Monday, August 31, 2015

Canadian NewSpace Start-Up to Offer Commercial Satellite Repeaters

          By Chuck Black

The recent announcement that Canada will install twenty-four custom search-and-rescue signal repeaters on-board US Air Force next generation global positioning satellites, as part of the quarter billion dollar Canadian Medium Earth Orbit Search and Rescue (MEOSAR) satellite project, highlights the growing need for satellites to maintain full time contact with ground stations where the data can be collected and acted upon.

Retrieving data from a satellite requires a line-of-sight between the ground station and satellites, and for non-geosynchronous satellites this means being able to relay data to any specific ground station for a short period during each orbit. This makes it difficult for satellite operators to manage tasks requiring real-time communications, such as live aircraft tracking, disaster management, or spacecraft command and control. The typical solution to the problem is to build multiple ground stations which can be used during different points in the orbit. But satellite constellations, such as the 24 satellites being used for the US Air Force next generation global positioning satellites, can also be built with "repeaters," which amplify and re-transmit signals to other satellites within the constellation and then to line-of-sight ground stations. Not only can repeaters cost less than additional ground stations, but geopolitical constraints often limit where they can be placed. Graphic c/o Terracom/ Planet Labs.

Kepler Communications, a small Toronto, ON based start-up sees the potential for commoditizing inter-satellite communications, and is building commercial “off the shelf” re-transmitters (or "repeaters") able to work on a wide variety of satellites. As outlined by Kepler co-founder Jeffrey Osborne, "a fundamental transformation is happening today in the space industry" and his company aims to take advantage of it.

According to Osborne, an industry once dominated by custom spacecraft built only by national civilian and military agencies is rapidly being superseded by smaller, lower-cost platforms built by private companies utilizing a standardized micro-satellite or satellite bus.

If history is any guide, these standardized satellites will eventually also standardize their other components, including their communications capabilities.

Osborne thinks that the best way to capitalize on this trend is to design and build a standardized repeater which can be installed and used by any satellite, in much the same way that people making phone calls use the same terrestrial network in order to complete their calls. To this end, Kepler is developing inter-satellite networking options including an S band repeater for low data-rate local area networks, and electrically steerable X band antennas for higher data-rate and long-distance inter-satellite communications, with particular focus on usage within the emerging small satellite market.

Specs for what Kepler calls the "companion ad-hoc" network, a standardized satellite modem which will create an S band network allowing satellites to communicate with each other. According to Osborne, Kepler’s initial funding was provided by the University of Toronto Institute of Aerospace Studies (UTIAS) Start Entrepreneurship Program. The program is sponsored by Francis Shen, the founder of Aastra Technologies. Graphic c/o Kepler Communications.

Through their S band repeater, Kepler is investigating building an ad hoc network by coordinating with upcoming missions to host their payload. However, this comes with substantial challenges, as Osborne describes, such as “ensuring data ownership at every step in the link, regulatory hurdles not only in terms of spectrum allocations but also in terms of the type of data that can be sent through an inter-satellite link, as well as the actual technical aspect of routing data through a constantly changing network topology.”

The real benefit of inter-satellite communications comes when it is possible to send large quantities of data over very large distances, and to this end he company is also developing a "highly directional electrically steerable antenna," in addition to the base repeater. The unit would increase data transfer speeds by up to 35% without the need for mechanical actuation or spacecraft slew operations required by other directional antennas, and would allow high-speed inter-satellite links in a small satellite package. The component will add less than 150 grams to the total weight of the repeater.

The company has also developed plans for a constellation of 50 dedicated satellites located in five separate polar orbits, in order to provide a ready built satellite network of data relays which will support the communications network.

As outlined in the Kepler literature, the company founders and supporters include a range of well known space and IT focused entrepreneurs and academics. Graphic c/o Kepler Communications.

Of course, an expensive 50-satellite constellation is still a thing for the future. For now, the focus of the Kepler offering will be technologies and services for inter-satellite communications.

Chuck Black
As long as Osborne and his colleagues are able to provide a lower cost than the Canadian government was able to provide for the MEOSAR search-and-rescue signal repeaters, then Kepler's future might end up looking very bright indeed.

Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Russia’s Space Plans More Fantasy Than Fact

          By Glen Strom

When is a space announcement not worth a plugged kopek? When it’s about Russia’s space plans.

