Thursday, December 18, 2014

Roscosmos is Assessing its Future Programs

          by Brian Orlotti

Oleg Ostapenk. Photo c/o NASA.
A series of recent, and often contradictory news reports, originating from Russian media outlets and picked up by western media, are only the latest signs that the Russia's space industry is jockeying for position in anticipation of updates to its long-term space exploration plan.

This new plan is expected to be formally released in time for the 2015 International Aviation and Space Salon (MAKS2015), which will be held in Moscow from August 25th - 30th, 2015.

The most recent articles, as outlined in the December 15th, 2014 Sputnik Today post "Plans to Create Russian National Orbital Station Confirmed," and the December 16th, 2014 Russia Beyond the Headlines post "Roscosmos: Russia to prioritize studies of Moon, Mars, response to asteroid threat in 2016-2025," focused on a series of public comments from Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) head Oleg Ostapenk, who was quoted as "keeping all doors open" for new programs within the context of three major options:
  • Designing and building a brand new, Russian led, space station in a low Earth orbit at an orbital inclination of 64 degrees, using surplus modules originally designed for the ISS, but never attached. The slightly higher orbital inclination, when compared to the ISS (which has an orbital inclination of 51.6 degrees) will allow the proposed station to image more northerly Russian territory. 
  • Designing and building a brand new, Russian led, space station in low Earth orbit with an orbital inclination of 51.6 degrees, the same as the ISS, in order to simplify transfers between the two stations. 
Of course, a number of other options are also on the table. These include a potential high altitude space station, which could serve as a base of operations for a revived Russian manned lunar program and a new, super heavy Russian rocket.

Ostapenk also said that the “Roscosmos budget will not be cut, despite all financial difficulties. But I’m not going to make the sum public until it gets approval.” As outlined in the October 4th, 2014 Economist article, "On the edge of recession," the Russian economy has been contracting for some time. The 2014 budget for Roscosmos was 165.8Bln rubles ($3.5Bln CDN) which already compares poorly with NASA's 2014 budget of $17.6Bln US ($20.4Bln CDN).

Of course, it's unlikely that Russia and Roscosmos will embark on a completely new and totally uncooperative direction. For example, the December 16th, 2014 Russia Today article, "US Orion, Russia’s future spacecraft ‘to be compatible for safety," discussed the recent agreement between Russian spacecraft producer Energia and US aerospace firm Lockheed Martin, to develop a compatible docking so that "Russian and American space explorers can help each other in an emergency."

As outlined on the Russian Space web article, "Russia details its grand space strategy in 2010s; New deep-space ships, big rockets and nuclear space tugs are promised at the Moscow air show," the last official Russian space plan, released to the public as part of the 2013 International Aviation and Space Salon (MAKS2013), set out a 30-year road-map in which human space exploration expanded outwards from the ISS to a crewed outpost at one of the Lagrangian points near the Moon.

The plan would have then forked into two paths: one leading to a crewed Lunar base followed by visits to asteroids by the 2030s---the other reaching the same goals, but in reverse order. Both paths would have culminated with a human landing on Mars by around 2040.

Roscosmos, envisioned the LaGrange and Lunar outposts as joint projects with other space-faring nations, including the US, Canada, and the EU. Unfortunately, soured relations between Russia and the West over issues like the Syrian Civil War, Iran, and Russia's annexation of the Crimea have led to increasing calls (in both Russia and the US) for a return to fully independent national space programs.

Whether Russian and Western governments are willing to provide funding increases to their respective space programs for independent missions to the Moon and Mars remains an open question. Although Russia has capitalized on an oil-fueled economic boom to boost funding of its space program over the last few years, the recent drop in global oil prices may put the brakes on this revival.

We now see in both the US and Russian space programs a common pattern. Governments lay down ambitious space goals, companies then vie with each other for lucrative contracts to achieve these goals, only to have governments cancel programs and shift goals years later. This pattern becomes a self-perpetuating cycle whose result is always the same: humanity remaining an Earth-bound species.

Brian Orlotti.
Perhaps the Russian and US space programs are now more alike than either would care to admit.

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

Monday, December 15, 2014

US and French Politicians Demand Domestic Launch Providers

          by Chuck Black

A scandalized sénateur Gournac. Photo c/o LUDOVIC/REA/LUDOVIC/REA.
Unlike Canada, where we officially outsource our space launches to the lowest bidder, politicians from both France and the United States have publicly rebuked any suggestion that they shouldn't "buy local," when it comes to their launch providers, even if the cost of launch ends up being much, much higher.

As outlined in the December 12th, 2014 SpaceNews article "Airbus Upbraided for Shopping SpaceX," French senator Alain Gournac, a veteran member of the French Parliamentary Space Group, called the very thought of launching a French telecommunications satellite on a US built SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket “scandalous" and "unacceptable.”

