Monday, September 26, 2016

The REAL Reason Why Canada Won't Be Participating in the NASA Resolve Mission Anytime Soon, Probably!

          By Chuck Black

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) has been looking for funding and partners for a planetary rover mission since Marc Garneau was CSA president from 2001 - 2005. By 2009 small amounts of funding for the project had begun flowing towards Canadian subcontractors.

An overview of the 2012 NASA RESOLVE mission simulation, one of three which were held in Hawaii and Utah between 2008 - 2012 to highlight the mission, the partners expected to collaborate on it and their technical challenges. To view the complete video, please click on the graphic above. Photo c/o CSA.

That trickle expanded with the 2009 - 2010 federal budget, which was presented to Parliament by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty on January 27th, 2009. The budget included $110Mln CDN over three years "for space robotics research and development," much of which quickly ended up funding research on Canadian rovers.

By 2012, at least as outlined in records received through a federal government access to information request for "All records related to the NASA invitation to provide (a) Deltion Innovation drill system for a proposed lunar prospecting (mission) in 2018," CSA involvement was considered "essential" to the success of at least one international plan to land a rover somewhere.

But then everything fell apart. What happened?

A two page letter dated March 30th, 2012 from William H. Gerstenmaier, the NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations to Gilles Leclerc, the CSA director general of space exploration. Gerstenmaier called CSA's continued participation in RESOLVE development efforts "essential, especially as RESOLVE moves into vacuum chamber testing. The vacuum testing phase, building on the lessons from the field test, will verify flight hardware and software in simulated launch landing and operating environments. In short, RESOLVE will be advancing towards flight readiness." Letter c/o Government of Canada.

As outlined during a September 23rd, 2016 phone interview by Gilles Leclerc, the CSA director general of space exploration, RESOLVE was "never a formal, approved project." According to Leclerc, "the object of our CSA program was to develop and utilize in future programs and to build a business case for initiating a formal project."

According to Leclerc, CSA had two major issues going forward with RESOLVE:
First of all, there was the lack of funds. In order to commit to a project of this nature, we needed to have in hand the full life cycle funding, which covers the actual mission, and not just the project planning and ground testing.
Gilles Leclerc. Photo c/o CSA.
For that, we need the appropriate instructions from the Federal government. Otherwise we simply can't move forward. 
Secondly, we found the original NASA project time frame to be too aggressive.
Evidently, NASA also found their original project plan to be too aggressive.

As outlined in the 2011 European Planetary Science Congress (EPSC) Abstracts document "RESOLVE for Lunar Polar Ice/Volatile Characterization Mission," the original plan was to test using Earth analogue missions between 2008 - 2012, move on to lunar environment simulation, or vacuum testing in 2014 and then launch in 2018.

The current plan, now under the title NASA Resource Prospector (RPM), is scheduled for launch sometime after 2021. Oddly enough, it's also tied to one of the early test flights of the proposed NASA Space Launch System (SLS), another problematic NASA program.

As for appropriate funding, the CSA did make at least one attempt to move forward with RESOLVE by diverting Canadian funding used to support the International Space Station (ISS) for a year or two just to get the rover development underway.

This was necessary to meet the aggressive NASA schedule and took consideration of the fact that it would be a year or two before CSA could get significant funding from the Treasury Board of Canada for a large rover program.

But that plan didn't work.

A two page letter dated April 1st, 2013 from Gerstenmaier to Jean Claude Piedboeuf, then the CSA acting director general of space exploration in response to an earlier query for International Space Station (ISS) Common System Operations Costs (CSOC) offset credits to help fund the CSA commitment to the RESOLVE mission. Piedboeuf eventually followed up Gerstenmaiers April 1st letter with a November 20th, 2013 response where he stated that "Unfortunately, based on our understanding that RPM (the Resource Prospector Mission, the program which grew out of RESOLVE) is currently not a priority for NASA and that our potential Canadian contributions are not eligible for credit to CSA under the Common Systems Operations Costs (CSOC) structure, CSA will not be able to seek authority to fully engage in RPM as a candidate flight mission." At the time of the first letter, Leclerc was acting CSA president. He was replaced on August 6th, 2013 by incoming CSA president Walter Natynczyk. Letter c/o Government of Canada.

"The original letter from Bill (Gerstenmaier) to Gilles (Leclerc) was optimistic and both parties anticipated a strong future working together," said Peter Visscher, the VP Engineering at Ontario Drive & Gear (ODG), one of the Canadian rover subcontractors who received funding from the 2009 Federal funding package. "There are still opportunities out there," he said, during a recent phone interview.

According to Visscher:
The Artemis Jr. rover, which was originally expected to be part of the RESOLVE mission has been slowly improved over the last few years. 
In 2012 we were a TRL-4 CSA program and the rovers demonstrated to innovation minister Navdeep Bains in May 2016 (as outlined in the May 6th, 2016 CBC News post, "Canadian Space Agency unveils lighter, less expensive rovers"), were TRL-6 in terms of drive-train and suspension.
Leclerc is also cautiously optimistic. "We keep the door open. We will continue to look for flight opportunities for the rovers we've developed and the technologies we've built, and support further development in this area."

