Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Chinese Raise the Stakes in Space

          By Brian Orlotti

Over the past week, several announcements from China have heralded a raising of the stakes in the current international resurgence of space exploration; the successful tests of both a hypersonic space plane and a reusable orbital rocket designed and built by Chinese launch startups and the China National Space Administration’s (CNSA) April 24th announcement of its plans to build a scientific research base on the Moon’s south polar region within the next ten years.

As outlined in the April 26th, 2019 Space News post, "Chinese firms Space Transportation and Linkspace test reusable launcher technologies," the Chinese based  launch firm Space Transportation (a rough translation of its Chinese name: 凌空天行) carried out a test on April 22nd, 2019 in northwest China in cooperation with Xiamen University, launching a 3,700-kilogram  reusable winged suborbital demonstrator named Jiageng-1 which reached a maximum altitude of 26.2 kilometers and a top speed of above 4,300 kilometers per hour.

After the test, the rocket was recovered at a designated landing site. Space Transportation is funded through Chinese based venture capital firm Source Code Capital (源码资本).

The second test was a follow-up of an earlier, March 27th, 2019 low-altitude untethered launch and test landing. On April 19th, 2019, Chinese launch provider Linkspace launched its RLV-T5 tech demonstrator to a height of 40 meters (double that of the first test) and achieved a greater landing accuracy, according to the company.

According to the Space News post:
LinkSpace Aerospace Technology Group was founded in 2014 with the aim of developing a reusable launch vehicle capable of vertical takeoff and vertical landing since its founding in 2014. The company aims for a full test flight of the NewLine-1 orbital launcher in 2021, which will be capable of carrying 200 kilograms to a 500 kilometer sun-synchronous orbit (SSO).
As outlined in the post, a large number of number of NewSpace focused companies have emerged in China "following a 2014 policy decision to open the launch and small satellite sectors to private capital. Approved firms have also received support through a civil-military integration national strategy, which facilitates the transfer of restricted technologies in order to promote innovation in dual-use technology and reduce costs."

As well, on April 24th, China’s Space Day, CNSA chief Zhang Kejian announced China’s intent to build a scientific research base in the Moon’s south polar region in about ten years. The announcement was made at the Space Day opening ceremony in Changsha, capital of China's Hunan Province. Kejian also discussed the Chang'e-5 lunar sample return mission to launch in late 2019 as well as China’s yet-to-be-named first Mars mission to launch in 2020.

China’s latest announcements and their effect on the policy of the US and other spacefaring nations remains to be seen. Earlier this year, limited cooperation between the CNSA and NASA during the Chang’e-4 lunar landing opened the door to possible Chinese/US collaboration in exploring and settling the moon. In the context of the current US/China trade war, such actions could be a ‘keep your friends close and your enemies closer’ strategy on the US’ part.

However, given the Western world’s current social and economic problems and the chaotic tendencies of the US’ Donald Trump administration, the boots on the lunar ground may, at least initially, be only those of the CNSA and SpaceX, Blue Origin, Moon Express and other private space firms. A Trump defeat in the 2020 US elections could signal yet another abrupt shift in policy.

The next few decades in space look to be anything but boring.
Brian Orlotti.

Brian Orlotti is a network operator at the Ontario Research and Innovation Optical Network (ORION), a not-for-profit network service provider to the education and research sectors.

Monday, April 29, 2019

DARPA Still Looking to Build Out US On-Orbit Satellite Servicing Capabilities

          By Chuck Black

Westminster CO based Maxar Technologies may have dropped out of the Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program, a public-private partnership with the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in January 2019, but that doesn't mean that DARPA isn't looking to replace Maxar with new private sector partners able to help them develop this emerging technology.

As outlined in the April 19th, 2019 Next Gov post, "The Pentagon is Investing in Space Robots to Repair Satellites," the latest DARPA RSGS plans calls for lots and lots of space robots orbiting silently and prepared for action.

As outlined in the post, DARPA currently believes that:
...space-based robots offer the best bet for inspecting and repairing high-altitude satellites, especially with the number of satellites set to skyrocket due to a budding Space Force and federal agencies and industry ramping up operations in outer space. 
Under the Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites program, DARPA will partner with teams to build both robots that can maintain and upgrade satellites, as well as the spacecraft to move the bots through space. Once deployed, the tech would periodically check in on different satellites and service them as needed.
As outlined in the January 30th, 2019 post, "Why did Maxar Subsidiary SSL "Terminate" its Participation in the DARPA GEOsynchronous Satellite Servicing Program?," the original Maxar plan was to test a single robotic servicing vehicle (RSV) capable of repairing large GEOsynchronous orbiting satellites as required.

The current plan is focused around smaller but more numerous repair satellites built to different designs and capable of performing different repairs and refueling functions. According to the post:
The robotic repairmen would “both provide increased resilience for the current U.S. space infrastructure and be the first concrete step toward a transformed space architecture with revolutionary capabilities,” DARPA officials wrote in the solicitation. Ultimately, each system would be expected to perform “dozens of missions over several years.”
The program is scheduled to last roughly five years, and DARPA will host a "Proposers Day" on May 22nd for those interested in competing in the program.

While its dropped out of the DARPA program, a Maxar subsidiary, the Palo Alto CA based SSL, retains its role as prime contractor for the NASA RESTORE-L robotic satellite servicing mission. The RESTORE-L is a fixed price NASA contract worth between $600 - $700Mln US ($800 - $925Mln CDN) designed around an SSL 1300 satellite bus equipped to service orbiting satellites.

