Monday, April 25, 2016

A Weekend at the 2016 NASA Space Apps Challenge

          By Chuck Black

Graphic c/o NASA.
For those interested in the intersection of space advocacy, software applications and commercial business activities, the 2016 NASA Space Apps Challenge, which was held from April 22nd - 24th at various locations around the world, provided an interesting canvas of exploratory ideas for our next great space age.

First held in April 2012, the international hackathon partnered NASA with small groups engaged in organized challenges to develop innovative solutions focused around the use of NASA data.

As outlined in the March 23rd, 2016 NASA press release, "NASA Announces Dates for One of World’s Largest Hackathons," the "global main stage for this year’s event" was Pasadena, California,

Local events took place at 193 other locations in 72 countries and were expected to attract approximately 15,000 participants.

In Toronto, the teams picked to move on to global judging, the next phase of the event, include:
  • Vesta Rainbow - A generic digital online tool designed to build constant scale natural boundary (CSNB) maps of Vesta (one of the largest objects in the asteroid belt) utilizing the digital elevation model (DEM) found through Vesta Trek. According to the website, tool could be applicable to any 2D or 3D surfaces (not necessarily terrains) in order to "visualise the dissipation of potential. An example could be “virtual flood” analysis of income distribution on a city map."
  • Kid on the Moon - An interactive children's app which allows smartphones and tablets to locate the Moon any time of the day (even when the Moon is below the horizon) and unlock current lunar data (phase, distance, etc), and other items.
As well, team Space Off (which explored ways to adapt common gym tools to reduced gravity environments and design a workout routine to minimize bone and muscular loss) received a Peoples Choice nomination and will also move on to global judging.


According to Toronto Space Apps Challenge organizer James Costa, the real Toronto challenge was to organize a separate one-day youth event for kids ages 7-15, which was held on Saturday, April 23rd, in conjunction with, but at a separate location, from the main event.

As outlined on the 2016 Toronto Space Apps Youth website, "It’s a day set with unique challenges that encourages kids to use their hands and brains to explore and learn about space like never before." The youth event involved robotics, space-related arts and crafts and coding workshops.

Don't just stand there. Click on the image to re-tweet and show your support. Photo's c/o @teresa_sing.

Meanwhile, over at the NASA space apps Waterloo location, the big news was the MaxQ "business accelerator for space start-ups," which formally announced a pilot program for three to five teams, which will begin in September, 2016 and run for six months.

To join the first cohort, the MaxQ organizers are looking for:
  • Teams of 2-10 founders, of whom one must be willing to be at Communitech in Kitchener-Waterloo full-time for the duration of the program.
  • Teams focused on developing "downstream applications" or software applications able to run on existing hardware, focused around the areas of Earth observation, geo-analytics, big data, geomatics, wearables and/ or bio-medicine.
  • Teams with a working prototype that is close or ready to be launched into the market.
In exchange, the company offers "an intensive program of mentoring, business development assistance and access to industry experts." The program is open to Canadian citizens and Canadian residents only.

According to MaxQ president Brodie Houlette, "We want to make Kitchener/ Waterloo the epicenter for Canadian space activities."

He said the Canadian accelerator will be modeled on the successful UK based Satellite Applications Catapult accelerator, which was established in May, 2013 by Innovate UK, a UK government agency.

CEO Houlette giving a presentation at the Waterloo Space Apps Challenge on April 24th. MaxQ will be based in the Communitech innovation centre in Kitchener, Ontario, which has donated space for up to 20 people, according to the April 24th, 2016 The Record article, "New space-sector accelerator to touch down in Kitchener." Photo c/o B. Houlette.

MaxQ founders include Houlette, Marc Boucher (the co-founder and CEO of SpaceRef.com), Robert Gissing (a co-founder, past director and past president of the Kwartzlab MakerSpace) and James Slifierz (the co-founder and CEO of SkyWatch Space Applications which, as outlined in the May 19th, 2014 post, "CDN "SkyWatch" wins "Best Use of Data" at Int'l Space Apps Challenge," won the 2014 Space apps challenge).

No funders for the accelerator have so far been announced.

Chuck Black.
The potential for a Canadian space focused accelerator has been discussed previously, most recently in the March 30th, 2016 post, "Changing Times; Space Start-up Accelerator Announced in Waterloo."
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Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Bigelow Expanded Activity Module & Breakthrough Starshot

          By Brian Orlotti

BEAM. Imfographic c/o NASA.gov/beam
Over the past few weeks, two new events have shown the private space industry's achieving a critical mass of both financial support and cohesion.

First off, on April 8th, a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft, launched into orbit on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, delivered the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) to the International Space Station (ISS).

BEAM is a technology demonstrator designed to prove the viability of inflatable space habitats and will spend two years attached to the ISS.

