Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Looking to Enjoy Some Holiday Cheer

The Commercial Space blog is taking a break for the next two weeks to enjoy the holidays and begin preparing for the next Canadian Space Commerce Association (CSCA) meeting on January 12th, 2012 at the law offices of Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP and the upcoming CSCA national conference in Ottawa during the last week in March, 2012.

Until then, feel free to start enjoying the festive season with this sample of holiday cheer from the parody cover band Sponge Awareness Foundation, using their best Gun's N' Roses voices.

The Commercial Space blog will be back with all new articles and commentary, beginning on January 3rd, 2012.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Dancing with the Devil in the Pale Moonlight

Here's something you never used to come across, but could soon be noticing with increasing frequency.

Kjell Stakkestad. Photo c/o NASA/Paul E. Alers.
According to the December 12th, 2011 Postmedia News article "Aerospace: Dollars for space exploration have dried up south of the 49th parallel" an American company is coming to Canada to discuss possible joint space ventures with Canadian firms like MacDonald Dettwiler (MDA) and Com Dev International, to develop a plan which could potentially receive funding from Export Development Canada, a Canadian crown corporation wholly owned by the Government of Canada.

The article quotes Kjell Stakkestad, the president of Arizona based KinetX Inc., as stating that the American business climate is "killing our industry" and the only way to grow new business is to develop international contacts and cost sharing agreements independent of traditional US government sources of funding. He was in Montreal last week attending the Aéro Montréal, conference on aviation innovation.

Stakkestad certainly isn't the only American who thinks that the current American concerns and regulations are damaging to American industry.

The organizers of the recently concluded 2011 International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS2011) have begun to post the conference presentations and one of the most interesting is the keynote address on "U.S. competitiveness: Where do we stand what can we do?" by George Nield, the associate administrator at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Office of Commercial Space Transportation.

He states unequivocally that, when it it comes to the satellite launch market:
If we look at the data to date, the situation today doesn't look too good, at least for the satellite launch market. 

Back in the 1980's, the U.S. had almost 100% of the commercial launch market. During the 5-year period from 1996-2000, we had 40% of the global market share. From 2001-2005, the U.S had fallen to 22% of the market. During the most recent 5-year period, from 2006-2010, we were down to 16% of the global market, significantly behind both Russia and Europe. Clearly, we no longer appear to be able to compete internationally, at least with our current launchers. 

Probably the biggest reason for this is cost, but there are also questions about being able to get a launch slot on the range, and the overall nature of the commercial customer experience, given the temptation for U.S. launch providers to focus on their primary government customers, NASA and the DoD.
He states that, while there is some cause for long-term optimism:
...for the next several years, we will be completely dependent on the Russians to take our astronauts to and from the Space Station. Although several companies are eager to show that they can do the job as part of the Commercial Crew Development Program, the limited amount of money that has been allocated to the program to date calls into question, at least for me, whether we are really serious about maintaining a robust U.S. human spaceflight capability.
The rest of the presentation is a sensible overview of the current US situation and analysis of several potential new markets expected to open up over the next few years. If Nield is correct in his overall assessment, we should be expecting quite a few more US companies to visit Canada over the next few years.

It's likely, they'll be looking for money.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Canadian Space Rovers on the Chopping Block

According to the December 2011 Space Quarterly article "Canada's Fledging Rover Program Is Facing A Rocky Future," the space rovers being constructed under contract to the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) by Kanata, Ontario based Neptec Design Group and BC based MacDonald Dettwiler (MDA), utilizing a variety of subcontractors and partners such as Quebec based MPB Communications, are facing a hard deadline of March 31, 2012 when everything is supposed to be finished.

After that, the CSA funding ceases. The projects are then expected to wind down as the project teams are laid off or reassigned.

This is because the rovers presently have no mission or any real expectation of finding one before the deadline is reached. The article quotes Neptec President Ian Christie as stating:
Neptec has spent time, money and much effort developing an expertise in rover exploration – all finite resources for which the company seeks a return. Now, it is at risk of letting rover employees go or reassigning them after the funding ends, losing the expertise the technicians built up during the last two years.
Three CSA contracts awarded to Toronto based Engineering Services Inc. (ESI) in 2010 to develop robotic arms, control stations and exploration tools for integration into terrestrial prototypes of lunar or martian rovers (as described in my October 25th, 2010 post "Overnight Success Plus IP Rights") also have no follow-on programs and are likely to wind down at the same time.

Which all sounds really sad.

