Monday, December 17, 2018

VSS Unity - A Welcome Christmas Gift to Space Fans Everywhere

          By Brian Orlotti

On December 13th,  Las Cruces NM based Virgin Galactic’s suborbital Spaceship Two spacecraft, dubbed VSS Unity, reached the edge of space during a powered test flight, marking the first human spaceflight from US soil since the end of the US Space Shuttle program in 2011.

After years of delays and setbacks, the company has cause for celebration; for its own success as well as the likely future success of others and the end of US dependence on Russian craft for human spaceflight.


As outlined in the December 13, 2018 The Virge post, "Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane finally makes it to space for the first time," the VSS Unity climbed to an altitude of 82.7 km after launch from California’s Mojave Desert.

There is some debate as to whether Unity reached space, since the internationally recognized boundary is 100 km, aka the Kármán line. However, the U.S. Air Force awards astronaut wings to personnel who reach an altitude of 80 km.

Aboard the craft were pilot Mark "Forger" Stucky and co-pilot Frederick "C.J." Sturckow. VSS Unity is designed to carry six passengers, two pilots and scientific experiments on brief trips to suborbital space. Virgin Galactic is selling seats on the craft for $250,000 US ($335,000 CDN) each.

In a typical flight profile, a SpaceShipTwo-type craft such as VSS Unity is launched from its mother ship, White Knight Two, at an altitude of 15,000 metres, then fires its single hybrid rocket engine to achieve supersonic speed within 8 seconds. After 70 seconds, the engine cuts out and the spacecraft coasts to its maximum altitude.

The crew cabin is 3.7 m long and 2.3 m in diameter. Its wing span is 8.2 m with a length of 18 m while its tail height is 4.6 m. SpaceShipTwo and White Knight Two are, respectively, roughly twice the size of the first-generation SpaceShipOne and mother ship White Knight, which won the Ansari X Prize in 2004.


VSS Unity uses a feathered wing for re-entry, made possible by its lower re-entry speed as a suborbital craft. This in contrast to orbital spacecraft, which require heat shields due to their much higher re-entry speeds.

The ship is also designed to re-enter the atmosphere at any angle. It decelerates through the atmosphere, switching to a gliding position at an altitude of 24 km, then takes 25 minutes to glide back to its spaceport.

The success of VSS Unity comes at a key time for the commercial space industry. Blue Origin is developing its own reusable suborbital spacecraft, New Sheppard, with ticket sales expected to begin next year. In the orbital spaceflight realm, two other US firms are developing and near operational deployment of spacecraft to fulfill multi-billion-dollar NASA contracts to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS).

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is scheduled to launch on its first uncrewed test flight to the ISS on January 17th, 2019 while Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner will do so in March. If all goes well on these flights, SpaceX will send a crewed test flight to the station in June, with Boeing following in August 2019.

The successful flight of VSS Unity is a welcome Christmas gift to space aficionados everywhere as well as a sign of greater things to come.
Brian Orlotti.
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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.

New Radarsat R&D Funding is Mostly for Software Analytics But Includes Some Interesting Surprises

          By Chuck Black

The issuing of multiple contracts totaling $6.7Mln CDN through the Department of National Defence (DND) to eight Canadian and international companies to develop "situational awareness" applications focused around the analysis and assessment of synthetic aperture radar (SAR) data-sets generated from Canada's Radarsat program, is typical of the ramp up of any new military program.


But the new contracts issued last week could potentially end up being just another example of Canadian ingenuity arriving late to an international party already bursting with experienced data analytics experts and ingenious applications.