According to Russian journalist Anatoly Zak, writing on the Russian Space Web industry page,  it is sometimes "more dangerous for Russian space officials to declare the spacecraft not fit for launch than to let it fail in spaceAdmitting problems before launch could be a career suicide, while problems in orbit, if they do happen, could be always blamed on external factors, such as meteoroids, space junk, American secret weapons, or on scapegoats at the bottom of the industrial food chain, such as computer programmers, welders or propellant-loading technicians." Although this tendency is not unique to the Russian space program, other problems, including a costly effort to replace Ukrainian and Western components lost to sanctions imposed during the Ukraine crisis, multiple industry restructurings and even an economic turf war waged between the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) and the United Rocket and Space Corporation (ORKK), which included grandiose and contradictory proposals from both organizations, have sapped the strength of the Russian space industry. Graphic c/o Rossiskiskiy Kosmos. Translation c/o Russian Space Web

The December 18th, 2014 blog post “Roscosmos is Assessing its Future Programs,” outlined some of Russia’s ambitious space plans: a low-orbit space station, a high-orbit space station, a super heavy-lift Moon rocket, nuclear space tugs and a Moon base.

Ah yes, the Moon base, Russia’s pet fixation. Back in 2012 Russia wanted to team up with the United States and Europe to build a research colony on the Moon. Earlier this year the Russians wanted to buddy up with the Chinese on the Moon base idea.

It seems that the only country Russia hasn’t yet considered as a Moon base partner is the Duchy of Grand Fenwick.

Russia released its newest space plan for 2016-2025 last April 23rd. As reported in the May 2nd, 2015 SpaceFlight Insider post “Russia’s new space program: Search for extraterrestrial life amid budget cuts,” the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, wants to search for extraterrestrial life and send satellites to the Moon and Mars. Those Moon landing plans are still in there, too.

Roscosmos has one small problem—their budget has been cut by 35%, which will affect some of those projects including that Moon rocket.

All of the grand plans announced over the past few years are more fantasy than fact. A song from the 1972 movie musical “Cabaret” sums up why. The song is called “Money” and it's about how that specific commodity helps to make the world go around. 

Money also makes space programs go ‘round. That’s why you can disregard these announcements. Russia doesn’t have the money.

What’s causing Russia’s monetary grief? For one thing, sticky fingers.

Some comrades have taken the words of the song to heart...just not in a state-approved way. A Moscow Times story from July 27, 2015 “$126 Million Stolen From Russian Vostochny Cosmodrome Project - Prosecutor General,” says contractors at the site of the new spaceport in Russia’s Far East have skimmed 7.5Bln rubles ($150Mln CDN) despite warnings from Russian President Vladimir Putin that they were being watched.

One of those enterprising nouveau capitalists, accused of swiping 4Mln rubles ($807,000 CDN), was highlighted in The June 3rd, 2015 Siberian Times article “Got Him! Director Accused of Fraud at New Spaceport is Detained in Belarus.” He was arrested while driving his diamond-encrusted Mercedes. (Is driving around in a bejeweled Mercedes chic, gauche or just “hey, investigate me” dumb?)

You just can't make this sort of stuff up. This screenshot from a local police video shows an unnamed 45-year-old Georgian national being arrested in Belarus in June 2015, while driving a "diamond encrusted" Mercedes. The suspect is a accused of embezzling funds for the construction of the Vostochny Cosmodrome from the Russian government.  Photo c/o social media.

Even without the embezzling, the Vostochny facility has problems. The August 24, 2015 Sputnik International article “First Manned Launch From Russia's Vostochny Cosmodrome Delayed Until 2025 quoted a Roscosmos official as saying the first crewed launch at the Cosmodrome has been pushed back from 2018 to 2025. They’ve decided to wait for the new Angara rocket rather than using the site for the older Soyuz.

It’s the same Angara rocket that’s been under development since the early 1990s and has been delayed because guessed it—money, money, money.

But it took more than creative skimming to put Russia in this mess.

The key to the Russian ability to compete in space, or anywhere else for that matter, is the strength of the Russian economy. As outlined in this December 22nd, 2014 CNN report "Russia's economy is on the brink of collapse," the economy was damaged by a series of political and economic hits beginning in early 2014 which culminated in the June 2014 collapse of international oil prices. According to the report, Russian citizens have responded to the crisis by rushing to buy "foreign imported goods," which would be more likely to maintain value as the local currency inflated. No doubt, this would explain all those locally owned but foreign built and diamond encrusted luxury vehicles. Video c/o CNN.

According to the July 23, 2015 Telegraph article, “Oil and Gas Crunch Pushes Russia Closer to Fiscal Crisis,” the big problem is the resource-based Russian economy.

Revenues from oil and gas are dropping due to reduced demand from Europe. Foreign partners have pulled back from development projects because of the political sanctions over Russia’s incursion into Ukraine.

Russia made a big bet on the oil and gas industry. They let their manufacturing base erode and failed to develop a high tech industry. They have nothing to pick up the slack due to falling oil prices. 