But SSL, as outlined most recently in the April 10th, 2019 Space News post, "Maxar’s path to growth runs through Worldview Legion" has had its workforce slashed and is in the process of being integrated into the larger Maxar corporate structure. After dropping out of the DARPA RSGS program it will be interesting to see if Maxar can retain its lead role in the RESOLVE-L program.

The first RESOLVE-L on-orbit satellite servicer is currently scheduled for launch sometime in 2020.
Chuck Black.

Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog. 

Thursday, April 25, 2019

New US Bill Asks NASA to Encourage Space Mining and Assess the Establishment of a Space Resources Institute

          By Chuck Black

A proposed new bill introduced into the US House of Representatives by Scott Tipton (R-Colorado) and Ed Perlmutter (D-Colorado) is calling for the US to encourage space mining activities and for NASA to assess the usefulness of establishing a space resources institute.

But the bill is beginning to raise "off-the-record" eyebrows in Canada among space mining advocates who feel the US legislation could create barriers for international cooperation and damage the potential for making any sort of private sector profit from space based resources.

The legislation, known as the Space Resources Institute Act (H.R.1029) was first presented to the 116th Congress on February 12th, 2019, but languished until referenced by the Washington DC based National Space Society (NSS) in their April 24th, 2019 NSS press release, "National Space Society Endorses the Space Resources Institute Act (H.R. 1029)."

According to the NSS press release:
The National Space Society (NSS) enthusiastically supports the Space Resources Institute Act (H.R. 1029), a bi-partisan bill submitted by Representatives Scott Tipton and Ed Perlmutter. H.R. 1029 directs NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine to submit to Congress “a report on the merits of, and options for, establishing an institute relating to space resources, and for other purposes.” NSS looks forward to seeing a similar bill submitted to the Senate. 
NSS has long called for the utilization of space resources to ensure that space exploration, development, and settlement become cost-effective and sustainable. Chair of the NSS Executive Committee Dale Skran stated, “Establishing a space resources institute to investigate potential technologies and techniques for finding, extracting, and utilizing space resources, including water, minerals, and solar energy, would be a rational next step on the way to enabling sustainable space settlement.”
The bill called for  NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine to submit a report, within the next six months, on the benefits of and options for establishing an institute that would be focused on:
  • Identifying, developing, and distributing space resources, including by encouraging the development of foundational science and technology; and,
  • Reducing the technological risks associated with identifying, developing, and distributing space resources.

The institute could be based in a physical location or established virtually and could also include partnerships with universities and companies representing aerospace and extractive industries.

In essence, it's a bill asking for more research, not action and everyone needs to begin somewhere. However, that could be where some of the real problems with this sort of national legislation could begin, at least for organizations based outside of the US.

For example, NASA already has a mechanism in place dedicated to funding virtual institutes for fundamental research. It's called the NASA Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI) and supplements existing NASA lunar science programs and could certainly serve as a useful model for the proposed space resources institute.

As outlined on the SSERVI overview, the organization mandate is to bring together multiple entities (academic, industry, government and international) to address significant research issues that cannot be managed by stand alone entities.

But the international, cooperative efforts are all on a "no exchange of funds" basis. To cooperate with the SSERVI, or any similarly structured organization, Canadian and other externally based organizations would be required to share any intellectual property used in a cooperative venture but wouldn't be paid for it.

The only benefit to the contributor would be the chance to participate in program it couldn't create on its own. The US based coordinating organization would gain the IP and would therefore be able to reproduce the venture entirely on its own in the future.

Over time, the knowledge and skill-sets required to fulfill the various missions and mandates would all flow into the US based coordinating organization while the external, participating organizations would slowly lose their ability to organize independent missions.

Eventually, those external organizations would become simple component manufacturers for others, much like the current Canadian Space Agency (CSA) operates in conjunction with NASA.

All of which suggests that there are a great many problems and big gaps in the knowledge of how everything is supposed to work with the new bill, which could be a part of the reason why the bill calls on NASA to "assess" and not "implement."

Both of the US sponsors of the space mining institute legislation represent Colorado, where the Golden CO based Colorado School of Mines Space Resources Program as been a leading institution for the study of space resources and in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) since the 1990's.

It's perfectly sensible for the sponsors represent their own constituents but other nations and organizations should look out for their own self-interests.

Maybe the real trick for Canada is to move forward with independent, domestically focused legislation designed to assist our own industries instead of waiting for some other nation to get the ball rolling and then react to the new state of affairs.

Canada could lead, instead of follow.
Chuck Black.

Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog. 

CSA President Laporte in Connecticut to Learn How to Buy and Sell to the "5 Eyes" Intelligence Alliance

          By Henry Stewart

It looks like Canadian Space Agency (CSA) President Sylvain Laporte will be spending time in Hartford, Connecticut next month to speak at a conference organized by the Commercial Service of the US Department of Commerce and focused (officially at least) around sharing technologies, data, contacts and intelligence from the US, UK, Australian, New Zealand and Canadian space agencies.

Literature from the 2019 International Space Summit. Graphic c/o International Space Trade Summit.

But the five countries participating in the event also comprise the membership of the "5 Eyes" anglophone intelligence alliance and are signatories to the multilateral UKUSA Agreement, a treaty for joint cooperation and the sharing of huge amounts of legally (and sometime illegally) acquired electronic "signals intelligence" and private sector telecom data.

In fact the event has an explicit intelligence connection and the event organizers aren't shy about promoting this. As outlined on the web-page promoting the event:
The International Space Trade Summit will bring the participating countries' advanced manufacturing, high-tech supply chain, and IT companies into the global Space Sector.  
Current and future capabilities required to be in the sector, as well as available opportunities will be discussed. Firms will be provided a better understanding of the space sector in the 5 Eyes allied countries. Companies will be introduced to the space agencies, OEMs, and supply chain SMEs in those countries.
The site also contains an undated, thirty minute video from the CT-N Connecticut Network, covering the US Department of Commerce announcement that it would be organizing the event. The video contains various statements of support from local Connecticut politicians and noted its overt military and intelligence gathering focus.

