Monday, April 03, 2017

The Canadian Space Agency is "Very" Cautious About Its Post ISS Role

          By Chuck Black

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) has posted an "advanced notice" (AN) plus a "letter of interest" (LOI) on the Canadian government Buy and Sell procurement website indicating that it "is exploring" post International Space Station (ISS) activities & other new areas.

If only that were truly so.

As outlined on the March 31st, 2017 post, "Potential Post-ISS Human Spaceflight Contributions Portfolio, and Planetary Exploration and Space Astronomy Preparatory Activities (9F050-20161006)," all the work in the AN is described as "concept studies" and/or "phase 0 work."

Phase 0 work and concept studies in CSA parlance generally includes the very beginning of the design and development process, but that's not always reflected in the items the CSA seems to want to focus on.

Items to be explored include:
  • An Advanced Crew Medical System (ACMS) requirements study - which would be "based on a concept of medical autonomy and relevant design reference mission," and would "identify and quantify a prioritized list of medical conditions for which medical autonomy must be provided" during space missions. As outlined in the CSA page devoted to operational space medicine projects (which was last updated on November 19th, 2012), the CSA already has items on the go in this area.
  • Various Cislunar Mission Contribution Studies - to "solicit alternative Cislunar contribution concepts." Up to five studies could be proposed by Canadian organizations. Successful proposals would be pitched to prime contractors of cislunar missions such as Orbital ATK and SpaceX.
  • Various Deep Space Telecommunications (DST) RF and Optical Technology Studies - including one request for proposal (RFP) to study radio frequency (RF) communications in cislunar space and one RFP to study optical communications in cislunar space. As outlined in the January 29th, 2017 post, "Canada's Contribution to the European SpaceDataHighway," Canada is already contributing to the Copernicus Sentinel program, which utilizes optical communications. 
  • Lunar Surface Rovers Architecture Concept Studies - which would include up to two parallel studies to develop a detailed Lunar Surface Mobility (LSM) architecture useful for other projects. As outlined in the July 4th, 2011 post, "Ground Control to Marc Garneau!," the CSA has been interested in funding rover technology since Marc Garneau was CSA president, in the early 2000's.
  • A Lunar Surface Science Maturation Study - which will be "awarded to evolve potential science objectives, instrument and science operations requirements, and a plan for associated potential analogue activities, as Canadian science inputs to inform further development of an international Lunar Demonstration Mission concept using the PHASR rover technology."
  • New Deep-Space Exploration Robotics (DSXR) arms, likely similar to a scaled down Canadarm or the Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator (SPDM), which are already in operation on the ISS - As outlined in the document, "this Phase 0 will address a robotic arm capability and likely include not only the robotic arm, but also tool caddy, grappling tools, and ground station requirements to validate mission objectives and stakeholder needs, develop a mission concept design and concept of operations, and develop mission requirements." 
  • A Relative Navigation System (RelNav System) - The intent of this phase 0 program is to develop a concept and mission requirements for a relative navigation system, an item which has already been the subject of much academic and practical considerations.
  • Space Exploration (SE) Secondary Payloads and Nanomissions - A program to "develop concepts for Canadian micro or nanomissions that piggyback on planetary flagships and other anticipated launch opportunities." Not that there's anything wrong with this. It's just that microsat's, like the one discussed in the April 3rd, 2017 post, "UoT Undergraduate Satellite Builders Raise Almost $500K to Build & Launch a Microsatellite in 2019," have been piggybacking on other peoples rockets and missions for decades.
  • A Mars Sample Return Mission -  Of course, this is not a complete mission. It's a program designed to position "Canada for a possible contribution related to the Fetch rover element of Mars Sample Return." The Fetch rover "will retrieve samples from the Martian surface and return them to a Mars Ascent Vehicle for return to Earth."
  • Space Exploration: planetary & space astronomy concept studies - An "opportunity for up to 4 independent study contracts for new planetary and astronomy concepts or instrument contributions for potential future missions consistent with community priorities.
An overview of JAXA space science missions, including the LiteBIRD mission. Graphic c/o JAXA.
  • A Space Astronomy: LiteBIRD concept study - A study designed to define "potential Canadian instrument and science contribution" to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's (JAXA) light satellite for the studies of B-mode polarization and Inflation from cosmic background radiation detection (LiteBIRD), which was selected as "one of 28 highest-priority large projects by the Science Council of Japan," way back in 2008.
  • Space Exploration: planetary and space astronomy studies - Which is expected to cover "up to 5 Science Maturation Studies for planetary and space astronomy community priorities."
  • Space Astronomy: CASTOR Canadian led space telescope concept - A "science maturation study" to revise and add to previous CSA concept studies on the proposed Cosmological Advanced Survey Telescope for Optical and UV Research (CASTOR) wide field space telescope, which has been kicking around since November 2006, when more than a hundred astronomers from across Canada gathered at CSA headquarters in St. Hubert, QC, to participate in the 2006 Canadian Space Astronomy Workshop (CSAW).
Taken together, these concept studies and phase 0 design studies give a good indication of what the CSA thinks it should be doing when the the ISS shuts down, sometime after 2024.

