Sunday, May 30, 2010

This Year in Space for Canada!

The Commercial Space blog is officially one year old as of May 29th and what started as a personal vanity project to inventory government agencies, educational facilities and private corporations involved in space focused activities has evolved into a more interesting discussion of existing Canadian capabilities and future potential relating to research and development, technology commercialization and how they all relate to the high frontier.

Of course, since it's called "commercial" space, there's always the part where we're trying to make a little money and this tends to focus and define the 90+ posts and 50,000 words that have been generated here over the last year.

But while some of those posts have certainly been useful and informative, it's best to keep in mind my July 21st, 2009 post which pointed out that "Even Werner von Braun was Wrong Once in Awhile."

Going forward, the blog focus will remain pretty much as stated in my very first post:
Businesses operating space related ventures have been commercially viable since at least the 1960's when the first Early Bird satellite was successfully launched into geosynchronous orbit according to David M. Livingston in his paper, Space: The Final Financial Frontier.

And Canadian companies have always been leaders in this area, beginning with the launch of the
Allouette and Anik satellites and moving forward from there. 

In fact, it's got to the point where Cabinet Minister Jim Prentice has gone so far as to say that "Canada has more than 200 firms that are involved in space" employing thousands of skilled workers who know that “working in space or working in the space-based industries is just another career option.”
We'll continue to focus on those industries, the partnerships and the politics surrounding those partnerships. Perhaps we'll even continue to mention some of the better opportunities to make some money off the high frontier.

Is this a great country or what!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Micro-Satellites with Practical Applications

"Micro-satellites are not just for science anymore" states David R Cooper and he should know at least a little bit about the topic given his position as Chief Executive Officer of Microsat Systems Canada Inc. (MSCI), the company acting as the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) prime contractor and systems engineer for the Near Earth Object Surveillance (NEOSSat) micro-satellite.

NEOSSat is expected to launch in 2011 and according to the CSA NEOSSat website:
In addition to searching for asteroids, NEOSSat will also update the positions of satellites and space debris orbiting high above the Earth as part of a project by the Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC) known as HEOSS (High Earth Orbit Surveillance System). While this has been done from space before, it has never been done using such small spacecraft....

"NEOSSat is a technological pathfinder for us to demonstrate the potential of micro-satellite technologies to satisfy operational requirements of the Canadian Forces," explains Major Tony Morris of the Department of National Defense."
All of which makes this particular little micro-satellite quite the useful tool, but other small micro-satellites similar to NEOSSat (which weighs 75-kilograms and uses only 50 watts of solar power) are already proving their worth in many different fields, according to Cooper.

For example, while the enormous Hubble space telescope may have grabbed media attention over the last two decades, the future of astronomy may actually belong to smaller satellites like the Microvariability and Oscillations of Stars (MOST) micro-satellite telescope. According to Wikipedia, MOST is also the smallest space telescope in the world (which is why its creators nicknamed it the “Humble Space Telescope”).

But while the larger Hubble telescope is indeed a magnificent technology, it also cost billions of dollars to build and maintain which is multiple orders of magnitude more than the MOST. On top of which, groupings of micro-satellite telescopes like MOST could also combine their capabilities and signals together into "satellite constellations" with far greater capabilities than could be created within just one satellite or ground based telescope, no matter how large.

So the future may belong to the micro-satellite and this is what MSCI is banking on.

The firm operates the MOST micro-satellite under contract to the CSA and is using the lessons learned from it's design, manufacture and operation to not only improve MOST but to design and build the next generation of micro-satellites, starting with  NEOSSat. According to Cooper, there are:
"many useful applications for constellations of micro satellites including planetary imaging and satellite tracking, but also a wide range of operational and commercial applications are possible. That's why we've designed our micro-satellites around a standardized and cost-effective, multi-mission micro-satellite bus (MMMB) architecture."
The MMMB features a core mechanical structure approach, adaptable to a wide variety of payloads, and a suite of optional bus components to meet a variety of mission requirements.

In addition to MSCI's core expertise in the area of systems engineering and attitude control systems, the firm has developed expertise in structures and power sub-system and can call on long time strategic partners for thermal, communications, solar arrays, and computers and any other particular application.

MSCI also teams with an appropriate payload expert. "We don’t try to do it all ourselves" states Cooper. Instead:
We focus on those sub-systems where we have world class expertise the, crown jewels of the company and over time focus our R&D efforts to keep us leading edge in these areas. In parallel we work with our external partners in other sub-systems to keep them informed of directions we are going. This approach of standardizing the MMMB architecture, rather than the technology, allows us to use the latest advanced components while minimizing non-recurring engineering cycles.