The 1st International Space Summit, organized by Connecticut district office of the US Department of Commerce, will take place in Hartford CT from May 19th - 21st, 2019. Attendance is restricted to "registrants representing businesses from the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada" according to the summit registration page.

Representatives from the five space agencies (including Laporte) and from the US military will be in attendance, along with prime contractors interested in providing data or technology to military and/or intelligence agencies.

A full agenda and complete speaker list for the event is also available on-line.

As outlined in the April 24th, 2019 BBC News post, "Huawei row: UK to let Chinese firm help build 5G network," the "5-Eyes" network has been in the news lately over concerns that the Shenzhen, China based multinational telecommunications equipment and consumer electronics manufacturer Huawei is in the midst of building a parallel information gathering network (similar to the Western "5-Eyes" network) which could compromise security in western nations.

Maybe our CSA president should rent a room in Ottawa or Toronto when he returns and give a presentation on what he learned. Canadian companies would surely benefit from this sort of knowledge.

Or maybe not.

As noted many times previously in the blog, Canadian owned and operated companies are not eligible for US military contracts, which are restricted to American owned and operated organizations.

But since the 1st International Space Summit is designed specifically to help grow Connecticut based companies focused on military and intelligence applications and since Laporte is a civilian and non-US based space agency president who isn't likely to sell any Canadian products or technology while he's in town, if might be worthwhile to ask one simple question.

"What's a nice, civilian focused, science associated guy like our current CSA president doing in a deep state, military intelligence dominated place like this?"

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

Monday, April 22, 2019

The New Procure Space Exchange-Traded Fund Facilitates Space Industry Investments

          By Brian Orlotti

Levittown NY based asset management firm Procure Holdings and New York NY based Space Investment Services, a firm founded by former Space Foundation Director of Research Micah Walter-Range, have joined forces to create the Procure Space Exchange-Traded Fund (UFO ETF). The new fund is structured to allow everyday investors a chance to own their own stake in the growing space industry.

An exchange-traded fund (ETF) is a type of fund that owns stock in multiple companies across one industry or several industries. Investors may buy and sell an ETF with its price fluctuating over time. ETFs advantages include lower purchase prices and fewer broker commissions over purchasing individual stocks.

The UFO ETF was created to address a common investor issue; a lack of publicly-traded companies that generate the majority of their revenue from space business.

Firms like Hawthorne CA SpaceX, Kent WA based Blue Origin, Huntington Beach CA based Rocket Lab and Mojave CA based Virgin Galactic are on the cutting edge of space technology but, being privately owned, are inaccessible to the majority of investors.

The UFO ETF focuses, wherever possible, on firms that derive 80% or more of their revenue from space.

The ETF is not restricted to US companies either, with stakes in MacLean VA based Iridium Satellite Communications, London UK based Inmarsat and Betzdorf Luxembourg based SES as well as industrial manufacturers like Melbourne FL based Harris Corporation and  Leiden Netherlands based Airbus.

Front cover of the Q4 2018 Space Angels quarterly report on the international space industry. The complete report is available online for download here. Graphic c/o Space Angels.

The UFO ETF comes at a time of increasing investment into the private space industry.

New York NY based investment firm Space Angels recently released a report stating that more than $20Bln US ($27Bln CDN) has been invested into 435 space companies over the last decade. These investments have recently accelerated, with Q1 2019 seeing 29 fund raising rounds inject $1.7Bln US ($2.3Bln CDN) of equity into space companies, nearly double the previous quarter.

Space Angels pointed to the pouring of resources into satellite internet networks by a variety of firms including SpaceX, London UK based OneWeb and Seattle WA based Amazon.

It is heartening to see the space industry, once derided by investors with giggles and snorts, now a magnet for capital. With its now-swelling coffers, the space industry can at last lay the foundations of an off-world economy and propel humanity into a new age.

Let a thousand rockets boom.
Brian Orlotti.

Brian Orlotti is a network operator at the Ontario Research and Innovation Optical Network (ORION), a not-for-profit network service provider to the education and research sectors.

Second Thoughts About Bolting Canada's Space Future to the US Lunar Gateway

          By Chuck Black

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau may have formally announced Canada's multi-billion dollar commitment to the proposed US Lunar Gateway in the weeks leading up to the release of Budget 2019, but that was before domestic pundits began expressing their reservations.

Space policy isn't the only area where Canada's PM is facing an uphill battle. As outlined in the April 21st, 2019 CBC News post, "With 6 months to go, Justin Trudeau is up against history," incumbent governments "usually lead in the polls this far out from an election," but Trudeau isn't and is struggling in the run-up to the next Canadian election. It's also worth noting the widely held, bipartisan consensus throughout government that MDA is the only company capable of building a Canadarm, a categorization which puts the firm on much the same indispensable government procurement list as Montreal PQ based SNC-Lavalin. Whether or not this is a shrewd place to park over the long-term is problematic. Photo c/o Christopher Katsarov/CP.

Then mercurial US President Donald Trump seemingly abandoned the Gateway in favor of a far more aggressive proposal to return US astronauts to the Moon by 2024. As noted in the April 17th, 2019 Space News post, "Op-ed | Lunar Gateway or Moon Direct?," no one is really sure if some sort of Gateway is even necessary under the revised plan now being developed by NASA.

Given that, much of the second guessing currently winding it's way through the public conscious suddenly takes on a far more reasonable air. Since the US plan is being revised, maybe Canada should also have a second look.