As outlined in the December 14th, 2018 Government of Canada backgrounder "Government of Canada announces contract awards aimed at improving space-based earth observation capabilities," the new awards included:
Quebec PQ based ABB Canada, which received $305,000, or one half of the $610,000 required to investigate a "Complementary Electro-Optic/Infrared (EO/IR) payload to RADARSAT Constellation Mission (RCM) follow-on.
The study will "help define mission objectives, requirements, and concepts for a secondary electro-optic/infrared payload for the RCM follow-on mission." 
Until now Radarsat's have focused on supporting only one payload, the SAR.
Ottawa ON based AstroCom Associates, which received $165,000 CDN, or one half of the $330,000 CDN required to fund "Project Arviq.
Project Arvig will investigate "the feasibility of a proposed capability to detect ocean waves in sea ice. Arviq builds upon recent results that show centimetre-scale ice waves can be imaged directly using synthetic aperture radar interferometry technology."
 St. John’s based C-Core, which received funding for two proposals.
  • $775,000 CDN, or one half of the $1,550,000 CDN needed to fund a study on "Multi-satellite data integration for operational ship detection, identification and tracking." This study will investigate and develop a "multi-satellite data classifying approach to enhance the capacity to discriminate ships from icebergs. Efficiently and rapidly classifying detected objects of interest in or over water is a key area of interest to the maritime domain situational awareness community." 
  • $940,000 CDN, or one half of the $1,880,000 CDN needed to fund a study on "Modelling the geo-spatial intelligence capability to support Canadian surveillance and sovereignty." The study will "evaluate the spatio-temporal aspects of acquiring, down-linking and analyzing imagery for the generation of geographical intelligence products in support of land and maritime monitoring. It will investigate and develop a multi-satellite data classifier to better characterize ship and non-ship targets."
Calgary AB based Complex System Inc., which received $200,000 CDN, or one half the total $400,000 CDN needed to fund a study on "Electro-Optic/Infrared data analytics for enhanced maritime surveillance."
The study will "develop an on-board video processing system which will be used together with space-based radar and ship detection sensors to enhance near-real time vessel detection, tracking and identification. Complex Systems Inc. will develop a new data analytics system by leveraging leading edge computer vision and machine learning technologies and deliver a suite of advanced processing tools enabling enhancing maritime surveillance capabilities."
Gatineau PQ based CubeWerx, which received $485,000 CDN, or one half the total $970,000 CDN needed to fund a study on a proposed "RADARSAT thematic exploitation platform demonstrator." 
The project "will study big data and cloud computing approaches to support scalability, agility, and on-demand availability of earth observation data products" plus "develop a RADARSAT thematic exploitation platform and demonstrate a working environment where users can package their applications and upload them to a Cloud environment that supports the processing of users algorithms at scale, avoiding the need to download and store large volumes of images locally."
Ottawa ON based General Dynamics Mission Systems, which received $75,000 CDN, or one half the total $150,000 CDN needed to fund a study on "Real-time processing of large-volume space-based multi-modal data."
The project "will develop new approaches using emerging graphics processing unit architectures and the latest algorithms to process large volumes of satellite remote sensing data from multiple sources and types such as multiband radar, electro-optical and infrared sensors."
Brampton ON based MDA, which received funding for three proposals.
  • $1Mln CDN, or one half of the $2Mln CDN needed to fund a study on "Augmenting Canada’s maritime surveillance capability with complementary electro-optic/infrared information products." The project "will demonstrate how incorporating various types of space remote sensing satellite data elements can augment maritime surveillance capabilities with additional detections and improve classification, identification, and tracking." The contract was awarded through the Richmond BC based MDA Systems division.
  • $500,000 CDN, or one half of the $1Mln CDN to fund a study on the "Application of Big Data analytics techniques to extracting GEOINT from synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imagery." The project will "investigate Big Data analytics and automatization techniques to better exploit the large and growing data archives" collected and expected to be collected during the RADARSAT-2 and RCM programs. The contract was awarded through the Richmond BC based MDA Geospatial Services division.
  • $750,000 CDN, or one half of the $1.5Mln CDN needed to fund a study on "Persistent multi-sensor land surveillance and change monitoring." The project "will explore how wide-area automated change monitoring techniques can be enhanced by using a combination of earth observing data types such as RADARSAT and electro-optical data." The contract was awarded through the Richmond BC based MDA Systems division.
Vancouver BC based UrtheCast, which received funding for two proposals. 
  • $1Mln CDN, or one half the total $2Mln CDN needed to fund a study on "Architecture innovations for analytics-ready data." The project "will demonstrate scalable warehousing and on-demand processing of analytics-ready space remote sensing data from multiple types of earth observation systems, to enable emerging techniques including artificial intelligence to be used for the production of geographical information products." 
  • $499,000 CDN, or approximately one half the total $999,000 CDN needed to fund a study on "Complementary sensor exploitation." The project "will develop, implement and demonstrate a new system to deliver thematic maps derived from complementary satellite earth observation data sources in support of Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) land operations."

Only one of the listed awards, for ABB to investigate a secondary EO/IR payload, covered research on potential future hardware.