This is the primary difference between a "micro-satellite" systems engineering approach and a traditional "waterfall" space systems engineering approach. The other major difference is the application of commercial electronic parts carefully selected and tested to meet the harsh environment of space. Using commercial parts instead of traditional space parts significantly reduces the cost and schedule impact of building a satellite. New designs can be rapidly prototyped, tested and modified if necessary.
Cooper feels that the benefits of this approach include:
  • Increased capability: MSCI’s use of carefully-screened and radiation-tested commercial components allows them to capitalize on the latest available technology to pack more capability into a micro-satellite mass and volume for more on-board processing, bandwidth and memory. As well, data processing that previously required ground station processing, or bigger satellites, can now be done on the micro-satellites themselves. As a result, ground stations no longer need to be as complex or expensive to run which saves on infrastructure costs.
  • Flexibility and scalability: The MSCI developed MMMB architecture is designed to partition bus and payload subsystems because key subsystems, such as power, attitude control system and communications are now able to scale up or down to accommodate a wide range of payloads including optical or electronic surveillance, multi-spectral sensing and communications.
  • Bigger bang for the budget: With limited budgets everywhere, the MSCI built MMMB flexible architecture is simpler to adapt to new payloads, easier to reconfigure for new capabilities and faster to bring to completion and this mean it's less expensive.
For commercial customers, this means cost effectiveness with shorter implementation schedules, since an MMMB buss based micro-satellite can be deployed in as little as twelve months.
    MSCI considers itself to be Canada`s oldest and most successful Canadian micro-satellite company and also the last independent micro-satellite company left in North America. "All the other US based companies have been acquired by "big space" companies," states Cooper who continues:
    "We're the only one left but this has allowed MSCI to focus on what it does best, which is growing our core micro-satellite business."
    The MSCI built MOST micro-satellite will reach its seventh birthday on June 30, 2010 and is expected to be still in orbit and going strong which provides solid proof that the MSCI claims are real and not just a good science fiction story.

    Sunday, May 23, 2010

    Feedback on "The Bill to Push Canada's Agenda in Space"

    There's been quite a bit of feedback from my May 16th, 2010 post titled "The Bill to Push Canada's Agenda in Space" which focused on the May 11th, 2010 House of Commons Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology (INDU) meeting with Canadian Space Agency (CSA) President Steve MacLean, Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Koichi Wakata and European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Frank De Winne.

    During the meeting, CSA President MacLean stated that the CSA required an additional budget of "2 Billion over five years" to "put us at the table" and drive innovation. He also stated unequivocally that “Everything we do is to align with (Canada’s) science and tech strategy.”

    Those of us interested in having a little context to the discussion before wading into the comments and opinions might want to listen to this audio recording of the meeting hosted on the ParlVU website. To listen, you simply click on “Advanced View” and select “English Audio 32K”and your reward is almost two hours of fascinating context on our politicians and our space program which will help to illuminate the discussion below.

    As for the rest of us, who might perhaps be too impatient to do the appropriate due-diligence, here are some of the more interesting comments, views and opinions received over the last few days interspersed with some context, some personal opinions and even a list of four things that independent space focused businesses should lobby the government about.

    To begin with, Canadian Space Society President Kevin Shortt (who also subscribes to the e-mail list where I get some of my best ideas), seems to have provided perhaps the most direct and relevant commentary on the discussion by stating:
    "The thing that struck me was that everyone (in the meeting) seemed interested in the idea of pursuing exploration of the solar system but lacked the knowledge to ask the intelligent questions on what it would take to accomplish those goals. Then they would turn around and ask questions concerning why so much money is being invested in space technology.

    This tells me that while there is an interest to invest in this kind of thing, there is a fundamental lack of understanding in the basic process to get this technology "off the ground" which makes justifying the expense that much more difficult. My feeling is that until there is that fundamental understanding, any programs that involve spending money on space will be short-lived and hard to maintain."
    Shortt's comments certainly seem accurate to those of us who have listened to the meeting, but are also confusing to those of us (including Shortt) who are aware of Canada's longstanding science and technology strategy which encourages the commercialization and utilization of newly developed technologies as described in my May 22nd post "The "Three Kings" of Canadian Commercial Space".

    This policy has essentially remained unchanged for decades and enjoys a broad consensus of support across the generally partisan, Canadian political party lines. Of course, it is certainly possible that those politicians who were aware of the strategy, like Liberal MP Marc Garneau, either attended the meeting but intentionally kept quite or else managed  to be absent for the discussion.