As announced in the April 11th, 2016 Verge article, "ULA is teaming up with Bigelow Aerospace to launch commercial space habitats,"

BEAM will pave the way for the debut of Bigelow Aerospace's flagship product, the B330, in 2019.

Bigelow Aerospace CEO Robert Bigelow envisions the B330 habitat essentially being operated as a timeshare, with both NASA and private citizens as paying customers. Bigelow will rely on commercial providers SpaceX and Boeing to transport crew to and from the B330.

As outlined in the April 2nd, 2013 post, "A Thin Red Line to Protect Mars Explorers," Chiliwack BC., based Thin Red Line Aerospace designs and builds the pressure-restraining hulls used for the Bigelow habitats which are made of impact-resistant, Kevlar-like materials and other fabrics.

Thin Red Line Aerospace has previously designed and built the pressure-restraining hulls for the Bigelow Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 technology demonstrators, which launched in 2006 and 2007.

The lightweight habitats could save millions of dollars in launch costs compared with metal modules.

But Bigelow isn't the only space focused billionaire with a new initiative this month. 

Infographic c/o Space.com.
On April 12th, venture capitalist Yuri Milner and theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking unveiled Breakthrough Starshot, a  $100Mln USD ($128Mln CDN) initiative to develop a fleet of light sail-equipped nano-spacecraft capable of travelling to Alpha Centauri in 20 years at 20% of light-speed, taking pictures and video and then relaying them back to Earth. 

In an interesting reversal of conventional wisdom, Milner categorized the project as something which governments would not normally consider because of its speculative nature and the long lead times.

As outlined in the April 12th, 2016 CBC News post, "Yuri Milner, Stephen Hawking's Breakthrough Starshot targets Alpha Centauri," it could take years to develop the project, and there is no guarantee it will work.

Breakthrough Starshot is part of a larger program called Breakthrough Initiatives, funded by Milner to pursue different avenues for contacting extraterrestrial life.

As outlined on the project website, the initiatives, "are a program of scientific and technological exploration, probing the big questions of life in the Universe: Are we alone? Are there habitable worlds in our galactic neighborhood? Can we make the great leap to the stars? And can we think and act together – as one world in the cosmos?"

The Breakthrough Initiatives board includes Milner, Hawking and Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

The Breakthrough Initiatives are another watershed example of a marquee investor applying their resources into a long-term space project with no immediate return.

The BEAM delivery to the ISS marks the proof-of-concept of a technology that will enable extensive in-orbit and off-world development.

The Bigelow/ULA partnership signifies the emergence of a new pragmatism within the space industry; the coming together of Old Guard and New. Space aficionados everywhere can take heart in seeing this long-static industry finally embracing its future.

"And that day dawned when Arrakis lay at the hub of the universe with the wheel poised to spin.," Frank Herbert - Dune.

Brian Orlotti.
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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.

Friday, April 22, 2016

2009 Canadian Space Agency Report on Indigenous Canadian Launcher said "Yes!" But CSA Didn't Move Forward

          By Chuck Black

According to Toronto, Ontario based Continuum Aerospace CEO Arny Sokoloff, “Launch capability is basic infrastructure for a first world country. The rest of the G-8 nations, plus several other smaller nations, have this capability. We should too.”

A graphic representation of orbital launch projects and capabilities. Red denotes confirmed orbital launch capable countries. Orange denotes confirmed orbital launch capable intergovernmental organization members such as the European Space Agency (ESA). Green denotes nations with orbital launch projects in development or planned. Blue denotes countries with unsuccessful and abandoned orbital launch projects. Canada, Egypt and Iraq are blue. Graphic c/o Jeffsapko at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Sokoloff knows what he is talking about. In 2009, his team authored the “Microsatellite Launch System Technical Feasibility Study Project Final Report,” under Canadian Space Agency (CSA) contract #28-7006058. The report was released in 2014 as part of an access to information request and is currently available through open.canada.ca.

It’s one of two concurrent studies procured under that CSA contract, both of which assessed Canada’s capacity to create and support a small domestic launcher. As outlined in the executive summary:
The feasibility of an indigenous Canadian microsatellite launch system of specified capabilities (150kg to 800km sun-synchronous orbit) was examined. It was confirmed that such a capability would meet much of the projected Canadian need, particularly as the utility of microsatellites has been increasing over time.
The report concluded that, “As a result of this study, we have determined that the original goals are feasible and can be achieved at a reasonable cost.” Overall cost was estimated at approximately $187Mln CDN over seven years; although a smaller satellite launcher could be built for less.

A plain document covering a fascinating topic. The front cover of "Microsatellite Launch System Technical Feasibility Study Project Final Report," as released by the CSA in compliance with the author's informal request of April 13th, 2016 to obtain records originally disclosed in 2014 as part of an earlier FOI request. To access the full document, simply click here. Screen shot c/o CSA and Continuum Aerospace. 

