Monday, July 21, 2014

Federal Government Hypes OSIRIS-REx Mission

          by Brian Orlotti

On July 17th, Federal cabinet minister Tony Clement excitedly announced Canada's latest contribution to an upcoming NASA asteroid mission. But while the Stephen Harper government appears to be hoping that the public will allow it to bask in the reflected glare of this latest Canadian space adventure, the actual state of Canada's space budget might just put a lie to the fancy words.

Treasury Board president Tony Clement announcing the Canadian contribution to the OSIRIS-REx sample return mission during a press conference at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Ontario on July 17, 2014. Photo c/o Globe and Mail.

At the press conference, Clement announced that Canada would be beginning the build phase of its contribution to the upcoming Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) NASA spacecraft.

Developed by the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, the NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre and Lockheed Martin Space Systems, OSIRIS-REx's mission will be to rendezvous with the asteroid 101955 Bennu, obtain samples from its surface and return them to Earth for analysis.

These samples will enable scientists to learn more about the formation and evolution of our Solar System, the initial stages of planet formation, and perhaps provide the chance to study organic compounds thought to have led to the beginnings of life. OSIRIS-Rex is scheduled for launch in September 2015, reaching 101955 Bennu in November 2018 and returning to Earth in 2023.

Canada's contribution will be the OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter (OLA), a LiDAR (a combination of "light" and "radar") instrument that will scan the surface of 101955 Bennu to generate high resolution topographic maps. These maps will allow planetary scientists to select sample sites, provide ranging info for other on-board instruments, and allow analysis of the asteroid's gravity as well as aid navigation. The announcement included an $8.4Mln CDN funding package (on top of the $15.8Mln CDN previously allocated in February, 2013 by the Federal government for the initial design work) with a further promise of $61Mln CDN in total funding over the life of the mission.

In return, the CSA will receive 4% of the returned samples for hands-on analysis.

Page one of a two page fact sheet available online from the NASA website. As outlined in a post on the OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission website, the Canadian OLA team includes principal investigator Alan R. Hildebrand from the University of Calgary, deputy principal investigator and instrument scientist Michael Daly from York University, Catherine L. Johnson, representing both the University of British Columbia and the Tucson, AZ based Planetary Science Institute (PSI), Rebecca Ghent from the University of Toronto/ PSI and Edward Cloutis from the University of Manitoba.

As outlined in the February 27th, 2013 MDA press release, "MDA to help map an asteroid," the original OLA contract, a partnership between the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), MacDonald, Dettwiller (MDA), and researchers from the universities of Calgary, British Columbia, Toronto and Manitoba was announced in February 2013.

Of course, that didn't stop Clement from tweeting, just prior to the July 17th announcement, “Just T minus 11 hours before my announcement with the Canadian Space Agency that is bigger than Michael Bay's blockbusters!”

This obvious hyperbole continues the federal government's pattern of publicly embracing, sometimes to excess, our Canadian space successes.

Astronaut Chris Hadfield, left, presents Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz with the $5 bill he took into space at a ceremony to officially issue the new polymer note, which features the robotic Canadarm2, DEXTRE and a Canadian astronaut on Nov. 7th, 2013, in Longueuil, Que. According to the March 29th, 2014 CBC News article "Mark Carney wanted orbiting Chris Hadfield at $5 polymer note unveiling," the "decision to beam Hadfield in came from the very top of the Bank of Canada chain of command." Photo c/o Canadian Press

The pattern began with astronaut Chris Hadfield's 2013 stint as the first Canadian commander of the International Space Station (ISS). The Canadian government basked in the global popularity fueled by Hadfield's photos, tweets, skype chats and a now-iconic rendition of David Bowie’s "Space Oddity."

In April of the same year, the Bank of Canada and the Royal Canadian Mint unveiled a new space-themed five-dollar bill with images of the Canadian built Canadarm2, the Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator (SPDM or DEXTRE) and an astronaut. For added flair, Hadfield joined the event via webcam to stir up the crowd and later made a formal in-person presentation. In June of 2014, Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper even made a point of taking a photo-op with Hadfield during the thick of the Senate scandal.

Astronaut Hadfield, on the right, shaking hands with PM Harper and wife Laureen at a breakfast photo-op on June 9th, 2014. Photo c/o PMHARPER/FLICKR

Of course, the Federal government's tweeting, press conferences and photo-ops are in stark contrast to its actual space policy. For example, the Federal government cut the CSA's budget by 10% in 2013, resulting in the cancellation of the Microvariability and Oscillations of STars (MOST) space telescope, one of Canada's greatest scientific success stories.