    Some readers focused on good reasons why Canada should continue on with space focused activities whatever the cost. After all, $2 billion extra spread out over five years on top of the existing budget does seem like a lot of money and politicians might want some sort of justification to authorize those expenditures. These justifications could include:
    1. The encouragement of high-tech job creation which will increase exports and grow tax revenue.
    2. The creation and distribution of new technologies and products that will improve the efficiency of industries.
    3. Building international reputation and goodwill to gain access to important places like the International Space Station (ISS) and/or encourage the Americans to maintain their subsidy of Canadian astronaut activities.
    4. The inspiration to youth to study science and technology based subjects which are needed over the long term to do one or more of the items listed above.
    5. How it's in our "essential nature" to "boldly go where no man has gone before."
    No doubt the above are valid points, but the first two items need some sort of tracking mechanism which politicians can use to justify their decisions, while the third and the fourth are generally nice to have but only follow logically upon the successful completion of the first two.

    After all. kids and foreign politicians generally aren't inspired or interested in giving out goodwill without something useful actually being done that they can see and become excited about.

    So what about that final point about our essential nature and going boldly? It sounds great and it's made some people who write fiction quite a bit of money, but as a practical justification of why we should undertake space focused activities it just doesn't seem to have worked so far to convince the skeptics.

    Even the great 1960's adventures of the Apollo program only went boldly in order to keep the Russians from getting their first.

    So while going boldly often make for a good story, maybe the time has come to find new hero's with different stories to tell. Perhaps we need someone like Delos D. Harriman, an entrepreneurial businessman who masterminded the first landing on the Moon as a private business venture in the 1949 Robert A. Heinlein novel "The Man Who Sold the Moon."

    Or maybe that's a topic for another time...

    Moving back to today's topic, it's important to note that several readers took me personally to task for my suggestion to move the debate into the political arena and lobby the federal government. One commented said flat out that "since we don't officially know what the LTSP is yet or why it will cost an additional $2 billion over five years, it might be worthwhile for you to suggest some good things to lobby for, rather than just suggesting that we call up the our local MP to say hi."

    They're right and an alternative is indeed needed. So here's what I'd personally call up my MP to lobby for:
    1. First of all, I'd ask for the existing LTSP to be formally released, if only because it can't really be discussed unless we know what's in it (although by now we must all have at least a general idea).
    2. Secondly, I'd request the creation of CSA programs specifically targeted towards small business and tech start-ups because there aren't any programs in that area right now and they're needed. I first wrote about this state of affairs back in July 2009 under the title "OK, So Maybe the CSA Does Provide Some Support for Small Aerospace Firms" but was joking in the title, since there were no specific CSA programs whatsoever for small businesses then. Nothing seems to have changed since, so maybe we should suggest more strongly a second time that the CSA develop some small business specific programs for their subcontractors. From a political perspective, I'm pretty confident that the announcement of a small business specific program from the CSA would go far towards building a consensus in favor of the organization getting the extra money needed to fully implement the LTSP.
    3. Thirdly, I'd lobby to make sure that something called "Section 116" of the tax code is removed as promised in the last federal budget (I talked about section 116 in my March 8th, 2010 post "Happy Days Are Here Again"). In  essence, section 116 makes it hard for foreign companies and individuals to invest in Canadian based companies and I'd like Canadian companies to have all the capital they can get.
    4. And finally, I'd advocate that the "super-flow through share" tax credits presently used by the Canadian mining industry to fund speculative mining ventures also be extended to fund science and technology commercialization activities. After all, there is certainly overlap between mining activities and science and technology commercialization since they both are highly speculative and require large amounts of money up front for a potential return on investment that could take decades to materialize. Of course, this is nothing new to readers of this blog since I've previously talked about flow-through tax credits as recently as my post "Preparing for the Next Great Canadian Gold Rush." An abstract on the topic by John Chapman, Nadeem Ghafoor, Christian Sallaberger and Frank Teti from the 2008 Canadian Space Summit is also available online here for those of us who'd like to learn more.
    Points three and four are specifically focused on funding through tax credits for space science and R&D, which is quite palatable to politicians right now, if only because there are no requirements for up-front government funded capital investment or ongoing financing. Plus, the returns from the program can be easily measured through the filed tax forms of the program participants.

    Taken in total, these four points are proposals that politicians will understand without a lot of education, training or prompting and be able to track without the need to refer to any deeper philosophical arguments.

    They are also helpful for companies interested in raising money to do a little science and commercialize some technology for space focused activities and that's why I'd advocate them.