However, as explained most recently in my April 9th, 2011 edition of "This Week in Space for Canada," the CSA rover contracts were always intended simply to "position" Canada in such a way that if Canada's space exploration partners ever get around to agreeing on a rover mission to the Moon (or Mars), then Canada could potentially contribute.

Of course, that positioning seems not to have worked in this case and so the program is winding down.

It's worth noting that multiple martian rovers have been developed and (usually) successfully deployed by a variety of international players over the last forty years, so the technology can hardly be considered cutting edge. These include:
  • The unsuccessful 1971 Soviet Union Mars 2 and Mars 3 missions, which both utilized a Prop-M rover. Mars 2 crashed into the Martian surface and Mars 3 failed less than a minute after landing.
  • The Sojourner rover, aboard the Mars Pathfinder mission, which landed successfully on July 4th, 1997 and functioned until September 27th, 1997.
  • The Spirit or Mars Exploration Rover A (MER-A), which landed successfully on January 4th, 2004 and functioned for nearly six years before its wheels were trapped in the Martian sand. Communication was lost with Spirit on March 22nd, 2010.
  • The Opportunity or Mars Exploration Rover B (MER-B), which landed successfully on January 25, 2004 and is still operational.
As well, there is the NASA built Mars Science Laboratory (known as Curiosity), which launched on November 26th, 2011 and is expected to land on Mars between August 6th - 20th, 2012 and the ExoMars rover, designed and developed by the European Space Agency (ESA), which is expected to launch for Mars in 2018.

There are also several successful lunar rovers going back to the first use of a manned rover as part of the US Apollo 15 mission in 1972 and the 1973 unmanned Soviet Lunokhod-1 and Lunokhod-2 rovers.

In 2014, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) plans to land two motorized lunar rovers (one Indian and one Russian built) as part of its second Chandrayaan mission. No Canadian input is expected for this mission.

Even the Google Lunar X Prize, a competition offering a $30 million award for the first privately funded team to land a robotic probe on the Moon and then travel across its surface to send back specified images and other data, will likely not be utilizing any CSA built rover technology.

As noted in my July 4th, 2011 post "Ground Control to Marc Garneau," our erstwhile ex-CSA president and current MP for the riding of Westmount—Ville-Marie, along with quite a few others associated with the CSA, have been publicly advocating the building of Canadian rovers for at least the last ten years.

But the Garneau rover plan wrapped the little machines around a proposal to double CSA funding and use this extra money to develop an all-Canadian robotic Mars mission which would actually use the developed rover technology.

The new mission was also intended to "stimulate the country's space industry during uncertain times for North American space programs" and develop new, follow-on applications for the rovers after their usefulness and functionality was demonstrated by the Mars mission.

But without an appropriate budget, the CSA is forced to flail about seemingly without direction by implementing a rover development program under the assumption that some one else has a scheduled mission to Mars or the Moon, but has forgotten to build their own rovers.

Since this doesn't seem to have happened, we're going to need to either let this specific program die or try building something else.

Or maybe, just maybe, we could find our Canadian rovers a proper Canadian mission to accomplish. We have until March 2012 to decide.
Innovative wheel assembly for Google Lunar X-Prize competitor Plan-B, an initiative from privately funded Canadian company Adobri Solutions Ltd.
The Polar Communications & Weather Mission

According to rumours circulating around Canadian Space Agency (CSA) headquarters, impending CSA budget cuts expected to occur next March, will essentially eviscerate all new initiatives, leaving only the federally supported RADARSAT Constellation program for the CSA to administer.

The only exception in this scenario might possibly be the Polar Communications & Weather (PCW) mission.

As described in my July 27th, 2009 post "MDA Signs Contract For Polar Communications and Weather Mission," the PCW mission "is designed to facilitate Canadian operations in the north and support Canadian sovereignty by providing reliable and continuous space-based communications services and timely meteorological information." The mission would consist of two satellites in molniya-type orbits, supported by one northern ground station and connected to communication satellites in geosynchronous orbit with other connections to various portions of the telecommunications infrastructure.

According to the "Polar Communication and Weather mission (PCW)" overview on the CSA website, the PCW mission will cover portions of Canadian territory which are not covered by the current crop of geostationary communications satellites (GEO) in order to ensure 24/7 communications, plus accurate short term weather and long term climate forecasts.

According to the Defence Research and Development Canada website on the PCW program, the CSA, the Department of National Defence and Environment Canada are partnering on the PCW project.

It will be interesting to see if the program survives the budget process.

Support our Patreon Page