The other awards covered software and data modelling applications related to geospatial intelligence (GEOINT), the "study of human activity on earth derived from the exploitation and analysis of imagery and geospatial information," according to Wikipedia.

The contracts were structured as public private partnerships with costs split 50-50 between DND and the various private companies. They were provided under the second of two DND Defence Innovation Research Program (DIRP) calls for proposals under its tasking-collection-processing & exploitation-dissemination (TCPED) initiative.

However, as outlined in the May 22nd, 2018 Space News post "Not convinced of the promise of commercial radar satellites? Meet the radar mafia," there is already a growing international geospatial data analytics community creating military and civilian applications for the SAR data-sets being generated now by many other space-based radar satellites.

So the latest DND awards are certainly not enough by themselves to insure Canadian leadership in this area.

The Space News post focused on the 2018 GEOINT Symposium, which was organized by Ithaca NY based Ursa Space Systems and held from April 22nd - 25th in Tampa FL.
Chuck Black.
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Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog.

Friday, December 14, 2018

2019 Federal Pre-Budget Consultation Report Mentions "Significant, Ongoing Investments to Advance Canada’s Space Program"

          By Chuck Black



The report was formally adopted by the Committee on December 6th, 2018 and presented to the Canadian House of Commons on December 10th, 2018. It's essentially a summary of the 493 written briefs and 393 in-person presentations made by a variety of individuals and organizations looking to influence how the Federal government spends the money it collects from Canadian taxpayers.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

The report even mentions two sets of recommendations from Brampton ON based MDA (a subsidiary of Westminster CO based Maxar Technologies) and Nova Scotia based Maritime Launch Services (MLS). As outlined on page 64 of the PDF version of the report:
Maritime Launch Services Ltd. identified a need for more streamlined funding structures for budding launch vehicle and launch site technology initiatives. It advocated for a specific research category for launch R&D funding under the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Strategic Innovation Fund (SIF), among others.
Page 94 of the report noted that:
In order to prevent the loss of talents in the space industry, Maritime Launch Services Ltd. called on the federal government to invest in Canadian space industry and incentivize new business practices through partnerships with Canadian companies, not-for-profits and charities so that the youth may be equipped with STEM skills relevant to the launch industry and the overall space industry.
On page 74 of the PDF report:
The MDA Space Missions Group asked that the federal government recognize space as a national strategic asset and a key contributor to Canada’s competitiveness. It proposed the creation of a long-term space plan for Canada, including enough funding to maintain existing leadership in space science, cultivate new areas of leadership and position Canada for competitiveness in the space economy. The space plan should also include a commitment to building a third-generation Canadarm at a cost of $1 to $2 billion over the next 20 years.


Those three quotes weren't weren't the only mention of items of interest in the 272 page report and working through this parliamentary committee is not the only avenue being pursued to encourage the government to make changes of benefit to the space industry.

As outlined in the December 6th, 2018 post, "Space Mining and Innovation Should Be Encouraged Through the Tax Code, According to NRCan and CATA Alliance" and the October 15th, 2018 post, "The Federal Space Advisory Board (SAB) Insists that It's Working Hard," there are other ideas being promoted by other organizations.

Longtime readers of this blog will also note some serious serious concerns relating to the context of the proposals being championed by MDA and MLS.

But the overall process is far more transparent and open than the one which existed prior to the 2012 David Emerson led Aerospace Review. The old Canadian Space Agency (CSA), which until then essentially managed and controlled most Canadian space projects, was a black box impervious to outside assessment or oversight.

As outlined in the December 5th, 2012 post, "What the Space Volume of the Aerospace Review Actually Says," Emerson acknowledged the ongoing (but then mostly unacknowledged) procurement problems within the CSA and recommended increased oversight.

It also called for a narrowing of the CSA mandate to the point where it would no longer be a "policy-making body" or "directly involved in designing and manufacturing space assets purchased by the government." The old role would essentially be taken up by other departments and carried on in a far more "ad-hoc," but also more public process.

That's the situation we have today and it's part of the reason we know what the major players in the industry are advocating.

As noted in the January 19th, 2013 post, "Praising Steve MacLean," no one knows what was in the 2009 long-term space plan compiled by the former CSA president Steve MacLean and no one knows what became of it, although there are certainly rumors.