The article also suggested that competition from SpaceX is more than a little responsible for "single-handedly" causing the ESA to invest €4Bln euros ($5.8Bln CDN) into the new Ariane 6 launch vehicle in order to effectively compete with the SpaceX offering.

The satellite in question is part of the European Data Relay Service (EDRS), a planned constellation of geosynchronous orbit (GEO) communications satellites which will relay information and data between other spacecraft, unmanned aerial vehicle's (UAV), and ground stations. EDRS is being implemented as a public private partnership (PPP) between the twenty nation European Space Agency (ESA) and private partner Airbus Defence & Space with Airbus holding responsibility for deciding on the launch provider.

Initial rumours suggested that Airbus was approaching a variety of low cost providers such as SpaceX. but Airbus issued a press release later on the same day, Airbus responded to the rumours by indicating that it had not signed a contract with SpaceX for EDRS, and would soon enter negotiations with ESA and with French based Arianespace for the launch.

US president Obama. Photo c/o Forward Progressives.
Also on that same day, the American's were busy defending the long term viability of their domestic launch capability. 

As outlined in the December 12th, 2014 Los Angeles Times article "Congress OKs bill banning purchases of Russian-made rocket engines," the US Senate "voted 89-11 to approve a bill Friday that would ban the Pentagon from awarding future rocket launch contracts to firms using Russian engines."

The article also said that, "the ban is a blow to the Boeing-Lockheed venture called United Launch Alliance (ULA), which has relied on using the (RD-180) Russian (rocket) engines under an exclusive and expensive deal it has had with the Air Force since 2006."

But while the measure had already passed the US House of Representatives and was expected to be signed into law by US president Barack Obama, ULA did succeed at weakening the bill to allow the use Russian engines already in its inventory. ULA had purchased a number of RD-180 rocket engines from the Russians, which it says is enough for military launches over the next two years, and wanted to expend its existing inventory before building a domestically produced replacement. 

Curiously enough, the bill is perceived of as being another victory for Hawthorne, CA based SpaceX, which wants at least some of the US Air Force's satellite launching business. As outlined in the December 11th, 2014 Bloomberg article, "Musk’s SpaceX Closer to Certification for Launches, U.S. Says," SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is close to winning the certification his company needs to begin launching satellites for the US military.

Musk is a South Africa-born, Canadian American business magnate, engineer and investor who received his Canadian citizenship in 1988 at the age of 17 and attended Queens University in Kingston, ON for two years before transferring to the University of Pennsylvania in 1992 and becoming an American citizen in 2002.

Given the circumstances, this would seem to have been a smart choice. No one sane in this industry ever seems to stay in Canada.

COM DEV Buys a Scottish Microwave Equipment Manufacturer

          by Chuck Black

It's not quite the anticipated size, nor is it in the expected region, but Cambridge, ON based COM DEV International (COM DEV) has made the first of a promised series of international acquisitions in order to grow the company and gain access to foreign markets. 

According to the December 12th, 2014 company press release, "COM DEV Announces Acquisition," the firm has purchased MESL Microwave Ltd. of Edinburgh, Scotland for £12.8Mln ($23.3Mln CDN).

The MESL acquisition will provide an entryway into the lucrative European market and is expected to build on COM DEV’s 30-year history of United Kingdom operations. MESL makes microwave components and subsystems for the radar, communications, defence and aerospace industries.

According to Rob Spurrett, the president of COM DEV International Systems:
Cross-party support from within government for the UK’s Space Innovation and Growth Strategy, and the leadership of the UK Space Agency and Innovate UK have shown us that the UK is serious about exploiting the potential of the space industry for the long term. The UK is a great place to develop new technology thanks to the incentives that are available, and the UK’s increasing commitment to the European Space Agency and other international partnerships.
And Spurrett might just have a point. Great Britain has been a great place to own a space company over the last five years and one of the reasons for this is a government planning document called the UK Space Innovation and Growth Strategy (2010 - 2030).

Written in 2010 by a joint UK government and industry group known as the Space Innovation and Growth Team (Space IGT), the plan defined a series of steps needed to boost UK space industry exports from £2Bln ($3.64Bln CDN) to £25bn ($45.6Bln CDN) per annum and add an additional 100,000 new jobs to the sector by 2030.

The document led directly to the creation of the UK Space Agency (UKSA) to help co-ordinate government support for the plan. It currently enjoys broad bi-partisan support within the UK and seems to be on track to vastly expand UK space activities over the next two decades.

Six months ago COM DEV announced that it was looking to retrace the path of Richmond, BC based MacDonald Dettwiler (MDA), which used its 2012 acquisition of US based satellite manufacturer Space Systems Loral (SSL) to double in size, drive up its stock price and gain access into a variety of lucrative US military and commercial space markets.

