Tuesday, January 01, 2019

2018: The Year in Space for Canada

          By Chuck Black

Last January, no one would ever have thought that the big Canadian space story of 2018 would be the slow destruction of Westminster CO based Maxar Technologies' market valuation on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) and its effect on Canada.

Maxar stock peaked with a January 4th, 2018 high of $65.25 US ($88.97 CDN) per share, then bottomed out with a December 24th, 2018 low of $9.55 US ($13.02) per share.

But while Maxar crashed and burned, a whole new generation of private sector, mostly Canadian owned and operated space focused firms quietly perfected their technology, slowly raised funds for expansion and painstakingly developed functional business plans.

Here's an overview of some of the important stories this blog has covered over the last year.

It's alliance with Dorval PQ based Bombardier Aerospace to turn Bombardier’s single-aisle C Series (now known as the Airbus A220) into a commercial success moved Ottobrunn Germany based Airbus Space and Defence into the front ranks of Canadian aerospace contractors and either saved or destroyed the Canadian aerospace industry, depending on who you're talking with. As outlined in the January 29th, 2018 post, "A Pyrrhic Victory for Bombardier," the year began with the successful dismissal of US trade sanctions. It ended with Bombardier selling off several business units and significant employee layoffs. As outlined in the December 20th, 2018 post, "Airbus Has Been in Canada for Thirty-Five Years and Wants to Increase its Contribution to Our Space Activities," Airbus finished out the year intending to utilize the good feelings flowing from the Canadian government because of the Bombardier partnership to grow its Canadian footprint. Graphic c/o Wendover Productions.

Maxar's strong start to the year was based on the perception (or presumption) that the Justin Trudeau Liberal government would follow through on the Federal Space Advisory Board (SAB) August 2017 preliminary report "Consultations on Canada’s future in space: What we heard," with enough new funding in the 2018 Federal Budget to finish the SAB report and light the way forward.

That final report, once written, was also expected to recommend at least one large new project with enough funding to keep Maxar happy, plus enough extra money to spread around to the rest of the space community to create the perception of a "balanced space program."

Three large projects were considered:
  • Additional RADARSAT's for the RCM (up to three more satellites on top of the currently planned three).
However, and as outlined in the March 8th, 2018 post, "Space Advisory Board Chair Admits Disappointment over Budget but Promises to Continue to Support Space Sector," the new funding didn't materialize, and the SAB slowly slid into irrelevance.

By the October 15th, 2018 post, "The Federal Space Advisory Board (SAB) Insists that It's Working Hard," there wasn't really anything for the SAB members to do, except attend conferences and reminisce about what could be accomplished with additional government funding.

It certainly didn't help much that, as outlined in the the February 27th, 2018 Toronto Star post, "Budget boosts science research, grant funding," the 2018 Federal budget substantially increased direct government funding for fundamental research, an area of interest which mollified many of the CSA's traditional academic partners.

Maxar also had a tough year on the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSE), dropping from its January 3rd, 2018 high of $82.01 CDN to bottom out at $13.04 CDN on December 24th, 2018 before recovering slightly in time for the year end. As outlined in the October 05, 2017 post, "MDA Acquisition of DigitalGlobe Closes; New US Based Combined Company now called Maxar Technologies," Richmond BC based MacDonald Dettwiler (a Canadian based company with a lengthy history of prime contracting for major space focused Canadian Space Agency (CSA), military and government programs) reincorporated in 2017 as US based Maxar in order to obtain access to the lucrative US satellite and military market. But the bottom fell out of the US geosynchronous (GEO) satellite market and, while the new Maxar did begin picking up US military, NASA and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) contracts, Canada waffled over the political implications of providing new contracts for iconic Canadian technology to a US based firm. As outlined in the December 31st, 2018 CNW press release, "S&P Dow Jones Indices Announces Changes to the S&P/TSX Canadian Indices," the shareholders of Maxar eventually completed a planned US "domestication" and "approved a change of domicile for the company from Canada to the United States." Maxar stock "will be removed from all S&P/TSX indices where the stock is a constituent prior to the open of trading on Monday, January 7th, 2019." Graphic c/o TSE: MAXR.

