Monday, April 10, 2017

General Fusion, exactEarth's Missing (But Insured) Satellite, More CSA Rovers & ULA Drops Launch Costs

          By Henry Stewart

For the week of April 10th, 2017, here are a few of the stories we're currently tracking for the Commercial Space blog:

July 29th, 2014 video overview of General Fusion. Screenshot c/o General Fusion.

  • Burnaby, BC based General Fusion has claimed a breakthrough in plasma technology. 
As outlined in the April 3rd, 2017 The Province post, "General Fusion introduces new leadership group as company claims plasma breakthrough," the alternative energy firm "claims to have succeeded in sustaining plasma fuel with a small, prototype injector just 40 centimetres in diameter, a significant technical hurdle."
The announcement was made last week by new CEO Christofer Mowry who, as outlined in the article, "is taking the reins at Burnaby’s General Fusion as the company is poised for a great leap forward."
According to Mowry, "GF now plans to proceed with building a larger plasma injector and a working prototype of its unique, compression-based reactor."
General Fusion and its partners, which include Chrysalix Energy, GrowthWorks Capital, Cenovus Energy, Amazon and Blue Origin CEO Jeff Bezos and the sovereign wealth fund of Malaysia, have already sunk about $100Mln CDN into the project. 
The company was last referenced in these pages in the May 25th, 2015 post, "Three Small Fusion Companies Approaching a Critical Funding Mass."

  • The exactEarth EV-5 satellite is missing. As outlined in the April 6th, 2017 exactEarth press release, "exactEarth Provides Update on EV5 Satellite," communication were originally lost with the satellite on February 3rd, 2017 and subsequent efforts to make contact were not successful. 
But the company quickly filed a claim "for the full insured value of the satellite," with an undisclosed insurance company and has received $3.5Mln CDN to cover the loss.
The insurance claim could even end up assisting in the growth of small-sat insurance coverage. As outlined in the April 6th, 2017 Insurance Business post, "Influx of orbital satellites could burst open cosmic insurance sector," with "about 80-90 rocket launches every year, and with that number set to grow massively," the space insurance business is "an interesting, well, space to be."
As outlined in Gunther's Space Page post on, "LatinSat A, B, C, D / AprizeSat 1, ..., 10 / exactView 3, 4, 5, 5R, 6, 11, 12, 13," the EV-5 satellite is one of a series of similar designed satellites, operating under different names and out of different corporations and jurisdictions, but intended to function together as "a constellation of small Low-Earth-Orbit satellites (64 satellites planned) to achieve a global communication system of data transmission and fixed and mobile asset tracking and monitoring (GMPCS)."
The loss of one satellite is not considered critical to the performance of the constellation. 
Two recent CSA rover designs, being taken for a ride by Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains in May 2016. With him are Ontario Drive and Gear (ODG) space and robotics manager Peter Visscher and Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques. ODG has build many rovers for the CSA and is likely to win at least one of the newly announced RFP's. Photo c/o CSA.
As outlined in the April 5th government procurement website posting under the title, "Lunar Surface Mobility Concept Study (C3P-CS-04) (9F050-16-0980/A)," the Federal government, under its Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC) department and on behalf of the CSA, is seeking "proposals for a concept study aimed at developing a potential solution for lunar surface mobility." 
The request for proposal (RFP) builds on previous CSA work in this area, beginning in 2009, when the Federal Conservative government under then Prime Minister Stephen Harper allocated $110Mln CDN in funding to the CSA as part of its 2009 Economic Action Plan to cover rover development, a "next generation Canadarm" and other smaller projects.
Because of the CSA's heritage work in this area, any new intellectual property generated through the RFP's will vest with the government. This should make the RFP a difficult proposition to any robotics firm which hasn't worked with the CSA before.
The government expects to issue two contracts, worth up to $450K CDN each (excluding applicable taxes) and are expected to fund six months worth of work.
As originally outlined in the October 20th, 2012 post, "Lots and Lots of Rovers Looking for Missions," Canadian rovers don't typically sell well on the international markets. Some of the reasons for that state of affairs are discussed in the September 26th, 2016 post, "The REAL Reason Why Canada Won't Be Participating in the NASA Resolve Mission Anytime Soon, Probably!"
The announcement is also the latest in what should have been a series trumpeting new areas of research and funding for the CSA. However, as outlined in the April 3rd, 2017 post, "The Canadian Space Agency is "Very" Cautious About Its Post ISS Role," most of the items supported under the new programs are items the CSA and its partners have been dealing with in some way, shape or form for a very long time.
As outlined in the April 4th, 2017 Reuters post, "United Launch Alliance cuts Atlas rocket price amid competition," ULA’s cost reductions include "trimming its payroll. The company last year said it planned to cut as many as 875 jobs, or about one-quarter of its workforce, before the end of 2017."
In March 2017, ULA lost a US Air Force global positioning satellite launch contract to SpaceX, which bid $96.5Mln US ($129Mln CDN) for the work. 
Typical ULA pricing, at least until now, has started at $109Mln US ($145Mln CDN), though satellite operators can make up at least half that cost by getting more favorable insurance rates and other factors, including an on-time launch, ULA has said.
ULA is currently heavily dependent on the Russian RD-180 rocket engine, a hot potato in US political circles, but has promised to develop a domestically produced and lower cost engine over the next few years. 
However, as outlined in the April 7th, 2017 Space News post, "RD-180 provider seeks additional ULA engine order," the new CEO of the US-Russian joint venture that provides RD-180 engines to ULA has indicated that he "hopes" to win at least one further order for the Russian engine in the near future. 
For more, check out our upcoming stories in the Commercial Space blog.