Here are a few recent editorials on the topic:
According to the March 28th, 2019 Policy Options post, "Ask Canadian's what kind of space Program they want," polls show that "Canadians would rather spend public money on other priorities, like education and health care. Similarly, sending an astronaut to the moon may not be what Canadians would prioritize from their space program, compared with the myriad of other aspects of space exploration where we could be investing." 
The article went on to state that, "space policy-making is dominated by technical and industry perspectives."
The Canadian government "needs to ensure that the space policy framework creates an environment which presents a level playing field for all companies, and stimulates true key industrial capabilities for Canada; intellectual property which resides here, and jobs and profits that remain in Canada," according to an undated post on the Future Economy website under the title "Spotlight on the Space Economy; Positioning Canada for Success in the Future of Space,"
The post also included interviews with retired Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, current Canadian Space Agency (CSA) president Sylvain Laporte, ADGA Group CEO Françoise Gagnon and Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) Assistant Deputy Minister Glenn Mason
Future Economy is "a multimedia publishing house that builds on over two decades of international media and events experience," so it's possible that they are in the midst of organizing a conference on this topic.
A Canadian robotics expert, who initially believed that he should welcome Trudeau's new space plan is no longer quite so certain. 
As outlined in the April 18th, 2019 The Conversation post, "Canada’s approach to lunar exploration needs to be strategic or we’ll be left behind," Carlton University assistant professor Alex Ellery called the Lunar Gateway "an incremental progression from the International Space Station (ISS) that has dominated American (and Canadian) human spaceflight for the past few decades. 
Of course, the history of the ISS has been mired in controversy — it was expensive, purposeless, took decades to design, re-design and finally build. It has neither yielded any great scientific advances nor has it advanced human Mars exploration as originally proposed."
Ellery noted that Canada's contribution to the Lunar Gateway will be funneled through a single company. According to Ellery "the Gateway promises to be another white elephant like its predecessor the ISS."
And finally, the April 20th, 2019 Advocator post, "Canada Has to Revamp the National Lunar Exploration Strategy," noted that:
Voices are already raising against this plan. A few condemn the fact that the Canadian Space Agency continues to use the services of a singular company instead of looking at other enterprises which should be able to provide competitive alternatives. Others criticize Canada’s minor ambitions as a country. 
While the other participants in the project are working hard to develop strategies which will allow them to build a veritable lunar colony Canada seems content to remain a mere observer. 
Unless our strategy is revised and improved, we will remain a witness to the greatness of others, while paying for the privilege.
He might be President and CEO of the Canadarm's ultimate prime contractor, but Maxar CEO Dan Jablonsky isn't willing to bet his company on Trudeau government largess. As outlined in the April 10th, 2019 Space News post, "Maxar’s path to growth runs through Worldview Legion," Jablonsky is currently hunting options to keep his core, corporate assets from being broken up and sold. According to the article, all Maxar business units, except for MDA in Canada, have been integrated into a single corporate entity, which kinda suggests that MDA could be sold. An MDA sale for a reasonable amount of money (say, half a billion dollars) could potentially end up being the single best option to raise enough money to insure the funding of the WorldView Legion Constellation, which Maxar management considers essential to future profitability, while retaining core assets within a single, US based corporate entity. This would also allow the company to retain its highly profitable US military contracts. Photo c/o Keith Johnson/SpaceNews.

As outlined in the February 28th, 2019 post, "Canada Becomes the First Nation to Formally Commit to the NASA Lunar Gateway Plan," Trudeau's initial announcement committed Canada to becoming the program's first international partner and allocated $2.05Bln CDN over twenty-four years to fund the program.

Most of the new funding would go to the design and development of a "3rd generation" Canadarm for the Lunar Gateway, which would serve the same function as earlier Canadarm's installed on the ISS and on US space shuttles.

Brampton ON based MDA Corporation, a subsidiary of Westminster CO based Maxar Technologies, will almost certainly receive the lions share of the new funding as the prime contractor for the new Canadarm.

MDA and Maxar both know this.

As outlined in the January 1st, 2019 post, "2018: The Year in Space for Canada," both organizations spent large portions of 2018 lobbying the Trudeau government to support and fund the US Lunar Gateway.
Chuck Black.

Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog. 

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Time to Celebrate Good Friday and Easter Sunday

This blog will be taking a short break to reconnect with family and celebrate Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

We'll be back with all new stories beginning April 23rd, 2019.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Nunavut’s Cubesat is a Community Activity

          By Brian Orlotti

While the big money being spent on Canadian space activities continues to go towards salaries and office space in Ottawa and Montreal and into components for large US led initiatives, the participants in the Canadian Space Agency’s (CSA) Canadian Cubesat Project (CCP) are slowly beginning to roll out their smaller, locally focused projects.

And one of the more interesting projects is a team up between London, ON based Western University and Nunavut Arctic College (NAC) to build Nunavut’s first satellite.

As outlined in the May 7th, 2018 post, "Canadian Cubesat Project Finally Moving Forward," the program, rolled out last summer, provided grants of between $200,000 - $250,000 to fifteen proposals submitted by university professors to build and launch small cubesats (normally a low weight, 10×10×10 cm cubic satellite) by 2020.

The CSA solicited post-secondary schools across Canada for proposals for a miniature CubeSat that professors and students could design and build together. In 2018, the CSA awarded grants to 15 projects among submissions from every territory and province.

A CubeSat normally has a mass of no more than 1.33 kgs (2.9 lbs) per unit and often uses commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components for their electronics and structure. CubeSats are typically placed in orbit by deployers on the International Space Station (ISS), or launched as secondary payloads on a rocket. Cubesats were intended to democratize satellite technology by adopting a standardized form factor and COTS components to reduce costs.

