Tuesday, January 17, 2017

UrtheCast Closes $180Mln OptiSAR Deal, SpaceX's Success, Canada's Contribution to SWOT & More Thirty Meter Telescope

          By Henry Stewart

Here are some of the items we're currently tracking for the Commercial Space blog:

Sales and promotion graphic from the UrtheCast website. According to the literature, "OptiSAR™ is designed to be the world’s first fully-integrated, multispectral optical and Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) constellation of Earth Observation satellites. Providing unprecedented capabilities, OptiSAR™ is aimed at solving real-world problems and creating tools for world change." It's worth noting that, when an Earth imaging company receives a contract from a "confidential government customer," that customer is likely to be tied into a national military or intelligence agency. Graphic c/o UrtheCast.
  • Vancouver, BC based UrtheCast has announced a "binding agreement" with a "confidential government customer" for the "sale and shared operation" of the first two satellites in the UrtheCast OptiSAR constellation, described by the company as "the world's first commercial EO constellation with integrated optical and Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) sensors." 
The announced value of contract is $180Mln USD ($235Mln CDN) but could include up to an additional $30Mln US (CDN) for "products and services related to the sale of the satellites, contingent on the parties reaching mutual agreement on the final scope of these deliverables."
As outlined in the January 17th, 2017 UrtheCast press release, "UrtheCast Enters into Binding Agreement Worth US$180 Million to Sell and Operate Two Satellites in the OptiSAR™ Constellation," the sale could "accelerate the negotiation of similar agreements with other customers for the purchase of the remaining satellites."
But the agreement is also subject to a number of conditions. 
As outlined in the press release, those conditions include, "UrtheCast obtaining the necessary customer commitments to allow for the build, launch and financing of the first eight satellites in the Constellation, the Customer obtaining within the next 12 months the funding for its payment obligations, the parties reaching mutual agreement on the detailed procedures for the shared operation and tasking of the two satellites, and other customary covenants and regulatory approvals for agreements of this nature."

Ten critical minutes of the SpaceX Falcon-9 return to flight on January 14th, 2017. Screenshot c/o SpaceX/ You-Tube
  • They said there was a lot riding on the flight and there may have been. But it didn't need to fly on that specific day (it had been delayed previously) and the SpaceX Falcon-9R rocket certainly didn't need to return to Earth, "as God and John W. Cambell intended," on its tail and ready for reuse after a soft landing on the drone-ship "Just Read the Instructions." 
But that's exactly what happened. As outlined in the January 15th, 2017 CBC News post, "SpaceX launches 1st rocket since explosion in Florida,"the two-stage SpaceX rocket "lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base at 9:54 a.m. ET carrying a payload for Iridium Communications Inc., which is replacing its entire global network with 70 next-generation satellites."
And, "about nine minutes after the rocket blasted off, to cheers from the control room, its jettisoned first stage landed upright on a so-called droneship in the Pacific Ocean south of Vandenberg — part of Spacex's effort to make boosters reusable."
The Canadian connection to the launch was mostly covered in the January 3rd, 2017 post, "SpaceX Pad Explosion Investigation Concluded; Iridium Launch Scheduled January 8th," and included the first four of exactEarth's next generation constellation, exactView™ RT powered by Harris, as outlined in the January 16th, 2017 exactEarth post, "exactEarth Announces Successful Initial Launch for its Second Generation Real-Time Constellation."
But the title of that January 3rd, 2017 post was also a reminder that the commercial space rocketry industry is a lot like the US rail system, which is often delayed.  
This was the first launch for SpaceX this year and first since a Falcon 9 exploded on the pad in September last year. SpaceX will attempt to launch 27 rockets in 2017, more than triple the eight flights the privately held firm managed in 2016.
An overview of the Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) mission presented during the 2011 IEEE International Geoscience and Remote Sensing Sensing Symposium (IGARSS), which was organized by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and took place in Vancouver, BC from July 25th - 29th, 2011. To view the complete presentation, simply click on the illustration above. Image c/o IGARSS 2011.
As outlined in the January 16th, 2017 Waterworld post, "Canadian Space Agency to Provide Components for Survey of Earth's Surface Waters," the Canadian contribution to this international mission is "a set of extended interaction klystrons (EIKs) built by CPI. The high-power EIKs will be used to generate microwave pulses to collect precise water measurements." 
CPI is well known for its expertise in this area and no other firms have built and flown EIKs. In exchange for the contribution, Canadian scientists will have early access to SWOT data and scientific expertise.
As outlined in the August 18th, 2014 CSA press release, "The Government of Canada Announces investment in innovative Mapping System for First-Ever Global Surface Water Survey," this is the second grant provided by the Canadian government to support the mission. The Conservative government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper provided an initial $3.3Mln CDN grant to CPI in 2014.
As outlined in the November 23rd, 2016 Spaceflight. 101 post, "SpaceX wins NASA Launch Contract for Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) Mission," SWOT is a  "cooperative effort between NASA and the French Space Agency CNES with the spacecraft currently under construction at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory." 
The total cost of the mission is expected to be approximately to $1.1Bln USD ($1.45Bln CDN) including launch and operational costs. 
The SWOT Canadian science component will be led by teams from Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) and Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO).
Culture vs. Science. This April 2015 photo shows protesters on Mauna Kea attempting to halt construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope. Photo c/o Irtiqa.
  • The embattled $1.4Bln US ($1.84Bln CDN) Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) project has suffered another legal setback. 
As outlined in the January 10th, 2017 Hawaii News Now post, "TMT project could face hurdle with another contested case hearing," a local judge has ordered "yet another contested case hearing before construction on the $1.4 billion telescope can begin, but the state (of Hawaii, where construction is planned) intends to fight that ruling with an appeal in the next few weeks." 
Mauna Kea, where the TMT is currently scheduled to be constructed (and where thirteen other telescopes have already been built), is designated by Hawaii as conservation land under the direction of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. 
Although leased by the University of Hawaii, the university is required to obtain approval before subleasing it to others. 
In April, 2015, the Canadian government under then Prime Minister Stephen Harper committed $243.5Mln CDN to the project. But, as outlined in the December 6th, 2015 post, "Hawaii Supreme Court Rescinds Permit to Build Thirty Meter Telescope," the project began to unravel shortly afterwords. 
And, as outlined in the November 1st, 2016 post, "Thirty Meter Telescope Builders Choose Alternative Site To Mauna Kea In Hawaii," the consortium promoting the project has begun exploring alternative sites
For more, check out upcoming posts in the Commercial Space blog.

Henry Stewart is the pseudonym of a Toronto based aerospace writer.

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