Until then, time marches on.
Chuck Black.
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Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog.

A Short History of SpaceX

          By Brian Orlotti

As the world prepares for Elon Musk’s much-anticipated Tuesday, September 27th, 2016 speech at the 2016 International Astronautical Congress (IAC 2016), where he will outline his plan to settle Mars, a look back at SpaceX’s history is in order.


An inventory of the company’s wins and losses can provide some perspective on the ambitious goals ahead:
  • June 1st, 2002 - Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, better known as SpaceX is founded by Elon Musk in El Segundo, California. The company is later relocated to Hawthorne, California.
  • March 1st, 2006 - CEO Musk invests $100Mln US ($132Mln CDN) of his own money into SpaceX.
  • June 4th, 2010 - The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket completes its maiden flight after launch from Kwajelin Atoll,  part of the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI).
  • December 8th, 2010 - A SpaceX Dragon capsule orbits Earth then safely crashes into Pacific Ocean making it the first commercial spacecraft to do so.


  • May 25th, 2012 - The SpaceX Dragon capsule becomes the first private spacecraft to dock with the International Space Station (ISS).
  • October 8th, 2012 - SpaceX completes its first resupply mission (CRS-1) to the ISS using its Dragon spacecraft. It's the first private spacecraft to do so and delivers 1,000 pounds of cargo.
  • December 17th, 2012 - SpaceX completes a successful 12-story test flight of its Grasshopper rocket. The Grasshopper is a reusable rocket whose first stage is designed to fly back to Earth, refuel and fly again.
  • March 9th, 2013 - SpaceX completes a successful 24-story test flight of the Grasshopper.
  • October 7th, 2013 - SpaceX completes its 8th and final test flight of the Grasshopper. It reaches 2441 feet and lands successfully. The vehicle is then retired but the knowledge collected from the flights, and the soft landings, are integrated into the Falcon-9 design.


  • April 14th, 2014  SpaceX sues the US Air Force for the right to compete for national security payload launches, then a monopoly of UnitedLaunch Alliance (ULA).
  • September 16th, 2014  SpaceX signs an agreement with NASA to be first US commercial company (along with Boeing) to launch astronauts to ISS.
  • January 16th, 2015 - A SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage landing attempt on a drone ship during the fifth cargo resupply mission (CRS-5) mission to the ISS fails. The failure is traced to a loss of hydraulic fluid just before touchdown.
  • January 23rd, 2015 - The US Air Force agrees to certify SpaceX rockets for national security launches and SpaceX drops its April 14th, 2014 lawsuit. SpaceX is certified for national security launches on May 26th, 2015 and ULA’s monopoly on launching national security payloads is broken.


  • April 24th, 2015 - SpaceX's second Falcon 9  1st stage landing attempt on a drone ship during CRS-6 mission to ISS fails. The rocket tipped over on landing due to excess lateral velocity.
  • June 28th, 2015 - A Falcon 9 rocket explodes during the seventh SpaceX cargo resupply mission (CRS-7) launch to the ISS and the Dragon spacecraft is lost. The cause was traced to the failure of a strut which secured a high-pressure helium bottle inside the second stage's liquid oxygen tank, causing it to over pressurize and burst.
  •  December 21st, 2015 - A Falcon 9 rocket makes a historic landing on land at Cape Canaveral after it delivers eleven satellites into orbit. "I do think it's a revolutionary moment. No one has ever brought an orbital class booster back intact," SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk told reporters in a teleconference after the launch and landing success.
  • January 17th, 2016 - The third Falcon 9 first stage landing attempt on a drone ship fails. The landing legs didn't lock and the rocket simply fell over after landing.


  • March 4th, 2016 - A fourth Falcon 9 first stage landing attempt on a drone ship fails. The rocket landed hard, fell over and exploded.
  •  April 8th, 2016 - The fifth Falcon 9 first stage landing attempt on a drone ship finally succeeds.
  •  April 26th, 2016   SpaceX announces they will relaunch a recovered Falcon 9 rocket later in the year and its first crewed mission to ISS in 2017 or early 2018.
  • April 28th, 2016 - SpaceX tweets they will send a non-crewed Red Dragon to Mars as early as 2018 in preparation for human landings.
  •  April 28th, 2016 - SpaceX is awarded its first national security launch contract to launch the USAF's GPS-3 satellite. But SpaceX won competition by default as ULA declined to bid.


  • September 1st, 2016 - A Falcon 9 rocket explodes on the pad at Cape Canaveral. The rocket was due to launch the Israel built Amos 6 communications satellite for Facebook.
  • September 23rd, 2016 - SpaceX releases the initial results of its investigation, which reveal that it believes a breach in the helium system in the Falcon 9's liquid oxygen system caused the explosion. The investigation continues as SpaceX says it wants to resume launches in November 2016.
It's worth noting that, while many of the points listed above came originally from the April 26th, 2016 Techcrunch post, "A Brief History of SpaceX," the future of the company is still very much to be written by Musk, and by others.