Of course, while feasibility studies in this area have been talked about at the CSA and its predecessors going back to the early days of space exploration, the 2009 Continuum report was the first study to see the light of day.

In a recent phone interview, Sokoloff outlined how the existing (and exclusively foreign) satellite launch services available to Canada in 2009 (and today) each suffer from problems:
  • The costs of flights to specified orbits are high.
  • The availability of launches is subject to long lead times and uncertainty in launch dates.
  • Orbit selection controlled by host launcher, not by Canadian needs; Canada has to “fit in,” to the launch provider's requirements.
  • Foreign governments control and limit Canadian satellite launches.
The goal of the 2009 study was to address these problems, especially when it came to northern sovereignty issues, where the countries we were trying to monitor in the Arctic were the most likely suppliers for launch berths,” said Sokoloff.

CSA studies and assessments are often announced but completed studies are seldom released to the public, especially if they discuss Canadian rockets, which are perceived of as being contrary to Federal government policy going back to the 1960's. As outlined in the April 19th, 2010 Space News post, "CSA Begins Studies for First Canadian Microsatellite Launch System," the CSA announced in 2010, over a year after the Continuum report was completed, that they were seriously exploring the possibility of "developing a launch system for microsatellites, a capability that if approved by the government would be a first for the country." But the initiative seems to have been suspended after then CSA president Stave MacLean retired in 2012. For more on the early development of Canada's policy concerns relating to rocket development, check out the December 27th, 2010 post on "Canada's Military Space Policy; Part 2, The Changing Political Landscape." Screenshot c/o Space News.

The report listed several “key technologies” which were not available as commercial-off-the-shelf items and /or were considered highly restricted by foreign governments. Propulsion; thrust vector control; vessels and pressurization; inertial navigation systems; flight-weight nozzles; and separation systems were identified as “needing further development” to be available to Canada unrestricted. Much of the money allocated to the project estimate was to go towards maturing those identified technologies.

As a reference design, the study settled on a three stage rocket, utilizing two sizes of LOX-paraffin hybrid rocket engines as the “preferred technical concept vehicle,” in order to avoid toxic fuels or explosives.

The second portion of the study, generally conceded to have been completed by Gormley, Ontario based Cesaroni Technology (which currently sells rocket components to Denver, Utah based UP Aerospace) and the Bristol Aerospace subsidiary of Mississauga, Ontario based Magellan Aerospace (which pioneered rocketry in Canada with the Black Brant series of suborbital sounding rockets), has not been released.

Rumour and innuendo suggest that the real problem with any Canadian based rocket was the lack of a compelling business case. But any discussion focused on that area needs to include an assessment of why other privately held rocket companies such as Rocket Lab have a business case but Canadian companies don't. Founded in New Zealand in 2007, Rocket Lab is currently a privately held American aerospace company headquartered in Los Angeles, California, although it retains an office in Aukland. Founder, CEO and technical director Peter Beck is shown above with an  Electron rocket, an all carbon composite launch vehicle. The company has obtained funding from a variety of sources including private venture firms Bessemer Venture Partners and Khosla Ventures along with Callaghan Innovation, a New Zealand government agency which supports domestic hi-tech businesses. Photo c/o Baldwins.

An April 14th, 2016 request into the CSA media relations office for clarification on two questions relating to why the study was initiated in 2009 and why the CSA never followed through with the report recommendations, has so far elicited no formal response from within the space agency.

But the CSA has responded to three other queries relating to the Cesaroni/ Magellen concurrent study.

According to CSA media relations officer Maya Eyssen:
1. Why was the FOI request to release the Cesaroni report rejected?
Processing of the Access to Information request was done in conformity with the Access to Information Act (the Act). Notice was given to third parties in accordance with section 27(1) of the Act. Representations were received by the third parties and the decision was made not to disclose part of the information. (section 28 of the Act).
2. Did the Cesaroni report come to a different conclusion from the Continuum report?
The information contained in that report is exempted pursuant to section 20(1)(b) and (c) of the Act, therefore CSA  cannot comment on the content of the document.
3. Will the Cesaroni report ever be released?
It is not CSA’s decision to publicly disclose or not this report. See section 27 and 28 of the Act.
It's expected that this story will be updated as more information becomes available. As outlined in an April 22nd, 2016 e-mail sent out in response to the initial query by Eyssen, ""I did my best to find the info but I will have to get back to you next week for the last two questions."

Chuck Black.
Editor's Note: On April 24th, Eyssen sent a short, curt e-mail explaining that, "after careful examination of the feasibility study reports and given higher priorities at the time, namely RCM (the RADARSAT Constellation mission) and ISS (Canada's ongoing contribution to the International Space Station), CSA opted not to pursue the development of indigenous launcher systems."

Here's hoping that other peoples rockets will be sufficient to support those initiatives.
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Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog.