Monday, December 22, 2014

2014: The Year in Space for Canada

          by Chuck Black

With regards to both Dickens and cursing Chinese philosophers, 2014 was certainly the "best of times," the "worst of times," and perhaps even the "most interesting of times" for the Canadian space industry, although the specifics mostly depended on whether you worked at the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) or somewhere else.

So, with that in mind, here are some of the high and low points for the Canadian space sector in 2014.

The year began, as outlined in the January 23rd, 2014 post "Canadian Space Industry Shrinks While International Markets Grow, with indications that Canada could no longer "punch above its weight," at least when it came to the commercialization of space derived technology. As described in the article, the Canadian share of the fast expanding international space marketplace was shrinking, both as a percentage of the overall market and in absolute terms.

Of course, it wasn't as if the Federal government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper was unaware of the situation.

After a slow start assessing the recommendations of the November 2012 David Emerson led Aerospace Review (which was highly critical of the CSA and led directly to the February 2013 resignation of CSA president Steve MacLean), the Harper government continued on its glacial way with a series of incremental announcements marinated in hyperbole, which at least reflected Emerson and could perhaps become the core of an effective job creation strategy during the lead-up to an expected fall 2015 federal election.

Minister Moore. Photo c/o CTV.
The first of these announcements was the  January 7th, 2014 release by Industry Minister James Moore of "Canada's Space Policy Framework," which defined five principles of Canadian space policy ("Canadian interests first," "positioning the private sector at the forefront," "progress through partnerships," "excellence in key capabilities" and "inspiring Canadians") and three areas of action ("commercialization," "research and development" and the "exploration of space") without really going into a lot of detail about what the phrases actually meant.

Gen. Natynczyk. Photo c/o Wikipedia.
Meanwhile, a beleaguered CSA, under the semi-serious leadership of MacLeans' official successor, retired Canadian Forces general Walt Natynczyk, attempted to explain why CSA employees should continue to come to work.

The big problem, as outlined in the February 9th, 2014 post, "Conservatives Form Committees; NDP Says "Incompetence Crippling Space Sector," was the Aerospace Review's recommendation to create two external committees; the first tasked with outreach functions and the second tasked with fiscal oversight and policy making.

This shrinking of the CSA mandate would normally clear the way for re-assignment and lay-offs of CSA employees whose roles would be essentially "outsourced" to the committees, which is likely why the opposition New Democratic Party (NDP), with its close ties to various unions representing federal government employees, initially objected.

However, as outlined in the February 27th, 2014 post on "The "Casablanca" of Space Conferences," it was becoming obvious, even without the spectre of immediate layoffs, that most CSA employees would prefer to be somewhere else and, by the end of the year, most of those who could leave, did.

Among them, as outlined in the November 2nd, 2014 post "Hello, I Must Be Going: CSA President Natynczyk Transferred to Veterans Affairs," was Walt Natynczyk.

Also by the end of the year, and as outlined in the November 19th, 2014 post, "Industry Minister Moore Announces Space Advisory Board Members," the Federal government had finally announced the membership of one of the previously announced committees, a daring, but long overdue step which should give plenty of time to make several more auspicious announcements unencumbered by the need for actual results, as part of the run up to the next election.

CSA employees preparing the Near Earth Object Surveillance Satellite (NEOSSat) for thermal vacuum testing at the David Florida Laboratory in Ottawa, ON sometime before its launch in February 2013. As outlined in both the July 7th, 2014 post "NEOSSat Not Up to the Job; Government Report Blames Contractor," and the July 28th, 2014 follow-up post, "Customers vs Project Managers: The Real Truth about NEOSSat," an unusual public feud between the CSA and NEOSsat prime contractor  Microsat Systems Canada Inc. (MSCI) highlighted project management failures at the CSA and raised questions about whether the satellite would ever function according to specifications. As of December 2014, NEOSsat was still not fully operational. Photo c/o CSA

Throughout the year, politics remained a key driver influencing Canadian space activities. The April 7th, 2014 post "The Crimean Crisis and Canadian Aerospace Activities," discussed sales losses in at least two Canadian aerospace firms (MacDonald Dettwiler and Bombardier) deriving from Federal government decisions made in protest against Russian activities in the Crimea.

The April 28th, 2014 post "M3MSat and the Politics of Dancing in the Crimea," discussed the announcement that the Federal government "has decided not to proceed" with the planned June 2014 launch of the Maritime Monitoring and Messaging Micro-Satellite (M3MSat) technology demonstrator from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and the subsequent Russian allegations of the M3Msat's possible "military" uses.

But while, as outlined in the June 24th, 2014 post "Two More Canadian Satellites Launched on Russian Rocket: Another Scheduled," Russia did end up launching at least a few more Canadian built satellites over the summer, the writing was on the wall for fall.

Hadfield abroad. Photo c/o Donald Weber / Crown Prince Court/ Abu Dhabi.
By then, as described in the September 29th, 2014 post, "No Visas for Russian and Chinese Space Delegates to Attend IAC 2014" the situation was such that the Harper government wasn't even expected to provide a public justification for its actions, although some of the background on the Chinese decision was discussed in the November 9th, 2014 post "PM Signs Agreement with China a Month After Rejecting Chinese Delegation Attending IAC2014."

Fortunately, these restrictions do not seem to have hindered Canadians such as Chris Hadfield from travelling abroad, a situation discussed in the September 14th, 2014 post, "Hadfield in China for International Planetary Congress; PM to Follow in November."

As outlined in the August 11th, 2014 post "Hadfield in Emirates, Russia in Lather & UrtheCast in Orbit," Canada's most famous astronaut also visited the Middle East, where he publicly stated his interest in helping the United Arab Emirates (UAE) set up its own space agency and launch a Mars probe.

A graphic showing the Rosetta spacecraft, the Philae lander and a timeline for the European Space Agency (ESA) Rosetta mission. As outlined in the November 16th, 2014 post, "ESA's Perspective on Rosetta + Canada's Contributions & Bruce Willis," the substantial Canadian contributions to the mission included software (via the AGDA Group Canada), the three ground stations used to communicate with the spacecraft (built by SED Systems) and at least two Canadian expatriates who had to live abroad in order to work on the program. Graphic c/o Graphic News/ ESA.

Of course, the essential core of domestic Canadian space policy and political activism remained the ability to announce new space focused funding for appropriately receptive communities. In this area at least, the Federal government remained without peer throughout 2014.

Funding announcements for space agency projects picked up over the summer and were discussed in the July 21st, 2014 post, "Federal Government Hypes OSIRIS-REx Mission," the August 9th, 2014 post, "Industry Minister Allocates $6.7Mln to Develop Space Apps," the August 18th, 2014 post, "Canadian Space Agency Gears up to Fund More Rovers," the August 24th, 2014 post "Space Agency Seeks Insight into Space Industry," the September 8th, 2014 post "Space Agency Funds Training for RADARSAT Researchers," and quite a number of others.

But, as outlined in both the June 30th, 204 post, "Canadore College Testing New European Space Plane Design," and the follow-on November 30th, 2014 post, "Ambitious MP Announces Canadian "Space Caucus" Focused on the Economics and Business of Space," at least some of the government gifts were less about money and more about influence.

Conservative MP for Nipissing-Timiskaming Jay Aspin in his riding office on March 25th, 2014. As outlined in the March 26th, 2014 North Bay Nugget article, "Aspin mum on details," the loyal conservative was even then "awaiting new aerospace-related tenants in North Bay." Aspin is currently the deputy chair of the parliamentary aerospace caucus and the chair of the recently announced parliamentary space caucus. Photo c/o

But even with all the federal funding flowing about, Canadian space companies showed an increasing reluctance to wait for the government to support their projects.