And following the high-water mark of Chris Hadfield's mission, the CSA has used up its remaining ISS "credits" and won't be able to send astronauts to the station until at least 2019.

Brian Orlotti.
So while it's good that the Federal government has finally discovered that space is a popular cause to champion, the disconnect between the government's words and its deeds does little to clarify Canada's future in space.

Brian Orlotti is a Toronto-based IT professional and a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

UrtheCast Hi-Res Camera Still Not Working but Solution (and More Cameras) are on the Way

          by Chuck Black

It's been a rough few months for BC based UrtheCast, which announced last Wednesday that the firm's high resolution camera (HRC) installed on board the International Space Station (ISS) last winter was still not operational. Fortunately for the company, its partners and its stock price, a potential solution (and more cameras) are on the way.

Members of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratories (RAL) space engineering team with the high resolution UrtheCast video camera just before it was shipped to Moscow for interface integration and launch to the ISS in November, 2013. RAL, part of the UK based Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), built both the medium resolution (with the ability to image five metre ground objects) and the high resolution (able to image one metre ground objects) cameras. UrtheCast will distribute the software to operate the cameras and administer the project as part of an international agreement involving Russia, Canada, the United Kingdom and several other nations.  Photo c/o STFC.

As outlined in the July 16th, 2014 UrtheCast press release "UrtheCast Announces Commercial Availability Of Earth Imagery & Provides An Update On Its High-Resolution Camera," while the medium resolution camera (MRC), also known as “Theia,” is now fully operational, the HRC, also known as "Iris," has so far not achieved the level of precision required for UrtheCast to meet the target image quality requirements of commercial users.

In essence, the HRC doesn't work yet.

According to the press release, the UrtheCast engineering team, in partnership with RSC Energia engineers, believe they have "developed a solution to this problem using existing gyroscopes on the HRC to improve the BPP pointing control (the bi-axial pointing platform, which controls the direction and accuracy of the HRC). This solution has been successfully tested on the ground (but) the on-orbit implementation of this solution requires software updates and the installation of additional cabling inside the Zvezda module (where the cameras are located)."

A graphic showing the comparative locations of the high resolution camera (HRC), the bi-axial pointing platform (BPP), which controls the direction and accuracy of the HRC, and the medium resolution camera (MRC). The cameras are installed on an external portion of the Russian Zvezda ISS module.

But since the additional cables will need to be launched to the ISS from the ground, a several month delay is expected before the HRC can be commissioned and this is wreaking havoc with the publicly traded firm's stock price.

As outlined in the July 17th, 2014 Stackhouse article, "Urthecast (T.UR) dumps 22% on high resolution camera difficulties," the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSX) prices for UrtheCast shares initially continued an ongoing slide from their March 2014 high on news of the latest difficulties.

But by the next day, the market had stabilized, at least according to the July 18th, 2014 Cantech letter post "Buy Urthecast on weakness, says Clarus analyst Ofir," which quoted Clarus Securities analyst Eyal Ofir as stating that "the knee-jerk reaction in the share price to the HRC delay is short sighted and presents another buying opportunity for patient investors that are willing to take on the inherent volatility.”

The next great space race; UrtheCast daily stock prices in $CDN along with trading volumes covering the period from July 23rd, 2013 until July 17th, 2014. The stock peaked in March 4th, 2014 at just over $2.68 a share, well under the recently announced one year Clarus Securities target price of $5.50 CDN. As well, it's also worth noting the slight bump in both value and quantities of shares traded during the period between July 14th - 16th, 2014, around the time when the latest round of news on UrtheCast was released. Chart c/o Globe and Mail

Which sounds more complex than the HRC technical problems, although it likely isn't.

According to the article, the Clarus analyst did maintain his “speculative buy” rating and gave a $5.50 one-year target price, implying a return of over 300% within the next year, for those brave enough to take a chance.

But while the promise of high profits over a short period is indicative of the speculative nature of this new industry, this isn't the first spot of trouble UrtheCast has found itself in. Given the space environment in which it operates, it's likely not going to be the last.

Scott Larson. Photo c/o Alberta Venture.
As outlined in the January 28th, 2014 post "UrtheCast Cameras Reinstalled on ISS," the MRC required a second spacewalk by ISS astronauts Cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazanskiy and much work than was expected before it became operational earlier this year.

Of course, the ongoing work also suggests a strong potential, able to weather more than a few setbacks.