In only the CSA didn't seem to be spending so much of its time revisiting earlier projects.

Oddly enough, the March 31st, 2017 CSA post came only two days after a far less ambitious announcement.

As outlined in the March 29th, 2017 National Post article, "Canada looking to contribute to ‘deep space habitat’ orbiting moon and eventual Mars mission," the CSA issued a LOI on March 29th, 2017 on the Buy and Sell procurement website for the "Development of enabling space technologies for future international Human Spaceflight collaborations (9F063-160957/A)."

According to the LOI, the CSA is also interested in developing four component technologies for a proposed "deep space gateway" which NASA announced last week that it intends to build on or near the Moon when the International Space Station (ISS) is decommissioned after 2024.

The four technologies listed in the LOI are:
    Screenshot c/o
  • A Deep-Space Exploration Robotics (DSXR) mechanical interface plate validation, which builds on a "previously developed common robotics interface (MIPS) prototype that will be used to perform robotic mating and de-mating to validate the design and requirements as a robotics interface for DSXR." 
  • A Deep Space Exploration Robotics (DSXR) autonomy software framework (ASF) which "will define, implement, and test an autonomy software framework to improve (a set of existing CSA developed tools) and provide a functional standard that supports both executing and planning functions (i.e., executive and deliberative models) to enable autonomous control on future space hardware such as robotic arms, rovers, scientific instruments, satellites, etc."
  • A Surface Mobility Technology - Mobility & Environmental Rover Integrated Technology (MERIT), which is essentially described as being another CSA rover, except that it is not actually a full sized rover, but is instead "a smaller (medium) scale prototype that will clearly demonstrate and validate the integrated technologies and components while outlining the path that would lead to these rovers."
  • A Lunar Rover Prototyping of Scalable Wheels & Advanced Rover Motion (SWARM), which is essentially a series of experiments to "improve and test current wheel designs"for use in the Precursor to Human And Scientific Rover (PHASR) and the Lunar Pressurized Rover (LPR) programs.
The priority technologies will be funded for between twelve and eighteen months for amounts varying from between $450K CDN (for SWARM) to $1.25K (for MERIT) and cover the incremental efforts required to improve already existing technologies to the point where they can be used by NASA.

The funds may also be targeted at the companies which preformed the initial work on these technologies, in an effort to maintain their involvement with the CSA.

Overall, while its good that the CSA is looking for a role other than Earth observation (EO), the programs listed above (which include a new set of rover wheels) suggest that our space agency is still exceedingly cautious and maybe not up to the job of guiding our industry towards the 21st century opportunities which will arise from the high frontier.

Of course, NASA's plans relating to its future activities aren't all that congruent with the existing funding either. NASA still needs the approval of the Trump administration to move forward.

Without funding, everyone can still dream but no one will actually accomplish anything.
Chuck Black.

Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog.


  1. Chuck --- there's more going on here than you realize. In the CSA's world, new initiatives must generally be selected via open competitions, in order to give all players in the Canadian space community a fair chance to participate. The first step in any new initiative is generally a study contract, which provides the winning proposer with funding to pay their engineers and scientists to come up with detailed plans and estimates. So, it's not that CSA is being "very cautious" by soliciting only study contracts; rather, these are the front-end to what looks like a slew of new major projects.

    The *big* news here is that, after a decade-long drought in which the government didn't permit CSA to start anything much new, the issuance of these AOs signals that the CSA intends to start a whole bunch of new activities this year. Perhaps a very tangible sign of new "sunny days" at the CSA, under the still-somewhat-new federal government.

  2. With all due respect Kieran, I've certainly got a high level overview of the CSA procurement methodologies and the reasoning behind them.

    And Godwin, Gibbs and Evans have more than a passing acquaintance with those methodologies as well (Evans even acted as CSA president for 10 years). They've helped to bring me up to speed and are currently posting articles on the blog covering this area.

    I accept that the official news is that, "after a decade-long drought in which the government didn't permit CSA to start anything much new," the issuance of the AO and the LOI is supposed to signal "that the CSA intends to start a whole bunch of new activities this year."

    But the truth is that it doesn't. Most of the items listed in the AO and the LOI, as outlined in the article above, are items the CSA and others have been dealing with in some way, shape or form for a very long time.

    The CSA should be trying something new instead of recycling old plans and programs which didn't make the cut last time.

    That's the real story, and until the available evidence indicates otherwise, its a story I'm comfortable standing by.

  3. Indeed, Graham and Mac certainly know their way around the CSA, and the government hierarchy above it.

    That being said, there are definitely some AO topics that I've been waiting for, for a very long time indeed (well over a decade), which CSA has never dealt with substantially before now (e.g., planetary exploration secondary payloads). So be careful about over-generalizing.

  4. Good luck with your proposals, Kieran.


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