As outlined in the June 6th, 2014 post "The "Three Kings" of CDN Commercial Space Prepare for Changes," COM DEV had a number of potential acquisitions in preparation then, and hoped to announce the first of several before the end of the fiscal year.

Most observers were expecting the firm to make its initial foray into the larger but slower growing US market. That may happen in the future, but for now, the choice to make a smaller investment into a faster growing market with more potential upside, seems like the prudent choice.

Happy Holidays, COM DEV.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Engineering Expertise, Marketing Knowledge & Business Acumen Each Needed for "Beaver" Crowd Funding

          by Brian Orlotti

An Ontario company has launched an ambitious crowd funding campaign for a Canadian mission to Mars in late 2018. However, much like another recent Canadian effort in this area, a lack of business acumen and marketing knowledge seems to have derailed plans generated by acknowledged engineering experts.

Since beginning its November 4th, 2014 Indiegogo campaign for the "Northern Light Mission to Mars," North York, Ontario based Thoth Technology has managed to raise only a little more than $9,000 CDN of its listed $1,1Mln CDN goal. The campaign, scheduled to close out on January 3rd, 2015, is focused on funding the delivery of a lander and a 6 kg micro-rover called "Beaver," to the distant Martian surface.

The plan is for the Northern Light's lander and rover to carry a variety of instruments for studying Mars' atmosphere, surface and subsurface geology. The lander is expected to feature an infrared spectrometer for examining the Martian atmosphere for bio-marker gases like methane (a possible indicator of life) as well as classifying rocks and minerals and includes a robotic arm and grinding tool to assist with these tasks.

The Beaver micro-rover is also projected to carry an infrared camera able to study Mars' surface features and analyse surface boulders. Designed to operate almost fully autonomously during its projected 90-day mission, Beaver is expected to rely on its sensors to provide information on hazards and obstacles, then use an algorithm to select its next destination.

Thoth was founded in 2001 by Dr. Brendan Quine, a professor of space engineering & planetary physics at York University, and Dr. Caroline Roberts, a technical writing instructor at York University’s Lassonde School of Engineering, to commercialize the Argus family of infrared spectrometers developed at York University. Thoth's product lineup also includes the Argus-derived Aurora infrared camera as well as the IBIS flight computer.

These are useful and well designed camera's with flight heritage, something most other Canadian companies cannot claim. In 2008, an Argus spectrometer was even launched into space on the University of Toronto Institute of Aerospace Studies (UTIAS) Space Flight Laboratory (SFL) CanX-2 nano-satellite to monitor greenhouse gasses in Earth's upper atmosphere.

Thoth is also a provider of space services. It offers thermal vacuum and vibration testing services (utilizing York University facilities and equipment), spectral analysis simulation and space tracking/communications services via the Algonquin Radio Observatory (a re-purposed 1960's Northern Ontario facility purchased by Thoth in 2008).

Given its scientific and engineering expertise, plus its existing flight heritage, the project's lack of traction appears to be the result of the same mistake made by another Canadian space crowd funding campaign held earlier this year.

Two useful tools from Thoth Technology. On the left is an Argus IR spectrometer. On the right is an Aurora line-scan camera. Both items are available commercially. Photo's c/o Thoth Technology.

As first discussed in the September 7th, 2014 post "Open Space Orbital Post Mortem: Lessons Learned & Moving Forward," product/project teams need to spend time building up a following on social (and other forms of) media prior to launching a crowd funding campaign.

The most successful crowd funding campaigns, such as the ISEE-3 Reboot Project (which raised $160,000 USD to re-establish a ground connection with the retired International Sun/Earth Explorer 3 spacecraft), the Pebble smartwatch (which raised over $10.3Mln USD as part of a kickstarter campaign initially intended to raise only $100,000 USD), and the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset (which raised almost $3.5Mln USD during a kickstarter campaign originally intended to raise only $250,000 USD) each held aggressive social media campaigns prior to their start. The brand awareness and goodwill gained via social media fueled these projects' success.

Such groundwork is not only being done by start-ups, but also, increasingly, by large firms.

In a recent example, Shomi, a Canadian streaming video on demand (SVOD) service (part of Rogers Inc.), launched in November to great success. For three months prior to launch, the company made extensive use of social media (primarily Facebook and Twitter) to promote brand awareness and elicit public feedback. (Note: the author is employed by Shomi and his comments do not reflect the views of Shomi or Rogers Inc).

Thoth's lack of in-house marketing expertise may hamper its current crowd funding campaign, but certainly shouldn't preclude future efforts. However, in order to succeed, space crowd funding efforts need to include a broader skill-set; sales and marketing alongside science and engineering.

Brian Orlotti.
Embracing a broader pool of talent will broaden space crowd funding's success.

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