The current Justin Trudeau Liberal government should be congratulated for following through on Emerson's recommendations to change that.


As is normal with these annual pre-budget consultations, no government response was requested, although it is expected that the ninety-nine recommendations listed will inform and influence the next annual Federal Budget, currently expected to be released in the spring of 2019.

Links to the in-person and written presentations for all the participants in the process are included on the government website.

As for whether or not the next budget will include mention of a new space plan or the funding required to move forward with specific projects, we'll just have to wait and see.
Chuck Black.
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Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

GHGSat, ABB and UTIAS SFL Providing a "Made in Canada" Solution for Global Emissions Tracking

          By Chuck Black

The Quebec City PQ based ABB Canada measurement & analytics business unit is building sensors for the third in a series of upcoming microsats planned by Montreal PQ based GHGSat and, according to GHGSat president Stephane Germain, it most certainly makes sense to source out high quality Canadian based suppliers for Canadian based projects, especially if they come with the capabilities possessed by ABB.

The GHGSat-D short-wavelength infrared (SWIR) optical sensor. According to Germain, the follow-on sensors for the second and third satellites will be manufactured to the same successful, patented design but will also contain a variety of incremental, but useful improvements. "For example, the sensor for GHGSat-C2, will contain a new detector for improved performance." Photo c/o GHGSat

"We think we have a strong partnership with both ABB and the University of Toronto Institute of  Aerospace Studies (UTIAS) Space Flight Laboratories (SFL)," he said during a recent interview with this blog.

As outlined in the November 29th, 2018 ABB press release, "ABB to manufacture an optical sensor for GHGSat," ABB has previously provided key hardware contribution to sensors flying on leading Earth observation missions including the NASA led Aura satellite (EOS CH-1) studying the Earth's ozone layer, air quality and climate, the NASA TERRA satellite (EOS AM-1), the Canadian SciSat‑1, the Japanese GOSAT 1 and GOSAT 2 greenhouse gas observing satellites, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership weather satellite (Suomi NPP), various satellites of the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) and quite a few others.

ABB operates close to 50 facilities and employs approximately 4,000 people across Canada. The company was most recently profiled in the November 8th, 2018 post, "Canada's "Signature" Contribution to GOSAT-2."

SFL, the third partner in the group, contributed its Gryphon Bus (GNB) technology for the first satellite in the series and expects to use the same bus for the next two. The bus measures 20 cm by 20 cm by 40 cm and is capable of peak power generation up to 80 W. It weighs 15 kg, 9 kg of which is dedicated to the payload, according to the SFL website.

SFL also has a storied history and was most recently cited in the August 2nd, 2018 post, "Airbus Competing Against Thales/ Maxar to Design and Build the 117 Satellite Telesat Constellation," as being a subcontractor to Palo Alto, CA based SSL (a subsidiary of Westminster CO based Maxar Technologies) in a potential satellite contract with Ottawa ON based Telesat.

Artist impression of two GHGSat's in orbit. According to Gunter's Web page, the first GHGSat-D (the "demonstrator") launched in 2016 and demonstrated "an advanced miniature hyperspectral SWIR imaging spectrometer for monitoring targeted greenhouse gas emitters such as area fugitive sources (tailing ponds and landfills) and stacks (emissions such as flaring and venting)." The next two satellites in the series (GHGSat C1 & C2) will help build out "a commercial constellation of greenhouse gas monitoring satellites as part of a service provided by GHGSat Inc." Image c/o GHGSat.

Germain is also quick to note that the business plan for his company is also moving forward.

As outlined in the September 28th, 2018 post, "GHGSat Raises $10Mln US in Series A2 Financing; Gains Access to Worlds Largest Oil and Gas Customers," his firm recently raised US$10Mln US ($13Mln CDN) in Series A2 financing in a deal led by the London UK based OGCI Climate Investments.

OGCI is the billion dollar investment arm of the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI) a voluntary, CEO-led initiative composed of approximately a dozen of the world's top oil and gas companies. OGCI was "created to pool knowledge and collaborate on action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions" according to the OGCI website.

That deal also included financial backing from Houston TX based Schlumberger (the world's largest oilfield services company), the New York NY based Space Angels Network and the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC), a Montreal PQ based crown corporation.

"We've got a couple of good fiscal partners, too" said Germain, smiling. His next two satellites should be launching in 2020.
Chuck Black.
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Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog.

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