c/o Wikipedia.

Could the CSA take the lead? Probably not. Sylvain Laporte, this year’s CSA president (and keep in mind, the year is still young), was nowhere to be seen when the government was handing out money these past few weeks.

If the CSA was meant to lead, former president Steve MacLean’s plan would be in place but, of course, we all know how that turned turned out. And no offence meant to Mr. Laporte, but the CSA president wouldn’t be a career bureaucrat.

For those who don't know what happened to Dr. MacLean, check out the January 19th, 2013 post on "Praising Steve MacLean."

How might this situation shake out for industry players? The big players in Canadian space will do fine. They’ve been branching out beyond Canada for a while.

Up-and-comers like Vancouver-based UrtheCast will do fine, too. Their recent spate of announcements, as outlined in the June 22nd, 2015 blog post, “Is UrtheCast Becoming Canada's ‘Other’ Space Program?,” shows that Canadian companies can get it done without government involvement.

But our space industry is more than just a handful of big players and savvy newcomers. Smaller companies and private organizations play an important role as subcontractors and service providers. Start-ups bring new ideas and a fresh perspective.

A national space policy is important in building the infrastructure that brings all of these pieces together. Political uncertainty will hurt the industry as a whole.

Glen Strom.
Consider a line from a classic 1950 movie called “All About Eve.” In the movie Bette Davis, a great actress from the golden era of Hollywood, says, “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.

The Canadian space industry may need to buckle up to weather its own bumpy night.
Glen Strom is a freelance writer and editor with a background in business and technical writing. He's also the editor of The Gazette Weekly, the newsletter of the Canadian Space Society.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Is UrtheCast Becoming Canada's "Other" Space Program?

          By Chuck Black

Three announcements, each made by Vancouver based UrtheCast within the last week, are obvious reminders that even moderately sized Canadian corporations are quite capable of funding substantial space based activities by raising money on the commercial market.

As outlined in the June 17th, 2015 UrtheCast press release, "London, Boston, Barcelona: The World’s First Full-Color HD Videos Of Earth From Space," this 34 second video of Westminster Pier and Parliament Square in London, England, along with two other videos, were taken using equipment installed by UrtheCast on the ISS in January 2014. The three videos ranged in length from 34 to 47 seconds, and covered areas of up to 1.19 x 0.67 miles (1.92 x 1.08 kms). Image c/o UrtheCast.

Last Wednesday, UrtheCast released a series of full-color HD videos of various locations on Earth, filmed from the International Space Station (ISS) at roughly one-meter resolution.

As outlined in the June 17th, 2015 Space News article, "UrtheCast Releases High-Definition Video From Space Station Camera," the videos were released to demonstrate that the company’s high-resolution camera has overcome technical problems and is ready to enter commercial service.

The videos are an obvious coup for the plucky start-up which, as last outlined in the January 28th 2014 post, "UrtheCast Cameras Reinstalled on ISS," started out without Canadian Space Agency (CSA) or Industry Canada funding and needed to overcome substantial challenges to get to where it is today.

But the company was just getting started.

As outlined in the October 12th, 2012 Earth Imaging Journal article, "Discover the Benefits of Radar Imaging," the last two decades have witnessed unprecedented growth in the satellite-based Earth observation industry. Although the market is still "strongly biased toward electro-optically derived imagery, a rising tide of acceptance and usage of satellite-derived synthetic aperture radar (SAR) data has occurred during the last few years." Graphic c/o EI Journal.

Only two days later, as announced in the June 19th, 2015 press release, "UrtheCast Announces World’s First Commercial SAR And Optical 16-Satellite Constellation," the company announced an audacious plan to "build, launch and operate the world’s first fully-integrated, multispectral optical and synthetic aperture radar (SAR) commercial constellation of Earth observation satellites."

According to the press release:
The constellation is expected to comprise a minimum of 16 satellites (8 optical and 8 SAR) flying in two orbital planes, with each plane consisting of four satellite pairs, equally-spaced around the orbit plane.  Each pair of satellites will consist of a dual-mode, high-resolution optical satellite (video and pushbroom) and a dual-band high-resolution SAR satellite (X-band and L-band) flying in tandem.
Even better, the project seemed to be at least partially funded:
UrtheCast has entered into Memoranda of Understanding (“MOU’s”) with multiple customers and partners, including an MOU from a confidential customer, to provide US$195 million of funding for the constellation during the build phase of the program (expected to be 2016-2020).
The press release also listed partnerships with Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL), an independent British company within the Airbus Defence & Space group and the privately held but Spanish based ElecnorDeimos, which operates the Deimos-1 and Deimos-2 Earth imaging satellites.

All of which leads logically to the third announcement.

Spanish promotional literature for the Deimos-1 Earth imaging satellite. As outlined on Gunther's Space Page, the satellite was constructed by SSTL, based on the SSTL-100 satellite bus. Graphic c/o ASD

As outlined in the most recent UrtheCast press release, this one dated June 22nd, 2015 and titled, "UrtheCast To Acquire Deimos Satellites And Earth Imaging Operations," the company will now be acquiring the the Deimos-1 and Deimos-2 Earth imaging satellites along with the Deimos global archive of Earth imagery ElecnorDeimos.

The Spanish company is no longer really a partner, since it's essentially been swallowed whole to provide UrtheCast with a doubling of its Earth imaging capacity. According to the June 22nd, 2015 Bloomburg article, "UrtheCast Acquires Deimos to Double its Space-Imaging Capability," UrtheCast has agreed to pay 74.2Mln euros ($103.13Mln CDN) to close the deal.

According to this newest announcement:
The combination of UrtheCast and Deimos is expected to allow UrtheCast to accelerate its own strategy — achieved through the use of Deimos’ imagery archive on UrtheCast’s web platform, distributing fresh imagery through UrtheCast’s established distribution channels, customers and web platform, leveraging each company’s established relationships and building upon each other’s infrastructure.
What this really means is that UrtheCast has entered a large market with huge growth potential and commercial funders are lining up for the chance to make a killing. All without the assistance of the traditional Canadian go to people for space projects.

UrtheCast began in 2010 with five employees, growing to 65 in both Canada and the US. After an initial investment of $500,000 CDN, the company went on to raise over $77 million in funding after going public via a reverse takeover of publicly-traded Longford Energy Inc in June 2013. As outlined in the April 12th, 2015 post, "2015 is Shaping Up to be a Good Year for UrtheCast," the company has even reported its first quarterly profit.

It will be interesting to see what happens over the next year.