Monday, January 15, 2018

GLXP May Bite the Dust Before Reaching the Finish Line

          By Brian Orlotti

The decade-old Google Lunar X-Prize (GLXP) will officially end on March 31st, 2018 very likely without a winner due to multiple teams dropping out of the race from financial/technical issues or facing launch vehicle delays. Extracting lessons to be learned would be useful in order to create more successful prizes in the future.


Announced in 2007, the GLXP offered $20Mln USD ($24.85Mln CDN) for the first private team to land a vehicle on the moon, travel 500 meters across it, and send back high-definition video by the end of 2012. A $5Mln US ($6.2Mln CDN) prize was made available for the second team to accomplish that goal.

The global financial meltdown of 2008 and its aftershocks greatly limited access to funds for the 32 teams that had initially registered for the competition, slowing their progress. The deadline was extended several times as competitors dropped out. As of 2018, only two teams remain.

According to the January 9th, 2018 The Ken post, "TeamIndus and Isro call off their GLXP launch contract," a launch contract signed in 2016 between Bangalore, India-based GLXP team Team Indus and Antrix Corporation {the commercial arm of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO)} has been cancelled.

That contract’s cancellation will also effectively eliminate another GLXP team, Japan-based Team Hakuto, which was to send its lunar rover on the same flight. The cost of chartering the launch of an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) is upwards of $20Mln USD ($24.87Mln CDN), with the development costs of a rover adding several million more.


But three other GLXP teams remained; Florida-based Moon Express, Israel-based SpaceIL and San Francisco-based Team Synergy Moon. All three have met the GLXP’s requirement of signing launch contracts by the end of 2016 in order to remain in the competition.

However, SpaceIL dropped out in Nov 2017 due to a lack of funds. The chance of the remaining two teams actually meeting the March 31st contest deadline seems unlikely.

Moon Express had been viewed by many space aficionados as a strong contender to win the race. Recently however, founder (and Canadian space pioneer) Bob Richards and Vice President Alain Berinstain (formerly of the Canadian Space Agency) have indicated that Moon Express would not be able to launch in time to win the prize.

The company had entered into a contract with New Zealand-based Rocket Lab to launch their GLXP spacecraft on the new Electron rocket. However, technical issues have resulted in repeated delays of the Electron’s test flights, in turn pushing back Moon Express’ timetable.

Moon Express has downplayed the GLXP’s importance to its business plan and is willing to wait for the Electron rockets’ testing to be completed.


In term of lessons to be learned, building a lunar rover did not seem be the most difficult aspect of the GLXP. Rather, it was securing funds for a launch vehicle without significant government support.

Perhaps a better model would be to have each team build a rover and then rigorously test them in an Earth-based lunar analog environment, awarding the prize to the best performer. The prize could consist of either a fixed cash payment to be used by the winner towards their launch, or perhaps even a negotiated group rate for several finalists on a commercial launcher.

A group deal would have the benefits of lowering costs, increasing odds of success and preserving the ‘space race’ atmosphere of the contest.


Google is to be commended for their vision in creating the GLXP and seeing it through to its end, even if unsuccessful. The lessons learned from it will ensure that future competitions will bear more fruit.

It's worth noting that the January 10th - 12th, 2018 "Lunar Science for Landed Missions Workshop, included two commercial landing opportunities panels that included representatives from numerous past and present GLXP competitors and others.

So the quest continues. Someday soon, another one will bite the (lunar) dust.
Brian Orlotti.
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Brian Orlotti is a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

ABB Canada Supplies Key Instrument for Joint Polar Satellite System-1

          By Chuck Black

An interferometer built by Montreal, PQ based ABB Canada working with its customer, the Melbourne, FL based Harris Corporation, is at the heart of the the Joint Polar Satellite System-1 (JPSS-1), an Earth observation satellite launched by NASA for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on board a United Launch Alliance (ULA) built Delta II rocket from Vandenburg Air Force Base on November 18th, 2017.

The JPSS 1, a 14.8-foot (4.5 meters), 5,060-lb. (2,295 kilograms) spacecraft with five instruments which will let it observe Earth and its climate over the long term while also pinpointing immediate weather changes. As outlined in the November 18th, 2017 Space.com post, "First-of-Its-Kind Satellite Launches to Track Earth's Weather Like Never Before," the satellite's full mission cost, including development and operational lifecycle, is $1.6Bln US ($2Bln CDN). Graphic c/o ABB.

As outlined in the January 15th, 2018 ABB Canada press release, "ABB satellite-based technologies help improve weather forecasts and save lives," the JPSS-1 satellite:
...is joining the NOAA/NASA Suomi National Polar-orbiting satellite in the same orbit to provide meteorologists with data on atmospheric temperature and moisture, clouds, sea-surface temperature, ocean color, sea ice cover, volcanic ash, and fire detection.  
The data will improve weather forecasting, such as predicting a hurricane's track, and will help agencies involved with post-storm recovery by visualizing storm damage and the geographic extent of power outages. 
The interferometer as a critical element to the Cross-track Infrared Sounder (CrIS), one of the instruments that make up the next generation of US polar-orbiting meteorological satellites.