The 2018 Federal Budget also allocated $100Mln Cdn for low Earth orbit (LEO) broadband initiatives, although most of that was expected to end up with Ottawa ON based Telesat, which made the original project proposal as part of its "2018 Federal Pre-Budget Submission" to the 2018 Pre-Budget Consultations in Advance of the 2018 Budget in the fall of 2017.

By April, and as outlined in the April 20th, 2018 post, "Telesat Moves Forward with New Offices, New Plans, New Challenges and New Funding," Telesat was accessing financing supplied through a $100Mln CDN pot allocated through the Federal Strategic Innovation Fund in the 2018 Federal budget and a $20Mln CDN direct contribution from the government of Ontario. Several billion more will be needed to complete the program but the existing funding was a good start.

The assistance of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) will also help. As outline in the November 27th, 2018 Telesat press release, "DARPA Selects Telesat’s LEO System to Support DARPA’s Blackjack Program," DARPA is exploring the use of Telesat's LEO system for DoD’s future space-based communications requirements.

Maxar CEO Howard Lance in July 2018. Photo c/o @MaxarTech.
Another potential source of government funding, the $950Mln Federal government “superclusters” initiative, didn't break in Maxar's favor either.

As outlined in the February 16th, 2018 post, "Ottawa Announces Winners of $950Mln 'Supercluster' Competition," a proposal to build a smart agri-food supercluster (which included Maxar participation) didn't make the final cut. 

A second proposal from the Ottawa ON based Satellite Canada Innovation Network (SATCAN), originally discussed in the August 3rd, 2017 post, "Satellite Canada Applies for Innovation SuperCluster Funds," wasn't funded either.

But other space focused hi-tech firms and their proposals fared better. Groups which included PQ based ABB Canada, Kitchener ON based Clearpath Robotics, Ottawa ON based C-CORE, Burnaby BC based D-Wave Systems, Cambridge ON based exactEarth and Vancouver BC based Urthecast all received supercluster funding. 

Maxar, which wasn't included in any of the successful applications, didn't immediately panic.

As late as the March 7th, 2018 Space News post, "SpaceX, Trudeau Will Help Lift Satellite Maker Maxar Out of Its Slide, CEO Says," Maxar CEO Howard Lance was still prepared to tell anyone willing to listen that, while the bottom had fallen out of the US geosynchronous (GEO) satellite market (a major source of revenue for Palo Alto CA based Maxar subsidiary SSL, which focused on the manufacture of expensive, high-profit communications satellites) and Canadian deals weren't moving forward, the situation was only temporary.

The markets would improve and, as noted explicitly in the article, Lance expected Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to come to Maxar's rescue with a new, government funded space project tailored to Maxar strengths before the end of the year.

It was a quiet year. As outlined in the December 28th, 2018 CSA post, "Highlights of 2018," the Canadian Space Agency listed twelve highlights for the year. They included the January 20th, 2018 addition of a new hand for the Canadarm, the tenth anniversary of the Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator (SPDM) or DEXTRE on the International Space Station (ISS), the May 5th, 2018 announcement of the participants in the Canadian CubeSat Project, the fifteenth anniversary of SCISAT,  the arrival of the OSIRIS-Rex spacecraft (with Canada’s critical laser altimeter) at asteroid Bennu and the December 3rd, 2018 departure of Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques for the ISS. Graphic c/o CSA.

But by August, and as outlined in the August 10th, 2018 post, "Maxar Technologies Might be Getting Paranoid," Trudeau still hadn't offered up any space funding. Some, including New York NY based Spruce Point Capital Management, were even beginning to question the fundamental assumptions which had until now supported the Maxar stock price.

Maxar needed to develop a more proactive approach.

With the assistance of the Ottawa ON based Aerospace Industries Association of Canada (AIAC) and, as outlined in the September 13th, 2018 post, "Dead Cat Bounce! New Canadian Space "Coalition" Wants Much the Same as Last Time, But With Money," Maxar created an entirely new, ostensibly independent, Federal government lobby group tasked with helping to secure Canada's "place in space."

Over the next several weeks, the underlying structure of the lobby group, known as the Don't Let Go Canada coalition was uncovered in several articles, most notably the September 18th, 2018 post, "Colorado Based Maxar/MDA Asking for $1-2Bln to Build Another Canadarm for the US LOP-G."