The objective of each Cubesat project differs, ranging from space exploration to asteroid geology. Taking a different tack, the Western/Nunavut team chose to place two 180-degree cameras on both sides of their CubeSat, enabling them to create 360 degree imagery of the Earth, Moon and other astronomical bodies that can be viewed using virtual reality headsets.

The satellite is being pitched as an inspirational tool for the people of Nunavut.

Overview of the CCP. Graphic c/o CSA.

Western University, owing to its aerospace and engineering programs, serves as technical lead on the project. Over the past year, Western students have worked on a preliminary design.

As outlined in the April 9th, 2019 Nunatsiaq Post article, "Nunavut reaches for the stars with CubeSat," Western staff traveled to Nunavut in February 2019 to confer with NAC on ways to increase NAC’s involvement in the project.

Several ideas have been put forth, including holding public surveys on what sort of imagery to capture (i.e. ice flows, Norther Lights, etc.), etching symbols and syllables from Inuit folklore into the CubeSat, and having students in NAC’s jewelry and metalwork program design and create a component of the satellite.

In addition, a contest was recently held to submit names for the satellite.

Essentially, it's becoming a community activity, which is an interesting way of looking at a satellite development program. Maybe there are lessons to be learned here for the rest of us. Given the current PR coming out of the CSA, it's something that the rest of the Canadian space community should note.

The CCP’s CubeSats are to be launched from the ISS in 2021 or 2022. The Western/NAC satellite will have an operational life of 1 year.
Brian Orlotti.

Brian Orlotti is a network operator at the Ontario Research and Innovation Optical Network (ORION), a not-for-profit network service provider to the education and research sectors.

Monday, April 15, 2019

US Lunar Gateway Will be Scaled Back for 2024 Moon Landing: Fed's Foolish to Depend on US for Canada's Space Program

          By Chuck Black

Without lots more money, and at least some sort of defined NASA budget outlining priorities, it is foolish to assume that the NASA led US Lunar Gateway and its Canadian built "3rd generation" Canadarm (originally scheduled for 2028) could possibly maintain the same schedule expected when Canada announced and approved its share of the funding for the program in Budget 2019.

Since then, and as outlined in the April 14th, 2019 Space News post, "NASA’s accelerated moon plans create uncertainty for international partners," US president Donald Trump's administration has announced an "about turn" on NASA plans and priorities, essentially pushing aside the Lunar Gateway program in favor of placing "US boots on the Moon" by 2024.

As outlined in the post:
NASA has yet to outline its approach to meeting the goal announced in a March 26 speech by Vice President Mike Pence of landing humans on the south pole of the moon within five years. The agency has been working internally on at least a high-level approach for doing so, and plans to start sharing details with the White House, including the Office of Management and Budget, this week in order to finalize a revised budget request that’s expected to seek several billion dollars more in fiscal year 2020 alone. 
However, in comments at the 35th Space Symposium, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said the agency would pursue a two-phase approach that would initially emphasize speed. That approach is expected to use the Space Launch System and Orion, lunar landers and some version of a lunar Gateway.
But the Lunar Gateway is expected to be scaled down dramatically from earlier plans. According to the post:
Some concepts under consideration require only the Power and Propulsion Element, which NASA is in the process of procuring, along with a docking node of some kind that could also serve as a habitation module.
Publicly, potential Gateway partners have said little about how NASA’s accelerated approach would affect their ability or willingness to participate. During an April 10 panel session here on exploration, officials from NASA, the Canadian Space Agency, European Space Agency and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency largely avoided direct discussion of what NASA’s new plans would mean for international contributions to the Gateway or other elements of the exploration architecture.
Expect no public comments from CSA and the other potential Gateway partners until NASA's budget is finalized, sometime later this year.

When NASA's plan is finally rolled out, it is almost certain that the Justin Trudeau Liberal government and its Canadian Space Agency (CSA) bureaucracy will need to come up with a new plan for the $1.95Bln CDN allocated over the next 24 years as Canada's contribution to the Lunar Gateway.

The Canadian government should certainly have known by now that there are better things to do than to tie our space future to an incomplete plan developed by an external space power, even if its the US.

At the very least, none of the other partners were stupid enough to have signed on to the deal yet. They were waiting for the plan to stabilize so that they could begin generating their own plans to contribute within the bigger program

But Canada didn't. We pushed ahead and committed to funding our share of a proposal which is in the midst of being seriously changed.

So here we are. Hung out to dry and waving in the breeze. Bugger!
Chuck Black.

Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog. 

Friday, April 12, 2019

Israel's Beresheet Spacecraft Crashes on Moon But SpaceX Lands all Three Falcon Heavy Rocket Boosters for the First Time

          By Henry Stewart

As noted by Israeli Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the one obvious takeaway from yesterday's two major pieces of space news was, "if at first you don't succeed, try try again."

Netanyahu made the comment in a control room near Tel Aviv, after watching the attempted landing of the Beresheet (Hebrew for "in the beginning") lunar lander. The attempt was a joint project between SpaceIL, a privately funded Israeli non-profit organization, and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), Israel's government owned primary aerospace and aviation manufacturer.

As outlined in the April 11th, 2019 BBC News post, "Israel's Beresheet spacecraft crashes on Moon," the first privately funded mission to the Moon has crashed on the lunar surface after the apparent failure of its main engine during decent.

As noted in the article, so far only government space agencies from the former Soviet Union, the US and China have made successful Moon landings.