As outlined in the January 28th, 2014 post, "UrtheCast Cameras Reinstalled on ISS," Vancouver-based UrtheCast Corporation spent the year repairing and re-installing Earth imaging cameras aboard the International Space Station (ISS), before eventually partnering with US based, privately held NanoRacks to install additional cameras on the NASA segment of the ISS.

Earth image c/o Blackbridge.
In May, Lethbridge, Alberta based BlackBridge, which already quietly controlled one of the larger privately owned satellite constellations in the world, secured additional funding to expand its network. As outlined in the May 30th, 2014 post, "BlackBridge Secures $22 Million for New Satellite Constellation," the funding was supplied the traditional way, through the very business oriented Bank of Montreal (BMO) and the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC).

Throughout the year, several space start-ups attempted kickstarter campaigns designed to raise funds for future activities.

However, as outlined in both the September 7th, 2014 post, "Open Space Orbital Post Mortem: Lessons Learned & Moving Forward," and the December 8th, 2014 post "Engineering Expertise, Marketing Knowledge & Business Acumen Each Needed for "Beaver" Crowd Funding," the learning curves for these new funding mechanisms are every bit as daunting as traditional methodologies.

But others, like the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies (UTIAS) Space Flight Laboratory (SFL) were more successful. UTIAS-SFL managed to launch five satellites in two weeks over the summer, a number never matched by the CSA, even in its heyday.

These included two Canadian BRIght Target Explorer (BRITE) satellites for studying luminous stars from orbit, which were launched on June 19th, 2014 on a Dnepr rocket from Yasny; the CanX-4 and CanX-5 formation flying satellites, which were launched on June 30th 2014 on PSLV-C23 from Sriharikota, India; and AISSat-2, a Norwegian owned and funded but Canadian built satellite for ship tracking, which was launched on July 8th 2014 on board a Soyuz 2-1B from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The Russian launches were especially problematic given the Federal government's previously discussed stance on Russian activities in the Crimea. But, as outlined in the July 7th, 2014 post, "BRITE Montreal Satellite Fails to Deploy after Launch; Presumed Lost," all but one of the satellites achieved orbit and operational status.

University of British Columbia (UBC) professor Jaymie Matthews with the Microvariability and Oscillations of STars (MOST) telescope, sometime prior to its launch in 2003. Although officially de-funded by the CSA in September 2014, the satellite, under professor Matthews' direction, remains fully functional and available for use on a rental basis. As outlined in the December 18th, 2014 National Post article, "Its funding may have been eliminated, but that didn’t stop a Canadian satellite from co-discovering new planet," its even managed to contribute to new scientific discoveries. 

As for the major Canadian space players, as outlined in the June 14th, 2014 post, "The "Three Kings" of CDN Commercial Space Prepare for Changes," they mostly just sat and pondered their future.

As outlined in the September 22nd, 2014 post, "MacDonald Dettwiler Now a Commercial Satellite Powerhouse," it's slowly dawning on Canadians that the future of large domestic space companies might rest in the international arena.

And, as outlined in the December 15th, 2014 post, "COM DEV Buys a Scottish Microwave Equipment Manufacturer," Cambridge, Ontario based COM DEV International (COM DEV) has decided on the first of a promised series of international acquisitions in order to grow the company and gain access to foreign markets.

What's going to happen next year in space for Canada? Tune in beginning January 6th, 2015 to find out.

1 comment:

  1. The good news on NEOSSat is that the spacecraft is already performing the HEOSS portion of its mission for several months now.

    The NESS mission team currently uses NEOSSat in a target-specific manner and is satisfied with the performance. Next step is to widen its use to a continuous multi-target operation to cover the full sky and verify the overall daily image capture capability of NEOSSat.

    NEOSSat’s pointing stability is an impressive 1/7200 degree, and while the team continues to develop software updates to enhance its science image quality NEOSSat’s science images already surpass the imaging performance of its older cousin, the highly successful MOST microsatellite.

    “NEOSSat is working right now - we just need to take it out of first gear” – MSCI CEO David Cooper.


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