    Of course, I'm fully aware that taxation is a blunt instrument for social policy and sometimes leads to unintended consequences as you can infer from the recent May 2010 SR&ED Update on the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATAAlliance) website, which talks about another Canadian tax credit program and what it's supposed to accomplish:
    "Once again, the (SR&ED) program seems to have strayed back to the CRA’s (Canada Revenue Agency) traditions and focus on compliance instead of on the effective delivery of an incentive program.  For whatever reason, the program’s leadership just cannot get it right."
    So the ideas aren't perfect but they are a start and we all need to start somewhere.

    I'm also fully aware that my four proposals don't really address national security and economic infrastructure issues arising out of the aborted  2008 sale of portions of Canadian space focused  business icon Macdonald Dettwiler (MDA) to American-owned Alliant Techsystems (ATK).

    But again, they are a start and we all need to start somewhere. In this case, I'm even willing to publicly go on record as stating that I don't think that the MacLean proposals, as summarized in the as yet unreleased LTSP, will address national security and economic infrastructure issues either.

    Anyone looking to prove me wrong is encouraged to release the LTSP and point out the appropriate passages in the document.

    Saturday, May 22, 2010

    The "Three Kings" of Canadian Commercial Space

    Communications giant Telesat, robotics expert Macdonald Dettwiler (MDA) and micro-satellite upstart COMDEV International (COMDEV) have emerged as the "three kings" of Canadian space focused activities.

    These three firms will likely have more effect on Canada in space than anything happening at the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and much of the reason for this is the ongoing government policy to encourage research commercialization as the cornerstone of the Canadian science and technology strategy.

    The latest Conservative government under Stephen Harper may have gone so far as to attempt to define and state this explicitly in policy documents such as Mobilizing Science and Technology to Canada's Advantage (May 2007) and the Mobilizing Science and Technology to Canada's Advantage Progress Report (June 2009) but the general policy has been in place for generations and enjoys wide support across party lines.

    It's also generally been a very, very successful policy.

    For example, Telesat (created in 1969 as a Canadian government owned or "crown" corporation under the Pierre Trudeau liberal government) was originally mandated simply to develop communications services in the far north. It used technology developed through another government department, the Communications Research Centre (CnRC), which was then responsible for coordinating research and development activities in communications.

    CnRC activities then were much like CSA activities now and included most of Canada's early satellite launches such as Alouette 1, the first satellite designed and built by any country other than the United States or the Soviet Union.

    The technology transfusion from CnRC certainly helped Telesat to become an iconic representation of how Canadians use space focused solutions to solve terrestrial problems, tie together the country and then continue forward to make a bit of money on the side.

    Telesat is, of course, directly credited with several space focused "firsts" of its own including the world's first domestic communications satellite in geostationary orbit operated by a commercial company (ANIK A1). It currently owns a fleet of 13 satellites plus operates 13 additional satellites for other entities. These assets are administered by 500 employees with a yearly budget twice that of the CSA, which makes Telesat the fourth-largest fixed satellite services provider in the world.

    But whatever the bottom line might show, the recent awarding of the John H. Chapman Award of Excellence to the first president of Telesat, Dr. David Golden for his "outstanding contribution to the Canadian space program" reinforces the longstanding perception that Telesat has always been more than just a business. One day writers will create fascinating historical accounts of Telesat's early activities in much the same way Pierre Burton wrote about the railroads when he called them "The National Dream."

    The same could also be said for MDA, although the genesis for this perception is more recent and grew out of the aborted sale of the space portions of the company to American-owned Alliant Techsystems (ATK) in April 2008.  The sale, eventually blocked by the Conservative government, served to highlight national security and economic infrastructure issues which have not yet been formally addressed or resolved although MDA has since moved on to become the prime benefactor of Canadian government contracts relating to Earth imaging and arctic sovereignty.

    In fact, MDA has become such an iconic Canadian company that there is even an MDA satellite (RADARSAT-1, the first Canadian Earth observation satellite) along with it's Gatineau based ground station tracking antenna on the back of the Canadian $100 dollar bill. Radarsat International, Inc. (RSI), the Canadian private company created in 1989 to process, market and distribute Radarsat-1 data was acquired by MDA in 2006 and renamed MDA Geospatial Services International (GSI).

    MDA also used the skills gained through it acquisition of SPAR Aerospace Ltd., the company which designed, developed, tested and built the first Canadarm, to do the same with the Canadarm2 as part of Canada's contribution to the International Space Station (ISS).

    COMDEV is the newest on our list but is also the firm with perhaps the most potential and the greatest part of it's story still to come. With 1300 employees and FY2009 revenues of around $240 million, according to Bloomberg Businessweek, it has about 2/3rd the cash flow but more than twice the employees of the CSA.

