Tuesday, November 13, 2018

A Rising Electron Lifts All Boats

          By Brian Orlotti

Huntington CA and New Zealand based Rocket Lab has launched an Electron rocket from its private spaceport in New Zealand, successfully placing seven spacecraft in orbit for its first commercial launch. With this latest success, the company is solidifying its lead in the burgeoning small rocket industry.

The launch, which Rocket Lab has dubbed the ‘It's Business Time’ mission, saw six satellites deployed for San Francisco CA based Spire Global, Irvine CA based Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems, Beverley Australia based Fleet Space Technologies and the Irvine CA based Irvine CubeSat STEM program, a collaboration between six high schools in Irvine CA to assemble, test and launch a CubeSat into low Earth orbit.

Also launched was a spacecraft built by München, Germany based HPS GmbH to demonstrate space debris removal technology according to the November 11th, 2018 CNBC post, "Space unicorn Rocket Lab reaches orbit again in key first commercial launch."

Originally scheduled to launch last spring following its successful Jan 2018 test launch, the mission was delayed due to a ‘motor control’ issue with the rocket. launch marks the beginning of Rocket Lab's acceleration toward launching at a weekly rate. 

While taking time to correct the motor control issue, the company made the most of the situation by continuing to build up it’s infrastructure, opening a new factory in New Zealand. Rocket Lab also plans to build a US launchpad in Virginia.

Rocket Lab was founded in 2006 by New Zealander Peter Beck, the company's current CEO and CTO. In 2009, Rocket Lab launched the Ātea-1 sounding rocket. In December 2010 Rocket Lab was awarded a contract from the US Department of Defence’s (DoD) OperationallyResponsive Space Office (ORS) to study a low cost space launcher to place nano-satellites into orbit. 

The company’s investors include Palo Alto and San Franscisco CA based Data Collective (DCVC), Chicago IL based Promus Ventures, Menlo Park CA based Bessemer Venture Partners, Menlo Park CA based Khosla Ventures and New Zealand based K1W1 Investments as well as  Bethesda, MD based aerospace behemoth LockheedMartin and the Government of New Zealand

Rocket Lab’s Series D funding round increased the company’s total level of investment to $148Mln US ($200Mln CDN). The company is now valued at over $1Bln US ($1.35Bln CDN).

The Electron is a 17m tall two-stage launcher designed to deliver payloads of 150 kg into a 500km Sun-synchronous orbit. The 3D printed carbon-composite rocket is powered by a cluster of 9 in-house built Rutherford engines (after the New Zealand-born physicist Ernest Rutherford) that use liquid oxygen and kerosene. The Rutherford engine incorporates new innovations to minimize weight and cost, including battery-powered fuel pumps and (mostly) 3D-printed components. The Electron is priced at $5.7Mln US ($7.5Mln CDN) per launch.

Rocket Lab’s next launch is scheduled for December, with a further 16 launches planned for 2019. The company will aim for a launch rate of once a month in 2019, followed by once very two weeks, with an ultimate goal of once a week by 2020.

Rocket Lab’s success illustrates how modern technology can now enable even small nations to have their own space launch capability. Canada, a declining space power lacking its own space launch capability, must take this lesson to heart if it is to remain relevant.

Fortunately, there are signs of this occurring, most notably as outlined in the October 23rd, 2018 post, "Those New Maple Leaf Brand Rockets," through the LaunchCanada Rocket Innovation Challenge, an effort being led by rocket engineer Adam Trumpour to establish Canada’s first major rocket competition.

The contest will offer Canadians the opportunity to foster a vibrant private launch industry in the same manner that gave birth to firms like Rocket Lab and SpaceX.

A rising Electron lifts all boats, indeed.
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.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Canada Needs Dedicated Space Technology to Prevent Wildfire Disasters

          By Samuel Looper

Wildfires caught the nation’s attention in 2016 with the Fort McMurray fires, which caused over 80,000 evacuations and nearly $10Bln CDN in before finally burning itself out fifteen months later.

A graphic representation of Canadian forest fires in the last 35 years. As outlined in the Sep 1st, 2017 CBNC News post, "Devastating Fort McMurray wildfire declared out 15 months later,"the Fort McMurray fires started on May 1st, 2016, destroyed more than 2,400 buildings in the Fort McMurray area and eventually spilled over into Saskatchewan before being deemed officially extinguished. According to the January 27th, 2017 Canadian Press post, "Costs of Alberta wildfire reach $9.5 billion: Study," an assessment of the total financial impact of the Fort McMurray fires, including the direct and indirect costs of the blaze are "almost $10Bln CDN." Map c/o NRCan.

But the Fort McMurray fires weren't unique.

Canadian forest fires annually consume over 2.5 million hectares of land, a figure that continuously increases as a result of climate change. Our northern boreal forest is particularly vulnerable, but—as witnessed in Fort McMurray—wildfires have unmediated impacts on humans too. The adverse impacts of wildfires disproportionately affect northern and Indigenous communities.

Without accurate in formation on current wildfire risks, and the analytics required to model and monitor wildfires, communities across Canada will be prone to natural disaster and economic upheaval.

The Aerospace Policy division of the Toronto ON based University of Toronto Aerospace Team (UTAT) believes Canada needs a comprehensive strategy on wildfire disaster management that leverages space technology to accurately monitor and predict wildfires.

The organization has made a series of recommendations to the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) on developing the necessary technology and infrastructure to ensure our space program is part of the solution in our battle against natural disaster.

Space technologies have tremendous potential to positively impact wildfire prevention and response initiatives across the country.

Earth observation satellites are the most effective way to collect infrared imaging and other critical meteorological data. These orbiting imaging platforms can cover the entire Canadian landmass in 10 minutes, carrying instruments able to precisely measure emissions and thermal anomalies to locate current forest fires.