The CrIS is a Fourier transform spectrometer with 1305 spectral channels, designed to produce high-resolution, three-dimensional temperature, pressure, and moisture profiles, which can be used to enhance weather forecasting models asnd facilitate both short- and long-term weather forecasting. 

The instrument is expected to help improve the timeliness and accuracy of weather forecasts from three to seven days out. Over longer timescales, the instrument will help improve the understanding of climate phenomena such as El Niño and La Niña.

The CrIS, one of the instruments that make up the next generation of US polar-orbiting meteorological satellites. As outlined on the undated NASA Joint Polar Satellite System Cross-track Infrared Sounder (CrIS) webpage, "the cross-track infrared sounder (CrIS), a fourier transform spectrometer with 1305 spectral channels, will produce high-resolution, three-dimensional temperature, pressure, and moisture profiles." Graphic c/o ABB.

According to Marc Corriveau, the general manager of the local business unit for industrial automation measurement & analytics for Canada:
ABB Canada, through its facilities in Quebec City, built the heart of the atmospheric sounder for the JPSS-1 satellite, a very critical element to this mission. Our team has also built a similar system for the predecessor of JPSS-1, the Suomi-NPP satellite, in orbit since 2011.
ABB Measurement & Analytics Business Unit is also under contract with Harris Corporation to build the next 3 units (JPSS-2, JPSS-3 and JPSS-4). 
In addition to the local economic benefits generated by this project, ABB is once again putting forward its experience and rich technological legacy in the space industry.
JPSS satellites circle the Earth from pole-to-pole, crossing the equator 14 times daily, to provide full global coverage twice a day. Polar satellites are considered the backbone of the global observing system. JPSS is a collaborative effort between NOAA and NASA and presents significant technological and scientific advancements in observations used for severe weather prediction and environmental monitoring.

ABB has a strong history in Canada, and the company continues to expand and localize its offerings for customers. With its Canadian corporate headquarters in Montreal, ABB operates close to 50 facilities and employs approximately 4,000 people across Canada.

The ABB Measurement & Analytics Business Unit facility in Quebec City, Canada has had more than 200 employees working on the CrIS program.
Chuck Black.
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Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Another of Canada’s Nine Supercluster Finalists Includes a Space Company

          By Chuck Black

Canada’s Digital Technology Supercluster, a British Columbia based consortium wrapped around Vancouver BC based Telus Corporation, Vancouver BC based Urthecast, Redmond WA based Microsoft Corporation, Burnaby BC based D-Wave Systems, Port Coquitlam BC based Finger Food Studios plus others, has expanding its Canadian footprint to bolster a bid for funding under Canada's Innovation Superclusters Initiative.

UrtheCast CEO Wade Larson with a satellite video shot with his company's cameras. His firm is part of the BC based consortium vying for Ottawa's $950Mln Canadian super-cluster program. Photo c/o Chung Chow.

As outlined in the January 9th, 2018 Business in Vancouver post, "More players join BC’s supercluster bid as Ottawa draws closer to final decision," other early partners in the BC consortium included the BC Tech Association, the Business Council of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC based Wavefront Wireless and Lifesciences BC plus the Research University's Council of BC (RUCBC).

The West Coast consortium announced Tuesday that Vancouver, BC based Canfor Corporation, San Ramon, CA based GE Digital, the Vancouver, BC based Terry Fox Research Institute and Toronto, ON based Shoppers Drug Mart, among others, have joined the bid since the BC group was shortlisted last fall.

As outlined in the article:
... the goal of BC’s bid is to create a supercluster focused on digital technologies capable of transforming traditional industries such as natural resources, transportation and manufacturing, as well as advancing innovations in health technologies, telecommunications, and the creative and digital economy.
In an executive summary released in November, the group estimated that its participants could invest $1.4Bln CDN to fund 100 collaborations involving 1,000 organizations over a 10-year period.


Both Urthecast and D-Wave have been previous topics for posts in this blog, most recently in the August 22nd, 2017 post, "Note to Canadian Space Industry: Find More Larson Brothers!," and the January 16th, 2017 post, "Quantum Computing Is Real; A Canadian Company Now Offers Open-Source Tools & the Chinese are Building Spacecraft."

The BC Digital Technology Supercluster consortium is one of nine shortlisted consortia throughout Canada. Their original application featured 60 participants, a total which has since grown to 260.

As outlined in the October 13th, 2017 post, "Short List for the $950Mln CDN Supercluster Initiative," at least one other supercluster proposal involves a space company, an agri-food focused proposal spearheaded by Calgary-based Agrium Inc., which includes Richmond BC based MDA and ABB Canada, through its space operations business unit in Quebec City.

A third supercluster proposal, the Satellite Canada Innovation Network, last discussed in the August 3rd, 2017 post, "Satellite Canada Applies for Innovation SuperCluster Funds," wasn't included among the nine finalists.

The federal government could choose as many as five of the shortlisted supercluster proposals to share nearly $1Bln CDN in Federal funding. A final decision on which proposals to approve is expected before the government’s fiscal year ends in March, 2018.
Chuck Black.
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Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

SpaceX, China and Others Start 2018 With Many Bangs

          By Brian Orlotti

SpaceX has launched its first mission of 2018, the deployment of the US military’s secretive Zuma satellite.