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


  1. The comment (about CSA's recent AOs) that "most of the items supported under the new programs are items the CSA and its partners have been dealing with in some way, shape or form for a very long time" is not terrifically helpful, for two reasons.

    First, development work for things that are going to fly in space is generally done in phases, ranging from initial conceptual studies, through feasibility studies and breadboard testing, leading to preliminary design, building and testing engineering models, detailed design, then finally building and then flying the flight equipment. Depending on the type of equipment involved, this almost always takes at least 5 years from concept to flight, and frequently somewhat longer. The fact that some of the recently issued AOs are on topics that we've seen before (e.g., planetary rovers), is because they're for advancing work from one stage to the next. For rovers in particular, there's quite a learning curve to be climbed before a design (and its development team) are ready for flight; CSA started funding serious work on this quite a few years ago, but much of that time (and effort) has been spent getting CSA and its industrial suppliers to climb that learning curve.

    Secondly, quite a few of the upcoming AO topics are completely open, and hence are not for "the CSA and its partners have been dealing with in some way, shape or form for a very long time." For example, the 3 STDP AOs are completely open for proposals on any and all space R&D projects (so long as they have the potential to lead to "economic benefits"). In the Exploration AOs, while a number of them are tightly constrained (mainly for the reasons in point #1), there are also a number of quite-open topics for concept studies.

    While there are various things the CSA doesn't do well, that they should be criticized for, leveling this particular criticism at this particular set of AOs is off-target, and not particularly helpful. We should *reward* CSA with nice words when they do good things, and I see these AOs as being Good Things. As opposed to blindly criticizing them no matter what they do.

  2. I accept that the comment you referenced is "not terrifically helpful" to the Canadian Space Agency. But Kieran, I do stand by its accuracy.

    This blog is no stranger to telling uplifting, positive stories when the facts support such conclusions. The April 10th, 2017 post, "Goldman Sachs is Bullish on Asteroid Mining," and the April 3rd, 2017 post on "UofT Undergraduate Satellite Builders Raise Almost $500K to Build & Launch a Microsatellite in 2019," are two recent examples.

    Late last year in Ottawa, CSA president Sylvan Laporte spoke with me casually during an event in Ottawa. He told me that he was just a government bureaucrat, heavily dependent on people like you and I to provide appropriate and useful (it not always positive) feedback to help guide his actions.

    Henry Stewart and you have both provided appropriate feedback for the CSA president to mull over. I've been allowed to edit that feedback for grammar and spelling so we've all contributed to the best of our abilities.

    Given that, maybe your initial comment about this post not being "terrifically helpful" is also in error.

    Only time will tell.


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