Bains with Bridenstine on November 14th. Photo c/o Alex Tétreault.
The coalition was organized by Maxar through its Ontario based MDA subsidiary and focused primarily on encouraging the Canadian government to fund a multi-billion dollar "3rd generation Canadarm" for the proposed US LOP-G.
According to several high-level sources within the Canadian space industry, certain NASA employees (including Bill Gerstenmaier, the NASA administrator for human exploration and operations) are working with senior members of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), the Aerospace Industry Association of Canada (AIAC) space committee and Maxar/MDA to co-ordinate a campaign to encourage the Federal government to announce funding for Canada's contribution to the LOP-G program as early as this fall, if possible.
The article also noted that much of the planning for the campaign (and many of the organizational e-mails) originated from MDA director of public affairs Leslie Swartman. MDA, as the holder of many of the original Canadarm patents, would be first in line for any new Canadarm derived work and could reasonably be expected to make a substantial profit off the program.

The coalition campaign culminated in an unusual November 2018 public request from NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine for Canada to sign-on to the LOP-G program during a stage presentation at the 2018 Canadian Aerospace Summit, which was held in Ottawa ON on November 13th - 14th, 2018.

As outlined in the November 15th, 2018 post, "Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains Politely Pushes NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine Under the Bus," Federal Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains provided a very public "no" to the NASA Administrator on the same stage, later the same day.

By now, there wasn't a lot of fight left in Maxar.

As outlined in the November 1st, 2018 post, "Maxar Technologies Share Price Collapses After Q3 Earnings Report Released," its stock price had collapsed two weeks earlier due to revenue shortfalls caused by the very same ongoing GEOsat market collapse noted back in March.

In response to the stock collapse and as outlined in the December 6th, 2018 Space News post, "Maxar sells portion of SSL real estate," Maxar began selling off its real estate holdings in an effort to raise money.

It also raised "the maximum consolidated debt leverage ratio," just in case the property sales couldn't generate enough cash to pay down the Maxar debt left over from its initial acquisition of SSL and Westminster CO based DigitalGlobe, the 2017 acquisition which began the process which turned Burnaby BC based MacDonald Dettwiler into Colorado based Maxar.

Worst of all, and as outlined in the December 12th, 2018 Nasdaq post, "Maxar Technologies Ltd. (MAXR) Ex-Dividend Date Scheduled for December 13, 2018," was the cancellation of Maxar's quarterly dividend.  Reducing or cancelling the amount of dividend paid to shareholders normally makes them unhappy and sends the message that the company is not doing well financially.

As outlined in the December 21st, 2018 Street Insider post, "Maxar Technologies (MAXR) continues to explore range of strategic alternatives for its GEO communications satellite line," the company "also continues to be actively engaged with its customers to procure additional GEO satellite orders."

Even with that, it's expected that Maxar will eventually be forced to divest itself of major portions (if not all) of its SSL large satellite manufacturing business. Maxar has promised to announce a decision regarding the strategic direction of its GEO business in the new year.

At least one Canadian expatriate could claim to have had a good year. Cape Canaveral FL based Moon Express (ME) founder and CEO Robert D. Richards (shown here with CSA president Sylvain Laporte) returned to Canada to open a ME branch office and "explore options for collaboration with the CSA and Canada’s space sector on technologies and payloads for missions to the Moon." As outlined in the November 30th, 2018 post, "Procurement Contracts, Not Science or Engineering, Will Define the Next Generation of Robotics and Planetary Rovers," ME is one of nine "US based companies (which) are now eligible to bid on NASA delivery services to the lunar surface through a new Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, a series of fixed price procurement contracts NASA will begin issuing in 2019 which are intended to facilitate the planned US return to the Moon." The program also has more than a passing resemblance to the very successful Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) fixed priced NASA program, which helped to turn Hawthorne CA based SpaceX into a titan of the NewSpace industry. Photo c/o ME.

Other Canadian companies have also had an adventurous year. They include:
  • The thirty seven organizations participating in the Canadian Cubesat Project which, as discussed in the May 7th, 2018 post, "Canadian Cubesat Project Finally Moving Forward," received Federal funding through fifteen grants of between $200,000 - $250,000 to post-secondary based teams attempting to build functioning cubesats for launch beginning in 2020.
  • Montreal PQ based Northstar Earth and Space which, as outlined in the November 16th, 2018 post, "A $52Mln CDN Financing Deal for Northstar Earth and Space Inc.," received funding for the development of "a global environment information platform which will transform humanity's ability to manage our impact on Earth and its natural resources," only one day after Innovation Minister Bains rejected the NASA Administrator Bridenstine's offer to announce participation (and funding) for a Canadian contribution to the US LOP-G.