A little later on the same day and as outlined in the April 11th, 2019 The Verge post, "SpaceX lands all three Falcon Heavy rocket boosters for the first time ever," Hawthorne CA based SpaceX managed to soft-land all three of the rocket’s booster cores after completing its primary mission of boosting the Arabsat 6A communications satellite into orbit for Riyadh based Arabsat.

As noted in the article:
SpaceX first tried these landings a little more than four years ago with its Falcon 9 rocket boosters. The first attempt at sea (in January 2015) ended in a spectacular fireball after the booster slammed into the drone ship, video of which SpaceX released on Vine. The second attempted landing was in April 2015, and the booster almost made it, but ultimately tipped over and exploded. 
SpaceX landed its first rocket booster in December 2015 at Cape Canaveral on the original concrete landing pad. From there, it took three more tries to stick one of the sea landings. But between that point and last year’s inaugural Falcon Heavy launch, SpaceX rattled off 20 successful landings with just one failure. And since last year’s first Falcon Heavy launch, the company has only had one unsuccessful booster landing.
SpaceIl and the Israeli's seem to know the lesson SpaceX obviously knew in 2015, when their first few attempts to land a reusable rocket met with less than stellar success and they kept going.

They will continue to try and try again. It's a lesson we should all be reminded.

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

Thursday, April 11, 2019

After a Long and Productive Life, the Iconic Canadian MOST Space Telescope was Finally Decommissioned in March 2019

          By Chuck Black

After almost a year of slowly dropping power output which increasingly limited the type and amount of observations it could perform, the long serving Microvariability and Oscillation of Stars (MOST) space telescope was finally decommissioned in March 2019 by it's current owners, the Mississauga ON based Microsat Systems Canada Inc. (MSCI).

An April 13th, 2015 screenshot of the UBC webpage for the MOST space telescope, which lists the partners who contributed to the ongoing success of the mission (including UBC) and some of it more recent discoveries (the UBC web page has since been taken down). As outlined in the April 13th, 2015 post, "The MOST Space Telescope Joins the Private Sector," the CSA, which had operated MOST since it was launched on June 30th, 2003, withdrew funding for the program on September 9th 2014 as a cost cutting measure. MOST was then purchased from the CSA by MSCI, which continued to operate it until last month. Graphic c/o UBC.

According to MSCI president and CEO David Cooper, "solar rays may have slowly degraded the solar cells. The batteries may also have been getting old and could no longer hold a charge."

Cooper spoke with this blog early in the week.

MOST was the first spacecraft dedicated to the study of asteroseismology, the study of oscillations in stars and what those oscillations can tell astronomers about the internal stellar structures. The satellite normally observed a single target for a long period of time (up to 60 days) to track oscillations and required a highly accurate attitude control system to maintain contract. Larger space telescopes, because of the high demand for their resources do not generally remain focused on a single target for such a long period.

It was developed in the late 1990's as a joint effort of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), Dynacon Enterprises (now MSCI), the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies (UTIAS) Space Flight Laboratory (SFL) and the University of British Columbia (UBC).

Matthews and MOST in clean room in 2003. Photo c/o CSA.
The science team was led by UBC professor and principal investigator Jaymie Matthews, although many others contributed. MOST was launched on June 30th, 2003 from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Russia and was originally expected to last only eighteen months before failing.

MOST was subsequently followed by the now-completed (and far pricier) European Space Agency (ESA) Convection, Rotation and planetary Transits (CoRoT) mission (operational between December 27th, 2006 - June 17th, 2014) and the NASA Kepler space telescope (operational between March 9th, 2009 - November 15th, 2018) which used much the same methodologies to study stellar composition.

It was also the first Canadian science satellite launched since the ISIS II ionospheric observatory, launched thirty-two years previously.

"We can still get a signal out of it. It responds but there is no longer enough power to boot up the system," according to Cooper.

From a space engineering or astronomy science perspective, MOST has been an outstanding success. According to Cooper, the program contributed substantially to our understanding of stellar compositions and "to the PhD's of almost a dozen scientists" who used data collected form MOST observations in their dissertations.

As the owner of a private sector business that led the satellites original construction, Cooper is also satisfied with the price. MOST cost only around $10Mln CDN to build and operate over its lifetime, a bargain when compared to most other satellites in orbit today.

Some of the methodologies and construction techniques used to build MOST were first discussed in the May 9th, 2010 post, "The Microsat Way in Canada."

MOST undergoing testing at the Nepean ON based David Florida Laboratories prior to launch in 2003. The satellite weighed 53 kg (117 pounds) and was 60 cm × 60 cm  x 24 cm. It contained a single, visible-light dual-CCD camera, fed by a 15-cm aperture Maksutov telescope. The first CCD in the camera gathered science images while the second provided images used by star-tracking directional control system that, with the help four reaction wheels, maintained the direction the satellite was pointed to within less than 1 arc-second. Photo c/o MSCI.

"MOST was originally developed through the CSA Small Payload Program," according to Kieran Carroll, an aerospace engineer who once led the space division at Dynacon back when it was developing MOST and currently acts as the chief technology officer for Mississauga ON based Gedex Systems.

Carroll, along with University of Toronto Professor Emeritus Slavek Rucinski, quarterbacked the original successful proposal through the CSA in 1997.

"Our problem was the widely held perception that microsats and smallsats couldn't do attitude control. That was the conventional wisdom in 1997," said Carroll. "We could point to the very successful work being done at the time by the then University of Surrey based Surrey Satellite Technology (SSTL) but SSTL hadn't perfected attitude control to within 1 arc-second either."

"NASA's Hubble Space Telescope could point to within 1 arc-second, but Hubble was a big, truck sized, billion dollar NASA program. No one at the time seriously thought the technology could be shrunk down enough to fit inside a suitcase."

