Monday, December 21, 2015

2015: The Year in Space for Canada

          By Chuck Black

It's well known that lawmakers, entrepreneurs and advocates are often the real facilitators of science and exploration. With that in mind, here are some of the high and low points for the Canadian space sector in 2015.

Lego Chris says hi! Photo c/o
The year started out on a positive note with the exchange of gifts.

As outlined in the January 10th Yahoo News UK article, "Astronauts Get Their Own LEGO Minifigures on Space Station," LEGO mini-figures customized to look like expedition 43 astronauts Terry Virts, Samantha Cristoforetti and cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov were given as gifts by the real expedition 43 astronauts to each other on New Year's Day.

The toys were part of an ongoing sales campaign created by UK-based company

As outlined in the September 2nd, 2015 CBC News article, "Denmark's 1st person in space brings along 20 Lego astronauts," the little rectangular creations have often been used to promote space science, the space program and increased sales for the Lego Group, the giant Danish family-owned company best known for the manufacture of Lego brand toys.

So everything must have been awesome, especially in Canada where, as outlined in the January 27th, 2015 post, “Canadian Space Company UrtheCast is Hiring," Vancouver BC. based UrtheCast, our fastest growing space company, announced plans to open a second office in Vancouver to house up to 40 new hires specializing in video, GIS, web development and space systems technologies.

In June, as outlined in the June 22nd, 2015 post, "Is UrtheCast Becoming Canada's "Other" Space Program?," the company announced an audacious plan to "build, launch and operate the world’s first fully-integrated, multi-spectral optical and synthetic aperture radar (SAR) commercial constellation of Earth observation satellites."

Only a week later, in an obvious reminder that even moderately sized Canadian corporations were now able to fund space activities using the commercial market, UrtheCast acquired Deimos Imaging, along with its two existing satellites (Deimos-1 and Deimos-2), to begin the process.

Canada also fared well from the historical perspective. Beginning with the February 27th, 2015 post, "Part: 100 Years of Aerospace History in Canada: From McCurdy to Hadfield," historian Robert Godwin put Canadian aerospace history under a microscope to and found it chock full of the very same eccentric millionaires, driven geniuses and all around crazy people we normally only associate with the US.

In an echo of the situation today, some of those historical characters even ended up in the US, after starting out in Canada.

Beginning with the July 20th, 2015 post, "Part 1 of The Empire Strikes Out - Canada's Defence & The Commonwealth Space Program," Godwin (who is also the owner and founder of Apogee Space Books and the space curator at the Canadian Air & Space Museum) turned his attention to how the "general confusion during the late 1950s about the merits of missile defence led to several questionable strategic decisions made by the Governments of Canada and the United Kingdom."

Come fall, and as outlined in the October 4th, 2015 post, "Rocket Spaceflight Accurately Described by Scottish-Canadian Scientist in 1861," Godwin made the case that the fifth principal of Queens University in Ontario, Presbyterian minister William Leitch (1814-1864), was the first trained scientist to have applied scientific principles to accurately describe the rocket as the best device for travelling in space.

But things are never perfect, especially from a political perspective.

As outlined in the February 9th, 2015 post "NASA Will Buy More Soyuz Seats for US, Canadian, European & Japanese Astronauts," the western space agencies hedged their bets to insure future access to the ISS, just in case those new rides to orbit from Boeing (the CST-100) and SpaceX (the Dragon V2) weren't ready for their expected late 2017 roll-out dates.

Trust the Federal government under prime minister Stephen Harper to want to rock the boat. The February 17th, 2015 post, "Taking Sides Via Satellite: Ukraine to Receive RADARSAT-2 Images" was only the latest salvo in the ongoing politicization and militarization of the high frontier.

Of course, the Harper government might have had a point. As outlined in the February 23rd, 2015 post, "The Growing Military Importance of Earth Imaging," even UrtheCast has a former director of the US National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency on its board of directors.

In essence, Earth imaging technology has become a "must have" capability for technocrats and the military.

And sometimes, even the government manages to make the right decision. As outlined in the March 9th, 2015 post, “Magellan & U of Manitoba Open New Satellite Manufacturing Facility,” the new Advanced Satellite Integration Facility (ASIF) in Winnipeg, MB., a joint venture between the University of Manitoba (UofM) and RADARSAT Constellation (RCM) bus manufacturer Magellan Aerospace, will support research, development, construction and testing of satellites and their components.