    Founded in 1974 to supply microwave equipment to the emerging space industry, the firm is currently moving into the miniaturized (or micro-satellite) market in a big way through the ongoing activities of COMDEV subsidiary, exactEarth Ltd. It is also moving forward with a micro-satellite based automatic identification system ( called exactAIS™), the maintenance of ongoing R&D relationships with Canadian universities including the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies (UTIAS) Space Flight Laboratory (SFL) and it's recent purchase of Routes AstroEngineering (Routes).

    According to the firm website, "over 80 percent of all commercial communications satellites ever launched have had COMDEV technology on board."

    So now that we know the players, we need to ask how the CSA, the government agency "committed to leading the development and application of space knowledge for the benefit of Canadians" according to the website "CSA - About the Canadian Space Agency," should go about interacting with these "Three Kings" of Canadian commercial space.

    At the very least, the CSA needs to do it in a way that fulfills and compliments the ongoing government policy to encourage research commercialization as the cornerstone of an overarching science and technology strategy.

    So does the CSA ignore the Three Kings, subcontract out to them, administer and guide their activities or act as an incubator for their eventual successors and competitors? Maybe it should perform all or none of these functions or even perhaps try something else entirely to grow our Canadian space footprint?

    The discussion on the appropriate actions for the CSA to take will likely be the subject of a future post. Stay tuned.


    From: Kieran A. Carroll


    (I still can't seem to figure out how to post comments to your blog...)

    In "The "Three Kings" of Canadian Commercial Space", you referred to the Communications Research Centre as CnRC; AFAIK, everyone in the community refers to it as CRC. You also wrote:
    In fact, MDA has become such an iconic Canadian company that there is even an MDA satellite (RADARSAT-1, the first Canadian Earth observation satellite)..."  
    Radarsat-1 was built by Spar Aerospace, and I'm pretty sure that the satellite belongs to the Crown. (Unlike Radarsat-2, for which the CSA agreed to a deal in which MDA owns the satellite). You also wrote:
    "MDA also used the skills gained through it acquisition of SPAR Aerospace Ltd., the company which designed, developed, tested and built the first Canadarm, to do the same with the Canadarm2 as part of Canada's contribution to the International Space Station (ISS)." 
    If I recall correctly, the Special Purpose Dextrous Manipulator("Dextre") was the only significant element of the Mobile Servicing System for the ISS that wasn't complete at the time that Spar sold their space division to MDA."


    Editors Note: Kieran is not the only person having trouble posting comments right now and I'm not sure how to go about fixing the problem. Anyone able to assist (especially someone who knows HTML) is more than welcome to give me a call and we'll see what can be done.

    Otherwise, I'll be posting comments manually so don't be shy. Send your questions, queries, concerns and comments to

    Sunday, May 16, 2010

    The Bill to Push Canada's Agenda in Space

    On April 25th, as part of my post under the title Presidents Choice I suggested that there was something in the Canadian Space Agency's still unreleased long term space plan (LTSP) that the Prime Minister and our government in Ottawa disagree with.

    Last week we finally found out just what that point of contention is.

    According to the May 12th article "Bill to push Canada in space to top $2B: MacLean" on the Parcs3c blog, there is no point of contention in the LTSP itself.

    The point of contention has to do with the cost to implement the plan. According to the article:
    A Parliamentary committee meeting yesterday showcasing the science of Expedition 21/22 quickly evolved to one of Canadian Space Agency President Steve MacLean’s first pitched public battles to implement his evolving long-term space plan for the agency he helms.
    This parliamentary committee is the House of Commons Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology (INDU) which met with MacLean, Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Koichi Wakata and European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Frank De Winne on May 11th (those interested in a little more context on the committee should check out my May 2nd post Space Men Invade Parliament: Parliament Retaliates Through Committee!)

    The article then goes on to quote CSA President MacLean as stating:
    “You know what? If you want to do a first rate on some of the examples (of potential CSA projects) I gave you, you are looking at an additional budget of $2 billion over five years. That will put us at the table. That will drive innovation.
    We now know why the government doesn't want to implement the LTSP. It's expensive, essentially doubling the existing $390 million annual CSA budget for the next five years.

    So now we need to make a choice.

    We are at the point where advocates of the LTSP need to start talking directly to local MP's. While the CSA can collect the information needed to make policy recommendations and certainly controls policy implementation, the policy must also be approved and funded at the federal government level before implementation can proceed.

    It will certainly be interesting to see what happens next and where this path will end up taking CSA President MacLean and the agency he heads.