A snapshot of the Russian economy covering 2014 with estimates for 2015, which was compiled using data from the Russian Ministry of Finance. What will 2016 be like? Graphic c/o Stratfor.

Some analysts say there is some good news. The July 28th, 2015 Moscow Times article “Is the Worst of Russia's Economic Crisis Over?” has indicated that the economic decline may have bottomed out.

Don’t break out the vodka just yet, though. The prognosis is “cloudy” because the measures taken—the government devalued the ruble and increased spending to prop up the economy—were used twice before during recessions. The benefits in each case were short-lived.

The story goes on to say that this strategy has prevented the Russian economy from diversifying, which maintains the status quo and leads to a new financial crisis.

Russia’s economic problems are starving their exploration and commercial space programs of the money they need, putting Russia further behind other space nations.

Glen Strom.
Money makes the world, and space programs, go ‘round. It could be that the only spinning the Russian space program will be doing is spinning its wheels.
Glen Strom is a freelance writer and editor with a background in business and technical writing. He's also the editor of The Gazette Weekly, the newsletter of the Canadian Space Society.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Part 7 of The Empire Strikes Out - Canada's Defence & The Commonwealth Space Program

Canada Rejects the Commonwealth Space Program

!960 newspapers article on BlueStreak.
By Robert Godwin
The general confusion during the late 1950s about the merits of missile defence led to several questionable strategic decisions made by the Governments of Canada and the United Kingdom. 
The possibility of a third contestant in the Space Race, in the form of a Commonwealth space program hinged on the sharing of technology and financing amongst the various invested nations, but more significantly on the political choices made regarding the future defensive postures of Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom.
On September 26th 1960 The British Aviation Minister, Peter Thorneycroft, arrived in Ottawa to solicit Canada's support.[1] The Diefenbaker government reversed their position of a year earlier and made it known that they were not interested in participating in a Commonwealth space program.[2]

With the Bomarc issue still hanging in the air Canada's government expressed little interest in telling the Canadian public that they might be considering financing yet another missile program, regardless of what it was for; especially since they had already committed to Black Brant. This was clearly the moment when the plans for a Commonwealth space program died.

The dream had lasted barely two years.

In some respects this was one of the critical moments when Britain ceased to be the mother of Empire and reluctantly became part of Europe. The choices remaining to Westminster were to concede space to the USA and the Soviet Union, or make a deal with Germany and France.

In early 1961 discussions continued briefly between Canada, Britain, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Holland, Norway and Switzerland for a joint Commonwealth/Europe space launcher. Delegates from these countries were taken to see the Blue Streak facilities but the Canadian government, when it was paying any attention to space at all, would continue to look at the bigger opportunity offered by its southern neighbor. Rather than commit to a Commonwealth/ European space program Canada's government chose to sit on the sidelines with observer status.

A formal agreement was undertaken by the UK, France and the United States to investigate the benefits of trans-Atlantic satellite communications. Canada was to be kept "fully informed" of their progress. The already scheduled Canadian Alouette satellite would, once launched, perhaps provide some insights into the problems associated with long-range satellite communications.[3]

Now resettled in England James C. Floyd was leading a team at Hawker Siddeley to design a solar powered communications satellite to be launched by Blue Streak or the newly proposed European launcher...

To Continue Reading Part 7 of 
"The Empire Strikes Out - Canada's Defence & The Commonwealth Space Program"

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the Commercial Space blog.

Robert Godwin.
Robert Godwin is the owner and founder of Apogee Space Books. He is also the Space Curator at the Canadian Air & Space Museum

He has written or edited over 100 books including the award winning series "The NASA Mission Reports" and appeared on dozens of radio and television programs in Canada, the USA and England as an expert not only on space exploration but also on music. 

His books have been discussed on CNN, the CBC, the BBC and CBS 60 Minutes. He produced the first ever virtual reality panoramas of the Apollo lunar surface photography and the first multi-camera angle movie of the Apollo 11 moonwalk. His latest book was written with the late Frederick I Ordway III and is called "2001 The Heritage and Legacy of the Space Odyssey" about the history of spaceflight at the movies.


1. Toronto Star Sept 26 1960
2. Globe and Mail Sep 28 1960
3. Globe and Mail May 27 1961

Last Week: "BOMARC; the Blue Streak; the Blue Steel or the Douglas Skybolt and Woomera," in part six of "The Empire Strikes Out - Canada's Defence & The Commonwealth Space Program."

Next Week: "The Diefenbaker Government Collapses," as part eight of "The Empire Strikes Out - Canada's Defence & The Commonwealth Space Program" continues!