Even after a few initial challenges, life was getting better for most Canadian space companies. 

For example, as outlined in the April 13th, 2015 post, "The MOST Space Telescope Joins the Private Sector," it looked like "curtains" for the plucky Microvariability and Oscillation of STars (MOST) micro-satellite in April 2014 when the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) announced that funding would be withdrawn as of September 9th 2014. But by October 2014 it was back in operation under the watchful eyes of longtime UBC professor and MOST principal investigator Jaymie Matthews, in partnership with satellite operator Microsat Systems Canada Inc. (MSCI) and making enough money to be able to maintain operations as a successful small business.

The 2015 article, written for the Commercial Space blog by Ross Gillett, the director of micro-satellite programs at MSCI, was an excellent reminder of what small private companies can do, if given the opportunity.

"Raw" low-res NEOSSat image of Orion Nebula, taken in early 2015. NEOSSat is a Canadian micro-satellite which uses a 15 cm aperture f/5.88 Maksutov telescope similar to the one used on the MOST spacecraft. It's stabilized on 3-axis and has a pointing stability of ~2 arc seconds in a ~100 second exposure. Image c/o CSA.

A better example of what small private companies can do, even when faced with government intransigence, is the Near-Earth Object Surveillance Satellite (NEOSSat), another MSCI built and managed satellite.

As outlined in the April 20th, 2015 post, "Four NEOSSat Images in Search of Respect," a series of images taken by NEOSSat in early 2015 provided a strong indication that initial difficulties relating to the roll out of the satellite during the 2013 - 2014 period were finally being overcome.

Initially, and like all large government bureaucracies, the CSA didn't want to retract their earlier public comments, which were outlined in the July 7th, 2014 post, "NEOSSat Not Up to the Job; Government Report Blames Contractor." But the publication of the four NEOSSat images in the Commercial Space blog allowed MSCI to go public with their concerns and independently confirm that the Canadian satellite was operating as advertised and able to complete its mission.

Which is a good thing, for the country and MSCI, and even for the CSA and the humble little news service you are currently reading.

An exactEarth promotional video released in 2013 in order to provide an overview of its ability to "monitor all global shipping" with its exactEarth ShipView™ tool. The company, a subsidiary of Cambridge, Ontario based COM DEV International, made the news several times during the year. As outlined in the July 5th, 2015 post, "The REAL Story Behind the Upcoming (Maybe) exactEarth IPO," the initial plan was to spin off the company as a separate entity from COM DEV, but that didn't work. Later, as outlined in the November 7th, 2015 post, "Should the proposed COM DEV sale to US based Honeywell trigger the Investment Canada Act?," exactEarth was included as part of a deal with US based Honeywell International, which needed to keep the cost of its offer to purchase COM DEV under $600Mln CDN in order to avoid an automatic Federal government review.  And finally, as outlined in the November 29th, 2015 post, "exactEarth’s Big Bet on The Internet of Things," the company offered up its vision of the future, assuming the Honeywell deal goes through. To paraphrase Harry M. Stevens, you can no longer track a space company without a proper business scorecard. Graphic c/o exactEarth.

Of course, there are always a few who aren't pleased with the way things are. Chief among the disgruntled was Richmond BC based MacDonald Dettwiler (MDA) CEO Dan Friedmann, who was initially quoted on his concerns in the March 2nd, 2015 post, "Will the Last MDA Employee Leaving the Country, Please Turn out the Lights."

According to Friedmann, while MDA was benefiting from a "surging" international demand for Earth observation satellites and data, "none of that business is coming from Canada and the company is currently transferring resources out of the country to follow the market."

MDA CEO Friedmann reconciling contradictory views. Photo c/o Ideacity.
By May, as outlined in the May 12th, 2015 post, "MacDonald Dettwiler, Sherlock Holmes and Why "Daddy" Might not Love Either," his big beef was a lack of new space robotics contracts in Canada, a situation which Friedmann said had essentially forced MDA to seek new business in the US, Europe and Asia.

But by November, Friedmann had changed his tune.

As outlined in the November 2nd, 2015 post, "MDA CEO Dan Friedmann Didn't Threaten to Leave Canada Last Week!," the MDA CEO had begun waxing philosophic over the the incoming Liberal government. According to Friedmann:
All I can tell you is that in the run up to the election, the Liberals made positive statements with both respect to space and the defense part that we're interested in, because they spoke about a renewed focus on surveillance and control of the Canadian territory, in particular the Arctic which is what our two biggest space programs (the winding down RADARSAT Constellation mission and the upcoming, but so far unfunded Polar Communication and Weather mission) are centered on. 
Why the change in tune? Part of the reason could be the smell of an expected payday accruing from contracts related to the planned Polar Communication and Weather (PCW) mission, an estimated $600Mln CDN chunk of Federal government change, which is expected to be issued in 2016.