    Saturday, May 15, 2010

    Building Rockets for their Red Glare.

    Canada is beginning to slowly lurch forward towards redeveloping the skills needed to build rockets, as demonstrated by this recent announcement between the Norwegian based Andøya Rocket Range (ARR), the National Center for Space Related Education (NAROM), the University of Oslo, the Institute for Space Science, Exploration and Technology (ISSET) at the University of Alberta, the University of Calgary and the University of Saskatchewan to form a ten year, bilateral student sounding rocket program that includes student exchange in physics, electronics and engineering.

    Dubbed the Canada-Norway Student Rocket Programme (CanNoRock) the collaboration was announced at the conclusion of the recent Canadian Space Agency (CSA) workshop on suborbital platforms and nano-satellites which finished up on April 16, 2010.

    Of course, this is not the first time that Canadian students have gone to Norway to launch rockets under the CanNoRock banner. According to this November 26th, 2009 article "Students launch experimental rockets in Norway" posted on the Rocketry Planet blog, Canadian students go to Norway because they "could not have launched a sounding rocket in Canada since there are no longer any rocket ranges."

    But this is the first announcement of a  long term plan codifying co-operation between the Norwegian and  Canadian organizations.

    According to the Rocketry Blog, post on "What is a Sounding Rocket:"
    Sailors the world over used to throw a weighted line into the water off of the ship to gauge the depth of the water. This was known as “to sound” or “a sounding”. Basically it was a measurement of the current depth. That is what research rockets usually do…they take measurements. This is why they are often called Sounding Rockets.
    Sounding rockets inhabit an interesting intermediary stage somewhere between the short range hobby rockets used by enthusiasts such as the Canadian Rocket Society or the Canadian Association of Rocketry (CARWeb) and launchers capable of putting payloads into orbit. Sounding rockets are normally used to carry instruments from 50 to 1,500 kilometers above the surface of the Earth.

    Canada has a long history of expertise in this area with the Black Brant sounding rockets and their two stage Excalibur variants. However, Alberta-born designer Albert Fia, who developed the Black Brant rocket in the 1950's for Bristol Aerospace (and thus enabled his firm to become an industrial-scale rocket manufacturer) died in 2004 and recent development in this area has languished.

    The Fort Churchill rocket launch site, built in 1954 by the Canadian Army to study the effects of auroras on long distance communications was essentially shut down and abandoned in 1985, although in 1995 a private company called Akjuit Aerospace made an unsuccessful attempt to reopen the facility.

    Sunday, May 09, 2010

    The Microsat Way in Canada

    You’re no doubt familiar with a publication called the Microsat Way in Canada?” asks Doug Sinclair, owner of Sinclair Interplanetary, and part of the team receiving this years Alouette Award, presented by the Canadian Aeronautics and Space Institute at its 15th annual CASI ASTRO conference, which just finished up last week in Toronto.

    The Alouette Award, presented for "outstanding contribution to advancement in Canadian space technology, applications, science or engineering" was awarded to the CanX-2 micro-satellite team, headed by the University of Toronto Institute of Aerospace Studies (UTIAS). Sinclair was part of the team which built the CanX-2 micro-satellite, but awards don't seem to interest him.

    "CASI is not the normal type of conference I attend but the organizers were very proactive in encouraging me to present a paper on developing, flying and evolving a Canadian Micro-satellite reaction wheel (presented with UTIAS colleague C. Cordell Grant). The award was simply a nice surprise." he told me during a phone interview earlier this week.

    But it's still my answers to his questions that seem to interest him the most right now and so he asks me a second time. “Are you familiar with The Microsat Way in Canada?"

    I say no and so he tells me that the title refers to a paper written years ago by Peter Stibrany and Kieran A. Carroll back when they both worked for Dynacon (now Microsat Systems Canada). In it, the authors discussed the potential of micro-satellites to reduce entry barriers to space utilization and the way micro-satellite manufacturing methodologies will change the economics of space applications.

    "The concepts discussed by Carrol and Stibrany in their paper are the keys to understanding the history of  the little wheels Sinclair Interplanetary builds and the manufacturing processes that allow cash strapped universities like UTIAS to launch small satellites and win awards like Alouette" states Sinclair, referring to the reaction wheel he initially built as his contribution to the CanX-2 and which his firm now sells to other satellite developers.

    Wikipedia defines a reaction wheel as being:
    "a type of flywheel used primarily by spacecraft to change their angular momentum without using fuel for rockets or other reaction devices...