But Carroll and Rucinski, who had managed to bring aboard Matthews as the project started moving forward (and eventually passed along the science torch to him), felt that they had a plan.

And there were certainly others willing to listen.

"We received funding through the Ontario Research and Development Challenge Fund. The UofT contributed $1.2Mln CDN. Peter Hughes, who was at the time the chairman of Dynacon, committed Dynacon to a $1.2Mln CDN contribution and the CSA eventually contributed $4Mln CDN. We were in business," said Carroll.

Also noteworthy were the contributions of the worldwide Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation (AMSAT), a loose affiliation of amateur organizations which design, build, arrange launches for, and operate satellites carrying amateur radio payloads. According to Carroll, AMSAT contributed time, effort and substantial assistance to the project. "They were happy to contribute just so long as you brought a membership in the organization," he said.

It's interesting to note the visual similarities between MOST and the Near-Earth Object Surveillance Satellite (NEOSSat), also built by MSCI and launched in 2013 by the CSA. It's larger (137cm  × 78cm × 38cm) and weighs more (74 kg or 163 pounds) but also spends the majority of its time staring intently at small distant objects, although NEOSsat tends to focus on objects in Earth orbit while MOST focused on the distant stars. According to MSCI CEO Cooper, his company is currently working closely with Brampton ON based MDA to develop a smaller, lower cost, but just as effective version of traditional synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellites. Think of it as their follow-on to the Radarsat Constellation Mission (RCM), only smaller and cheaper. Graphic c/o CSA.

While MOST is now off-line, a substantial scientific legacy remains. 

Those looking to learn more might want to start with the MOST Public Data Archive. While officially off-line (just like MOST) it's available through the Internet Wayback Machine.
Chuck Black.

Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog. 

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

Telesat Hires a Four Year Old US Based Start-up to Launch its Satellites

          By Brian Orlotti

On April 5th, Los Angeles CA based Relativity Space, a manufacturer of 3D-printed rockets, announced that it has signed its first commercial contract with Telesat, the Ottawa-based commsat operator and pillar of Canada’s space sector.

The agreement is a major coup for the young American NewSpace firm and a sad reminder of Canada’s willingness to support foreign space industries at the expense of its own plentiful and skilled homegrown talent.

As outlined in the April 5th, 2019 Space News post, "Relativity signs contract with Telesat for launching LEO constellation," the contract covers the launch of an unspecified number of Telesat LEO satellites on Relativity launch vehicles, starting no earlier than 2021. The companies declined to disclose the terms of the contract.

Relativity Space was founded in 2015 by former Blue Origin and SpaceX engineers Tim Ellis and Jordan Noone. Ellis and Noone both felt that their employers were not harnessing 3D printing’s full potential in the manufacture of rockets and forged out on their own.

During their initial fundraising round, they courted American billionaire Mark Cuban and impressed him enough to obtain an initial $500,000 US ($655,000 CDN) of seed capital. At the same time, Relativity Space was accepted into the Mountain View CA based Y-Combinator tech accelerator.

The company has since raised over $44.5Mln US ($59Mln CDN) and now has 60 employees.

Relativity’s main product, the Terran-1 rocket, is a 3D-printed, expendable, two-stage launch vehicle. The Terran-1’s maximum payload will be 1,250 kg to low Earth orbit, or a normal payload of 900 kg to 500 km sun synchronous orbit.

The Terran-1 will be powered by the Aeon 1, a 3D printed, liquid methane and liquid oxygen-fueled engine. Made of a nickel alloy, the Aeon 1 consists of about 100 parts.

To build Terran-1 and Aeon-1, Relativity created its own custom metal 3D printer called ‘Stargate.’ Stargate utilizes 18-foot-tall robotic arms equipped with lasers that melt metal wire. These arms can deposit about eight inches’ worth of metal onto a large turntable in just one second.

Directed by custom software, these robotic arms can produce entire rocket bodies and fuel tanks as one piece. The Stargate 3D printer enables Relativity Space to reduce the part count of a typical rocket from 100,000 to 1,000 and build entire rockets in 60 days.

The company has a launch site at Cape Canaveral in Florida and a test facility at NASA’s Stennis Space Centre. It is currently in the process of acquiring a launch site in California that will expand its launch capabilities for customers.

Relativity’s first launch of the Terran-1 is slated for late 2020. Terran-1’s price is around $10Mln US ($13.3Mln CDN) for a 1,250-kilogram payload launch to low Earth orbit.

The Relativity-Telesat deal comes on the heels of Amazon’s unveiling of its plans to create a SpaceX Starlink-esque low-earth-orbit satellite network of its own, with Billionaire Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ own rocket company, Kent WA based Blue Origin, doing the heavy lifting.

As outlined in the January 31st, 2019 Space News post, "Telesat signs New Glenn multi-launch agreement with Blue Origin for LEO missions," Telesat has also struck a deal with Blue Origin to launch satellites for its future low-Earth-orbit broadband constellation.

Useful wisdom from Lebanese-American writer, poet, visual artist and Lebanese nationalist Kahlil Gibran (1883 - 1931). Photo c/o Wikipedia.

It is a cruel irony of history that as a storied Canadian space firm like Telesat pays a US startup to build rockets, Canada’s own capable and ambitious young rocket engineers are starved of both funding and support.

Talented groups like the University of Toronto Aerospace Team (UTAT) and the McGill Rocket Team are forced to hone their skills in competitions south of the border due to lack of funding and regulatory mechanisms in their homeland. Groups whose talented members, lacking investment capital to form their own companies will, upon graduation, emigrate to work in other nation’s space industries.