But another reason could simply have been the dislike of the Harper government policies relating to "capacity building," a policy designed to maintain existing infrastructure for items like space robotics, even in the absence of new demand. The US equivalency of this activity is the space launch system (SLS), a brand new space shuttle-derived expendable launch vehicle being built using 40 year old components and technology, just in case NASA might ever need to use antiques again.

Under their previous Jean Chrétien incarnation, capacity building was well understood and often practiced within the Liberal party, although in a way often confused with cronyism.

There is also little doubt that Friedmann personally remembers the time, as recently as 2008 when, as outlined in the April 17th, 2015 post, "Part 11: 100 Years of Aerospace History in Canada: From McCurdy to Hadfield," his company was being allocated almost half of the annual CSA budget, with contracts worth $430Mln CDN.

CSA astronauts David Saint-Jacques (left) and Jeremy Hansen, who didn't go to space in 2015, but did attend a lot of interesting activities and hosted a number of educational events. The Stephen Harper government spent much of 2015 using its ability to fund science and technology programs through the CSA and Industry Canada (now "Innovation, Science and Economic Development") in an attempt to do something which could easily be confused with buying re-election. Articles such as the May 25th, 2015 post, "Getting out the Space Vote For a Fall Election," the June 1st, 2015 post, "Goodyear Announces $13.1Mln in New Funding; Moore to Announce More Canadians in Space," and the July 28th, 2015 post, "'Up to $18.4Mln' More for the Downsview Aerospace Hub" were typical of the coverage in this area. For those looking for a contrary view, there was the June 25th, 2015 post, "Jobu Won’t Save Your Space Start-up: Do it Yourself," among others. Photo c/o CSA

But to be fair, there were probably more than just a few people who didn't like the way things were going, at least as they related to the Harper government.

The October 25th, 2015 post, "A New Government and Renewed Hope for the Canadian Space Industry," discussed the October 19th, 2015 Federal election and noted that the new Liberal government, led by incoming Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, will make the decisions about the direction the Federal component of the Canadian space industry will take.

It also asked about the direction the new Liberal government would like to take. As outlined in the November 22nd, 2015 post, "Two New Government Players Looking to Prove their Usefulness," any repudiation of the 2012 Emerson Aerospace Review, or even minor changes in policy, aren't likely to happen anytime soon.

Some changes have taken place with the change in government. Seen above is newly minted Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains at a press conference on Parliament Hill on November 6th. As outlined in the November 6th, 2015 Huffington Post article, "Liberals Unmuzzle Canadian Scientists, Promise They Can Now 'Speak Freely,'" he was fulfilling a Liberal party campaign promise to allow government scientists and experts to comment on their work to the media and the public. Of course, the real test of this new policy will occur sometime in 2016, when some currently unknown Federal government employee attempts to talk about something which conflicts with Liberal government policy. Photo c/o Adrian Wyld/CP.

To be fair to the previous attempt to be fair, and as outlined in the July 24th, 2015 post, "Space Economy Now $330Bln US Annually, Says Report," the industry, pretty much everywhere outside of Canada, has become a worldwide powerhouse, poised on "the cusp of a new era of rapid expansion in both capabilities and customers," after a decade of steady (but lower) annual growth which averaged around 7%.

And, as outlined in the December 21st, 2015 Verge article, "SpaceX successfully landed its Falcon 9 rocket after launching it to space," the rest of the world is beginning to catch on to the possibilities inherent in our next upcoming space age.

But traditional government and academic based science activities haven't done so well. An example of this would be the Canadian Space Conference, a CSA organized event which, as outlined in the December 13th, 2015 post, "The Canadian Space Conference: When Will It Be Loved?" has been suffering from a degree of neglect.

A second example would be the Thirty Meter Telescope, which has been temporarily halted as outlined in the December 6th, 2015 post, "Hawaii Supreme Court Rescinds Permit to Build Thirty Meter Telescope."

Chuck Black.
So what's going to happen next year in space for Canada?

Find out beginning January 5th, 2016, when the Commercial Space blog returns with all new stories.

Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog.

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