    They are particularly useful when the spacecraft must be rotated by very small amounts, such as keeping a telescope pointed at a star. They may also reduce the mass fraction needed for fuel."
    But that's not the important part, according to Sinclair. The important part is developing an understanding of the construction techniques used to fabricate the reaction wheel and how these techniques differ from traditional satellite manufacturing techniques. He states:
    "The traditional approach to satellite manufacturing is to take ten years and make sure everything is right before building any hardware. Since the due diligence requirements needed to make sure everything is right are normally quite onerous and fluid, it's very often simply too expensive, time consuming and complex to change a satellite component after fabrication unless the part obviously doesn't work. So you never learn anything using real world conditions until it's too late to change the design.

    Micro-satellite manufacturers function differently because their focus is on inexpensive, quickly constructed components used frequently. This methodology quickly builds up a body of expertise since different things can be tried and small failures tolerated for the knowledge gained. As an example, the Sinclair flywheels used in CanX-2 were built out of inexpensive components and we could build new flywheels within a few weeks at a very low cost when ever they were needed.

    So over a few months, we were able to build half a dozen prototypes with each one slightly better than the previous. So we had real world experience with the component which would influence future development and if we broke any single prototype or if it didn't work the way we thought it would then we didn't have to worry about breaking the program or blowing the budget.
    This is how Canadian small and micro-satellite fabricators function, according to Sinclair and it's all based on the paper written by Carrol and Stibrany. It’s likely that this is a document that people like Doug Sinclair feel more of us should be reading.

    Saturday, May 08, 2010

    ITAR, Foreign Policy and Space Focused Business

    The Washington based blog National Defense is always an fascinating read for those of us obsessed with the US and it's effect on the Canadian military and space infrastructure. But the April 30th, 2010 article titled "Irrational U.S. Fear of China Undermines National Security, Says Former Pentagon Official" is especially useful for the insight it provides into late 1990's Clinton administration decisions relating to exports of technology, satellites and space-system components.

    The article quotes former US deputy defense secretary John Hamre as stating "America’s paranoia about China has blinded U.S. policy makers and, as a result, has severely undermined U.S. security and economic interests." According to the article:
    "The United States in the late 1990s decided to restrict exports of high-tech systems such as satellites and other key space-system components because it wanted to freeze China out of the market. The concern was that China would use that technology to enhance its ballistic-missile arsenal."
    These laws were eventually codified as part of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) and are still in force today but the article then goes on to state that the legislation put the United States "in a position where it is now rapidly losing clout in the space market."
    The loss of international sales means the space industry is now heavily dependent on the U.S. government for its survival. About 90 to 95 percent of the industry’s sales are related to the U.S. government.

    Another consequence of America’s “static” approach to industrial security is that the U.S. government and private sector have not been able to benefit from the technological advances that other countries have made."
    In other words, unlike in Canada where the majority of space focused business is done between private organizations or as part of an international team sharing both scientific and technical data, the US space industry is almost entirely focused on one client; the US government as represented in either its military or civilian (NASA) guise.

    I don't know about anyone else, but I like the Canadian way better.

    For example, while the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) does have a role incubating new technology, Canadian firms are normally expected to develop outside sources of revenue and move into new markets as they grow. Plus, the Canadian Forces (CF), although often tasked with missions requiring a space capability, does not possess such an overwhelming budget or set of requirements so as to distort the commercial market all out of proportion (which is what seems to be happening in the US with the once canceled Constellation program).

    Even the US based Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), although originally a strong supporter of ITAR, dislikes the legislation in it's current form, as can be seen from this discussion recorded at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research  October 2009 conference on Export Control Reform 2009: Enhancing National Security and Economic Competitiveness.

    It's obvious by now that Canadian and foreign space focused companies have benefited from US ITAR legislation through the development of new capabilities and the growth of new (often "ITAR free") markets. Many have grown their business at double digit rates annually over the last decade and are now poised to move back into the US as part of the Obama administrations embrace of international cooperation in future space initiatives.

    Of course, this promised US cooperation cannot occur without ITAR reform so the Obama administration has put forward a plan to reform export controls. The US Congress is expected to debate the issue later this year.

    But what about the China space program that the Clinton administration feared so much in the 1990's? According to the article:
    "The world’s most reliable commercial space booster is now in China, Hamre said. “Yet we thought we were going to freeze them out and they wouldn’t move forward if we didn’t work with them. … Was that an intelligent security strategy?”

    Sunday, May 02, 2010

    Space Men Invade Parliament: Parliament Retaliates Through Committee!