As next-generation American, Chinese, Indian and New Zealander rockets soar into space to begin the next epoch of humanity, Canada seems content to stand ashore slurping a Tim Horton's "double double" with an oh-so-Canadian shrug.
Brian Orlotti.

Brian Orlotti is a network operator at the Ontario Research and Innovation Optical Network (ORION), a not-for-profit network service provider to the education and research sectors.

Monday, April 08, 2019

Now Amazon Wants to Build a 3200+ Constellation of Low Earth Orbit Micro-Sats to Provide Broadband to Rural Areas

          By Chuck Black

Seattle WA based Amazon.com has joined the list of companies planning to build large constellations of hundreds or thousands of low Earth orbiting satellites able to provide broadband internet connectivity to rural areas not currently being served.

As outlined in the April 4th, 2019 Geekwire post, "Amazon to offer broadband access from orbit with 3,236-satellite ‘Project Kuiper’ constellation," Amazon hasn’t disclosed who would build the satellites or when they would be launched and hasn’t yet filed with the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for US market access for the system.

But it has provided a name for the new constellation. As outlined in the Geekwire post:
The effort, code-named Project Kuiper, follows up on last September’s mysterious reports that Amazon was planning a “big, audacious space project” involving satellites and space-based systems. The Seattle-based company is likely to spend billions of dollars on the project, and could conceivably reap billions of dollars in revenue once the satellites go into commercial service. 
It’ll take years to bring the big, audacious project to fruition, however, and Amazon could face fierce competition from SpaceX, OneWeb and other high-profile players. 
Project Kuiper’s first public step took the form of three sets of filings made with the International Telecommunication Union last month by the Federal Communications Commission on behalf of Washington, D.C.-based Kuiper Systems LLC. The ITU oversees global telecom satellite operations and eventually will have to sign off on Kuiper’s constellation. 
According to the article, "Amazon said the satellites would provide data coverage for spots on Earth ranging in latitude from 56 degrees north to 56 degrees south. About 95 percent of the world’s population lives within that wide swath of the planet."

This would put the Amazon constellation in direct competition with Ottawa ON based Telesat which, as outline on their Telesat LEO. Why LEO web page is hoping to do much the same thing using only a few hundred micro-sats.

An Amazon spokesperson told GeekWire said it’s too early to say whether Kent WA based Blue Origin, another company founded and controlled by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, will have a lock on the launch contracts, saying, “We will of course look at all options.”

As outlined in the January 31st, 2019 Space News post, "Telesat signs New Glenn multi-launch agreement with Blue Origin for LEO missions," Telesat has:
agreed to launch satellites for its future low-Earth-orbit broadband constellation on multiple New Glenn missions, Blue Origin announced January 31st. 
The agreement, for an unspecified number of launches and satellites, makes Telesat the fifth customer to sign up to use the reusable launcher, which is slated for a maiden flight in 2021.
In essence, it's a small world.
Chuck Black.

Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog. 

Friday, April 05, 2019

The 2018 State of the Canadian Space Sector Report Notes Decreased Domestic and Increased International Sales

          By Henry Stewart

The 2018 State of the Canadian Space Sector, the latest in a series of annual compilations of Canada's space capabilities produced by the economic analysis and research team at the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), is now online. Although it was released on Thursday April 4th, 2019, it's officially a 2018 report using data collected in 2017.

The latest report continues to note a long-term pattern of declining domestic sales of Canadian space focused products while international sales of the sames products increase.

The front cover of the PDF version of the 2018 State of the Canadian Space Sector Report. Graphic c/o CSA.

As outlined in the executive summary of the report:

  • In 2017, the space sector contributed $2.3Bln CDN to Canada's GDP and supported a total of 21,828 jobs.
  • Total revenues in the Canadian space sector reached $5.6Bln CDN for 2017. This is a slight increase over 2015 ($5.3Bln CDN) and 2016 ($5.5Bln CDN). 
  • The Canadian space workforce totalled 9,942 space-related full-time equivalents (FTEs), of which 43% were highly qualified personnel (HQP).
  • Business Expenditures on R&D (BERD) reached $363Mln CDN, a 43% increase from the previous year.
  • Canadian space companies derived $330M in revenues through the commercialization of externally funded R&D projects, a significant growth from 2016.
  • Space sector organizations reported a total of 203 inventions and 118 patents.
  • Canada's top 30 space organizations accounted for 97% space revenues, 81% of space employment, 88% of BERD, 65% of patents, but only 32% of inventions. In essence, larger companies drove more revenue, hired more people and filed more patents but seemed to invent less. 
The complete report is available online from the Government of Canada.

Canadian space companies enjoy a strong reputation on the international marketplace but sell fewer and fewer of their products in Canada. Graphic c/o CSA.

Recent State of the Canadian Space Sector Reports, as outlined in the December 4th, 2017 post, "The Latest CDN Space Sector Report Notes 5 Year Slump (Except for BC) & Industry Dominates, Not Academia or Gov't," and the July 26th, 2018 post, "Assessing the 2016 State of the Canadian Space Sector Report" have noted an ongoing stagnation of Canadian space industry activities with declining domestic revenues offsetting the growth in sales from international markets.

The latest report continues this trend, although overall growth is now positive. It's likely that the Canadian space industry has finally pulled out of the long-term slump first noted in the 2016 report.

With Ottawa ON based Telesat moving forward with its low-Earth orbit communications constellation and new Federal funding expected to begin flowing to fund Canada's multi-billion dollar "3rd generation Canadarm" contribution to the US led Lunar Gateway beginning next year, it's likely that domestic sales revenue will now begin to increase in parallel with the international market.

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

Support our Patreon Page