Here's wishing them the best.
Brian Orlotti.
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Brian Orlotti is a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Scott Larson Has Started Another Space Company

         By Henry Stewart

Scott Larson. Photo c/o @scolarson.
The ex-founder and CEO  of Vancouver based Urthecast, has resurfaced as the owner of another Vancouver based space company.

Entrepreneur Scott Larson, whose brother Wade Larson helped to co-found Urthecast and continues in the role of CEO, spoke about his latest venture in the September 23rd, 2016 Globe and Mail post, "UrtheCast founder plots a new course to space."

The new start-up, called Helios Wire, is attempting to build out and democratize a space-enabled internet of things network.

As outlined on the company website, "Helios believes that the IoT shouldn't be expensive, complicated, or only for large global companies. If done right, it can literally be for everyone."

As outlined in the article:
Mr. Larson’s plan for Helios Wire – having acquired the use of spectrum, originally reserved for cattle tracking in Australia, through a partnership with (the Australian based mobile satellite systems operator) Sirion Global – is to raise $10-million to launch a mobile satellite system by 2018 using 30 MHz of the S-band spectrum, enough bandwidth to potentially service five billion transmitters. 
The plan is to deliver a two-way communications from space for potential IoT customers in transportation, security/public safety, energy, industrial and agriculture.
Helios will have access to the spectrum through its partnership with Sirion until 2019, which is enough time, at least according to Larson, to get the first couple of satellites up and demonstrate the commercial viability of the program.

Graphic from the Helios website. The company expects to use low cost micro-satellites and and other tools to provide a price advantage over traditional earth imaging organizations. Graphic c/o Helios.

According to the Sirion Global website, "there are numerous industries that could benefit significantly from the Sirion global M2M (machine to machine, another term for internet of things) service," because they require the tracking of assets located outside of the range of terrestrial cellular services. These include the livestock industry, the agricultural industry, the environmental industry, the transportation industry and the defence industry.

As outlined in the September 19th, 2016 post, "New Leonardo DiCaprio App Tracks Fishy Things on the High Seas," applications are already being developed to utilize the data which can be derived from these sorts of networks.
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Henry Stewart is the pseudonym of a Toronto based aerospace writer.

Monday, September 19, 2016

New Leonardo DiCaprio App Tracks Fishy Things on the High Seas

          By Brian Orlotti

Actor Leonardo DiCaprio has unveiled a free service called Global Fishing Watch (GFW) that utilizes satellite imagery to enable the public to monitor global fishing activity in an attempt to curb illegal fishing and rebuild depleted fish stocks.

Leonardo DiCaprio being spied on by others. Photo c/o Physics.org.

As outlined in the September 15th, 2016 Physics.org post, "DiCaprio unveils free technology to spy on global fishing," the service is a partnership between the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, SkyTruth, Oceana and Google. It uses imagery provided by satellite powerhouse Orbcomm Inc and is available online for anyone with an internet connection and a browser capable of using WebGL.

Adopting a crowd-sourcing approach, GFW enables the public and non-government organizations (NGOs) to track fishing vessels around the world through a combination of ship transponder beacons, radar data from nearby ships, and ships’ wakes as they travel through water.

According to the article, the new technology was officially released to the public during the 2016 Our Oceans Conference, which was held in Washington, DC from September 15th to 16th.

The project cost $10.3Mln USD ($13.6Mln CDN) over the past three years to build, with $6Mln ($7.92Mln CDN) of that contributed by the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation in January, 2016.

In order for GFW to provide this data free of charge, the partners negotiated with Orbcomm to use its three-day old data as well as historical data. Although this means that GFW users cannot monitor ship traffic in real-time, advocates say the system will open up the world's waters to public watchdogs like never before.

Also, GFW’s presence itself is expected to serve as a deterrent to illegal fishing.

The Republic of Kiribati which, according to Wikipedia, is an island nation in the central Pacific Ocean composed of 33 atolls and reef islands plus one raised coral island with a total land area of 800 square kilometres spread out over 3.5 million square kilometers, which is a massive area for the total population of just over 100,000 people to govern effectively. Applications like GFW go a long way towards allowing the Kiribati government to administer its own territory. Graphic c/o Wikipedia.

The application has already scored at least one success.

Kiribati, an island republic in the central pacific, comprised of 33 coral atolls and isles, has used GFW data to reveal illegal fishing in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, declared off-limits to commercial fishing in January 2015.

The offending ship’s owners were fined $1Mln USD ($1.32Mln CDN) along with a "goodwill" donation of another $1Mln.

A Canadian parallel to GFW can be found in the form of the Edmonton, AB based startup Promethean Labs Inc. Promethean Labs’ team includes MaxQ Accelerator (Canada’s first space-startup accelerator) co-founder and president Brodie Houlette and the builders of the University of Alberta’s ExAlta-1 satellite.

The company’s stated goal is the sale of satellite imagery for pollution, fishery and forestry monitoring to Governments, NGOs and the general public.

As the democratization of space technology continues, with ever more powerful tools being put into the public’s hands, much good seems about to be done.
Brian Orlotti.
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Brian Orlotti is a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

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