    According to the April 29th, 2010 article "Parliamentary Committee to Meet Astronaut Delegation" a  delegation of astronauts led by Canadian Space Agency (CSA) President Steve MacLean is scheduled to meet with members of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology (INDU) on Tuesday, May 11th, 2010 from 9:00 - 11:00 am.

    But the official Parliament of Canada website containing the published agenda for the meeting is sparse with only the date, location and names of the astronauts in the delegation so we're not totally sure what's expected to occur.

    However, we're certainly able to make suggestions to our political representatives about topics and track their responses since INDU includes opposition members of parliament, is also normally open to the public and is usually webcast on ParlVU.

    So I'm going to make a suggestion to the INDU members.

    INDU should ask CSA President MacLean and the other participating Canadian astronaut (Robert Thirsk, who holds the Canadian records for the longest space flight and the most time spent in space) about our missing Canadian long term space plan (LTSP).

    After all, INDU last made news in the Canadian space community back in 2008 when it held meetings on the aborted sale of portions of space contractor MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) to American-owned Alliant Techsystems (ATK). Out of these meetings developed a Canadian consensus on the need for an updated LTSP which was duly added to the original mandate of then new CSA President MacLean and is presently referenced in official CSA documents like the Reports on Plans and Priorities 2010-2011 although it remains officially unreleased.

    So INDU has a history of asking these sorts of questions.

    INDU is also certainly the most appropriate venue to ask about the revised Canadian LTSP and what else the Canadian government has done since 2008 to address national infrastructure and arctic sovereignty issues arising out of the aborted MDA sale.

    The upcoming INDU meeting is also the best opportunity to ask these questions to CSA President MacLean, who is scheduled to be there and was the person hired in 2008 specifically to develop the appropriate answers. In fact, Jim Prentice, then Minister of Industry who made the 2008 official announcement on the appointment of the  then new CSA President and the need for a new LTSP stated unequivocally that:
    I have given (CSA President) Steve (MacLean) a mandate to make sweeping changes at the CSA. As we stand at this crossroads, he will revitalize the Agency. He will restore its ability to punch above its weight in an international quest. He will develop Canada's capacity for a new era of prestige and achievement.

    And to that end, as one of Steve MacLean's first acts as new President, the CSA will begin consultations with stakeholders that will lead to a new Long-Term Space Plan (LTSP). I expect this plan — the fourth in the series — to be as influential for our generation of exploration and development as any plan that Canada has produced for charting our future in space. That's a tall order. I know that Steve is capable of bringing together the stakeholders. Time is of the essence, and I look forward to the plan in the coming months.
    No doubt Tony Clement, Prentice's successor as Minister of Industry feels essentially the same way because the consultations with stakeholders do seem to have occurred and a LTSP does seem to have been written, although it certainly hasn't been released and only cosmetic changes seem to have occurred so far at the CSA.

    Many, many months have passed and it would be nice to finally release the document and begin all the substantive changes needed to prepare Canada for this promised new era of prestige and achievement.

    Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Koichi Wakata and European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Frank De Winne are also expected to attend the meeting. Thirsk, Wakata and De Winne were all part of the Expedition 20 crew to the International Space Station.

    Saturday, May 01, 2010

    Big Space Party at the Westin Next Week

    Quite a few movers, shakers and technical experts in the Canadian space industry are in Toronto next week, starting Tuesday, May 4th for the 15th Annual Canadian Aeronautics and Space Institute (CASI) Astronautics conference at the The Westin Bristol Place Toronto Airport hotel.

    The 2010 conference agenda is focused on Canada's Future in Space which is something I'm personally looking forward to finding out a little more about given that it's one of my favored topics on this blog.

    Confirmed speakers for the sessions include Canadian astronaut Dr. Bjarni Tryggvason (who is acting as chair for the conference); Canadian Space Agency (CSA) Director General of Space Exploration Gilles Leclerc; Department of National Defense (DND) Director General of Integrated Force Development Brigadier General Perry Matte; the Chairman of the board of Optech Inc., Dr. Allan Carswell and quite a few others in government, academia, the military and the private sector focused on space activities in support of "a safer world, a healthier planet and a stronger economy."

    Some of the conference organizers are people you read about before and include Tryggvason, Ron Buckingham from the Northeast Space Company, Terry Doyle from Macdonald Dettwiler and Associates (MDA), Robert Richards from Odyssey Moon, Ali Shoamanesh from Telesat and Robert Zee from the University of Toronto Institute of Aerospace Studies (UTIAS).

    CASI is a non-profit scientific and technical organization for people interested in aeronautics, space and remote sensing. It's certainly a useful gathering of talented and informative people and I hope to see you there.

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