In 2018, other Federal government departments and private sector organizations explored the use of space based assets to solve Earth based problems. The June 8th, 2018 post, "NRCan Explores Space Mining," covered the Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) initiative for input on space mining as part of its process to develop a new Canadian Minerals and Metals Plan (CMMP). The October 25th, 2018 post, "A White Paper on the "Case for a Global Telemedicine Vehicle Network," noted Ottawa ON based C-COM Satellite Systems concern over a global lack of local health care resources and addressed the challenge using modern telemedicine and telecommunications technologies. By the end of the year, and as outlined in the December 6th, 2018 post, "Space Mining and Innovation Should Be Encouraged Through the Tax Code, According to NRCan and CATA Alliance," both NRCan and the Ottawa ON based Canadian Advance Technology Alliance (CATA Alliance) were suggesting that the best way to encourage innovative new space technologies was through the tax code and not via direct government grants. Graphic c/o Planetary Resources.

Some Canadian based firms attempted to overcome challenges related to perception and politics.

As outlined in the April 13th, 2018 post, "Ukrainian Rockets Like the Cyclone 4M Are Too Dangerous an Investment for Western Interests: Kyiv Post," Nova Scotia based Maritime Launch Services (MLS), a joint venture of three US based firms attempting to open a East Coast based launch facility for Ukrainian built Cyclone 4M rocket, spent most of the year scrambling to raise funds and convince the Federal government that they had a plan worth supporting. 

By spring, as outlined in the May 25th, 2018 post, "Maritime Launch Services Will Not Say When It Will Begin Building Proposed Canso NS Commercial Spaceport," the wind had gone out of the sails of the project, even as MLS left the door open for other rockets to launch at the proposed facility. 

To its credit, MLS noted quite correctly in its August 2018 "Submission to the Standing Committee on Finance" for the 2019 Pre-Budget Consultations in Advance of the 2019 Budget that its very difficult to get a launch licence in Canada and the regulations governing this activity should be revised. 

In essence, and without substantially revised legislation, no one will ever be able to launch an orbital rocket from Canadian soil. Here's hoping that changes in 2019.

Inuvik based satellite receivers, built almost three years ago, are unusable today, after the failure of multiple attempts to fulfill Canadian government licencing requirements. Photo c/o Rolf Skatteboe.

Another group with problems over existing Canadian legislation governing space activities was the entire town of Inuvik NWT. 

As outlined in the March 5th, 2018 post, "That Commercial Ground Station Built by New North Networks in Inuvik Still Can't be Used," a local company attempting to fulfill a contract for the European Space Agency (ESA), an international organization which includes the CSA as a "co-operating" member, was unable to do so, even after an almost three year wait, because of Federal government delays in providing the appropriate permits and approvals. 

According to the article:
From a legal standpoint, the existing barriers favor legacy players, such as the Federal government owned Inuvik Satellite Station Facility (ISSF), administered by the Canada Centre for Mapping and Earth Observation and part of Natural Resources Canada (CCMEO/NRCan), which opened in 2010 and is the only other ground station in the region
Eventually, as outlined in the May 31st, 2018 post, "Inuvik Mayor Calls Feds "Not Forthcoming" Regarding Private Sector Commercial Ground Station Application," even Inuvik Mayor Jim McDonald weighed in on the situation.

Over the summer, as outlined in the June 21st, 2018 post, "The Special Senate Committee on the Arctic Holds a Hearing on Northern Infrastructure & That "Unlicensed" Inuvik Groundstation," Senate hearings were held on the issue, but nothing ever came of it.

A year-end announcement by Seattle WA based Amazon may have rendered the whole issue mute.

As outlined in the December 03, 2018 post, "The New Amazon Web Services Ground Station (AWSGS) Will Disrupt Existing Ground Stations," a new "cloud-based product offering scalable computing power for satellite ground stations and data processing," using "Amazon’s current AWS cloud computing infrastructure." is likely only the latest step in rolling out of new, lower cost, satellite services to the public.

So what's going to happen next year in space for Canada? To find out, check out future editions of the Commercial Space blog.
Chuck Black.

Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog.

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