Even better, as outlined in the July 16th, 2014 UrtheCast press release, "UrtheCast & NanoRacks To Install Earth Observation Cameras On NASA Segment Of Space Station," the firm, in partnership with US based NanoRacks, has plans to install two additional Earth imaging sensors (a high resolution dual-mode optical/video camera and a high resolution dual-band synthetic aperture radar) in the US section of the ISS, in 2016.

According to UrtheCast CEO Scott Larson, “having additional sensors on the International Space Station not only mitigates our technology risk, but also adds to our current suite of cameras aboard the Station, improving upon the quality and quantity of data that we can offer our customers — for everything ranging from scientific research to resource monitoring.”

Welcome to NewSpace. It's full of thrills, chills and spills plus options to make up to any amount of money. Just watch your wallet.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Planetary Society is Launching a Lightsail

          by Sarah Ansari-Manea

The Planetary Society, a US based non-government, nonprofit organization involved in research and engineering projects related to astronomy, planetary science, exploration, public outreach and political advocacy, has announced the launch dates of their exciting, and long awaited LightSail mission.

Once in space, it will become the world’s first CubeSat to “fly by light."

The CubeSat, along with parent satellite, Prox-1, will be launched on board a SpaceX Falcon Heavy, in April 2016, according to the July 9th, 2014 Planetary Society press release "LightSail has a launch date!"

Over $4Mln USD was raised for the LightSail-1 mission by the Planetary Society, which compares well with other recent publicly funded private space initiatives such as the ISEE-3 Reboot Project (which raised $160,000 USD earlier this year via crowd funding service RocketHub to reactivate and utilize a 1970's era NASA satellite) and the 2013 initiative from Planetary Resources (which raised $1.5Mln via Kickstarter for its Arkyd space telescope).

Bill Nye. Photo c/o Planetary Society.
The United States Air Force, and Georgia Institute of Technology, responsible for developing the Prox-1, will cover the launch costs according to the July 10th, 2014 Universe Today article, "The Planetary Society’s Solar Sail Will Hitch a Ride to Space on a Falcon Heavy."

It's fantastic that at last we have a launch date for this pioneering mission,” said Planetary Society CEO Bill ("the science guy") Nye. “When I was in engineering school, I read the book about solar sailing by my predecessor, Society co-founder Louis Friedman. But the dream of sailing on light alone goes back much further.

According to the July 10th, 2014 Planetary Society blog post "LightSail update: Launch dates," the LightSail-1 will start out as a two-unit cube-sat, composed of a parent (Prox-1) plus a solar sailing cube-sat (LightSail-B).

The post references Jason Davis of the Planetary Society, who explained the specifications of the mission further: “Prox-1 and LightSail-B will be released into a circular orbit with an altitude of 720 kilometers (450 miles). After spending a couple weeks going through various checkouts, Prox-1 will release LightSail-B. Prox-1 will then rendezvous with LightSail-B using a thermal imaging camera for navigation, flying as close as 50 meters."

A second cube-sat (Lightsail-A), identical to Lightsail-B, could also potentially be launched on board a US Air Force Atlas V flight as part of NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) program for preliminary testing in April 2015.

The Planetary Society’s decade long dream to fly by light was delayed, but not destroyed back in 2005. The Cosmos 1 spacecraft, destined to launch from a rocket off a Russian submarine, had technical difficulties, which caused the rocket’s engine to flame out prematurely, dooming the spacecraft. If successful, Cosmos 1 would have been the first successful solar sail in space.

Of course, that honour was finally won by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) on May 21st, 2010, when the agency launched the Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation Of the Sun (IKAROS) spacecraft, which deployed a 200 square metre polyimide experimental solar sail on June 10th. Solar pressure has also been used as a method to conserve attitude-control propellant and tested as a means of de-orbiting dead satellites and space debris.

In essence, solar sailing has its many benefits and can prove to be incredibly advantageous over the current chemical rockets used. From the endless amount of sunlight necessary to propel spacecrafts, to the greatly reduced weight from carrying fuel, it is said by many that it is proving to be “the only practical way to reach other stars.

Sarah Ansari-Manea.
The Planetary Society continues to demonstrate and help lead the charge in awareness for space exploration, and their latest mission is already inspiring a new generation of universities and organizations wanting to send their own, privately funded, miniaturized satellites into space.

Sarah Ansari-Manea is an aspiring astrophysicist, currently completing a specialist in physics and astronomy at the University of Toronto.