They are also the best surveying tools at our disposal, providing highly accurate, up-to-date maps of the distribution of biofuels across the country to locate areas prone to wildfire.

In a country of nearly 10 million square kilometers, there is simply no other way to have accurate information on the risks and current status of wildfires for all communities in Canada.

The RADARSAT Constellation Mission (RCM) is a good example of space infrastructure the CSA should leverage to generate our own meteorological and surveying data. Images c/o CSA.

In addition, recent breakthroughs in machine learning powered data analytics can make the use of information from space based imaging more effective.

Computer vision and machine learning are being employed to create better geographic information systems (GIS). Deep learning algorithms facilitate analysis of petabytes of satellite imaging in a GIS, while identifying patterns and anomalies more accurately than traditional algorithms.

Currently, the state of the art in such data analytics platforms is in the private sector, developed and owned by commercial ventures such as San Francisco CA based Planet, Hamburg Germany based Skylab Global and Santa Fe NM based Descartes Labs.

While the future looks positive for wildfire monitoring, it is in private hands. There is a major gap between the data we need for wildfire monitoring and the current capabilities of the CSA and the Canadian government.

The current platform for wildfire data is the Canadian Wildland Fire Information System (CWFIS).

But Canada currently does not own a single space asset capable delivering the data necessary for an information platform like CWFIS. The service is completely reliant on data from the European Space Agency (ESA) GlobBioMass Project and NASA’s Eos-Terra and Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES).

Natural Resources Canada (NRCAN) has recently expressed concern about the lack of data availability and analysis support systems associated with the CWFIS. The lack of Canadian owned space assets and homegrown capabilities limits the technical capabilities of wildfire modelling, and passes over expertise already present in Canada.

In light of this troubling reality, our team at UTAT Space Policy has made a series of proposals on how to remedy the lack of resources within the Canadian government. We want to create an program within the CSA to focus on researching, developing, and operating space technologies for natural disaster management.

The program would liaise with the various stakeholders within the Canadian government for the access and analysis of the data generated by space assets. This would be based on the wildly successful program in the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) which provides critical information on flooding and typhoons.

There’s no denying the tremendous demand for earth observation and mapping data throughout the Canadian Government. Natural disaster, specifically wildfires, presents the urgent and important case for developing and maintaining accurate information about our geography, environment, and human activity. It is vital that government agencies like the CSA answer the call to adapt and leverage their technologies to meet this growing demand. A program within the CSA with a such a mandate would allow for research and development opportunities with a focus on a clear benefit to society.

These are the initiatives that will grow our space capabilities while improving the lives of Canadians across the country.

Samuel Looper is the director of the Aerospace Policy Division of the University of Toronto Aerospace Team (UTAT).

Friday, November 09, 2018

US Elections Have More Influence on the Space Industry than Canadian Elections

          By Henry Stewart

Unlike in Canada, where suggestions on what the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) should be doing tend to slip into a "black box" controlled by Federal Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains and are never seen again, US space policy is often wrapped around the initiatives of specific US House representatives and/or specific US senators, who spend a lot of time pushing their personal agendas.

The most notable example of this would be US Senator Richard Craig Shelby, the chair of the powerful US Senate Appropriations Committee, who has a reputation for staunchly advocating pretty much any funding bill associated with the NASA Space Launch System (SLS), especially if the funding can be spent in Alabama, where he needs to be re-elected every six years.

Shelby wasn't running for re-election this week, but others were. Here are a few quick overviews of some of the winners and losers from Tuesday's US election.
The post also said that, while the Republican party expanded its majority in the Senate and Senate committees will remain under their control: 
... the Republican party will likely rediscover its resistance toward non-defense discretionary spending and debt, something that had largely been set aside for the previous 2 years. 
Non-defense discretionary spending includes NASA, NOAA, and the National Science Foundation, and though these are generally not political targets, they are small enough to be caught up in the larger politics and brinkmanship likely to follow efforts to fund the government in coming years.
The post also noted five strong advocates for the US space industry in the Senate and House and noted whether or not they were successfully re-elected.
Screen shots c/o ADMO.

For the last four years, Culberson was the chair of the House Appropriations Committees' Commerce, Justice and Science Subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over NASA funding and where he acted as a strong advocate of science and human spaceflight. 
Programs Culbertson was personally involved with included the Orion multi-purpose crew vehicle (an American-European spacecraft program intended to carry a crew of four astronauts to destinations at or beyond low Earth orbit), the NASA Europa Clipper mission and the legislative language that prohibits NASA from cooperating with China on a bilateral basis unless certain conditions are met.
As outlined in the November 7th, 2018 Space Policy Online post, "Democrats Win the House, Republicans Keep the Senate - Updated," it's not clear if the Democrats agree with Culbertson's policy decisions, especially as they relate to China.
During the campaign, Fletcher ran a series of ads accusing Culberson of preferring to spend money "to fund the search for aliens on Jupiter’s icy moon Europa" instead of providing funds for flood protection in his district and promised that “Lizzie Fletcher will invest in humans, not aliens.” 
Articles such as the November 8th, 2018 National Post article, "Is USMCA in trouble? What’s next for our trade deal," and the November 9th, 2018 Atlantic post, "Trump's Space Force Faces an Uncertain Fate," suggest that the path forward for at least the first two initiatives is problematic. 
Expect at least some of the confusion surrounding these policies to remain until January 2019, when the newest crop of US legislators formally take office. 
For more on the politics of our current space age, check out future editions of the Commercial Space blog.

Henry Stewart is the pseudonym of a Toronto based aerospace writer. 

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