Although there are various conflicting media reports as to whether the Zuma satellite is currently orbiting Earth or plunged through its atmosphere to a fiery demise, SpaceX has stated it was satisfied enough with the performance of the Falcon 9 to proceed with the highly anticipated first launch of its Falcon Heavy rocket at the end of this month.

SpaceX Falcon-9 rocket on the pad January 7th, 2018, just before launch. As outlined in the January 9th, 2018 Qronos16 video, "SpaceX apparently lost the classified Zuma Government Satellite it Failed to Reach Orbit,' SpaceX's latest rocket may "have launched successfully – but the mission didn't end as a win. The Zuma payload it was carrying, a mysterious classified piece of cargo for the US government believed to be a spy satellite, was lost after it failed to separate from the second stage of the rocket after the first stage of the Falcon 9 separated as planned and returned to Earth." Graphic c/o Qronos16.

Originally planned for a November 2017 launch, an undisclosed issue with the Falcon 9 rocket's fairing caused a delay of several weeks, pushing the launch date back to January 4th. Earlier this week, additional propellant loading tests and abnormally strong winds contributed to further delays.

Zuma is SpaceX's third classified launch for the US military. All that is publicly known about Zuma is that was built by Northrop Grumman and was too be placed in low-Earth orbit.

As discussed in the January 9th, 2018 The Verge post, "Did SpaceX’s secret Zuma mission actually fail?," SpaceX has stated that the Falcon 9 rocket performed exactly as it it should’ve, declining further comment due to the classified nature of the satellite.

Meanwhile, both the January 8th, 2018 Bloomberg post, "Classified Military Satellite Goes Missing After SpaceX Launch" and the January 9th, 2018 Wall Street Journal (WSJ) post, "US Spy Satellite Believed Lost After SpaceX Mission Fails" have reported that US lawmakers and government officials have been briefed on Zuma’s demise.

However, both publications offer contradictory information from their sources as to what happened. One Bloomberg source stated that the upper stage of the Falcon 9 failed, while both WSJ and Bloomberg claim that Zuma did not separate from the rocket and plunged through the atmosphere back to Earth.

Further muddying the waters, the US Strategic Command’s Joint Space Operations Center, which tracks and catalogues all artificial objects orbiting Earth, added a new entry for Zuma to its online catalogue while publicly stating that it has added no new entries.

The SpaceFlight Now website, which is currently tracking the 50+ rocket launches so far scheduled for 2018. Those launches include the second flight of the New Zealand based Electron small-sat launcher, the first crewed missions of both the Boeing CST-100 Starliner and the SpaceX Dragon 2 capsule to the International Space Station (ISS), the first flight of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, the launch of Canada's Radarsat Constellation Mission (RCM) and a surprising number of Chinese missions. Graphic c/o Spaceflight Now.

However shrouded in mystery the Zuma story seems, it appears to have had no effect on SpaceX’s plans for its Falcon Heavy rocket.

On Jan 4th, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announced via social media that the Falcon Heavy rocket will be launched by end of month. As of writing, the Falcon Heavy has been moved into launch position at Kennedy Space Centre’s storied Launch Complex 39A. This week, SpaceX will conduct various checks as well as a static fire test of the rocket’s 27 Merlin engines.

Billed by SpaceX as the most powerful rocket in the world, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk stated in a Jan 4th, 2018 Instagram post that, at 2,500 tons of thrust, the Falcon Heavy is equivalent to 18 Boeing 747 aircraft at full throttle.

The Falcon Heavy is crucial to restoring independent human spaceflight capability to the US as well as enabling SpaceX’s ambitious plans for human settlement of the Moon and Mars. SpaceX has already lined up a few initial customers for the Falcon Heavy, including satellite firms Arabsat and Inmarsat, as well as the US Air Force.

No concrete launch dates for these have been set, however.

The first Chinese Long March 5 rocket being rolled out for launch at Wenchang in late October 2016. As outlined in the  January 11th, 2018 Pys.org post, "The surprising scale of China's space program," the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) announced on January 2nd, 2018 that it intended to mount over 40 launches in 2018, including "the Long March 5 returning to flight, the Chang'e 4 mission, and the deployment of multiple satellites." Photo c/o Su Dong/China Daily.

The Falcon Heavy has suffered from multiple delays in its development, as Elon Musk has readily admitted to the public. Last year, Musk admitted that the development of the rocket had been "way harder" than he had anticipated.

For the test flight, the Falcon Heavy will not carry a customer's payload. Instead, in a masterful bit of public relations, Elon Musk announced that it will launch his personal first-gen Tesla Roadster into "a billion year elliptic Mars orbit." The Roadster’s sound system will play David Bowie's "Space Oddity" and have a copy of Douglas Addams’ novel ‘The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy’ in the glove box, along with a towel and a sign saying "Don't Panic."

After sixteen years of promising to finally open the frontier of space to all, SpaceX is now about to deliver. Brave new world.
Brian Orlotti.
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Brian Orlotti is a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

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