Monday, February 27, 2017

VASIMR Moves Forward; Franklin Chang-Diaz Remains Unbowed

          By Brian Orlotti

The Ad Astra Rocket Company's (AARC) variable specific impulse magneto-plasma rocket engine (VASIMR) has reached a major milestone towards fulfilling its NASA contract. As outlined in the February 23rd, 2017 ArsTechnica UK post, "NASA’s longshot bet on a revolutionary rocket may be about to pay off," VASIMR has been fired at 100kW for 10 seconds and at 50kW for one minute.

Now, reaping the fruits of perseverance after years of criticism, the engine’s designer stands on the verge of opening up more of the solar system to humanity.


Of course, the company still has much to do. 

In 2015, under NASA’s NEXTSTep program, AARC was awarded a three-year, $9Mln USD ($11.8Mln CDN) contract. To fulfill the contract, AARC must fire VASIMR for 100 hours at a power level of 100 kilowatts by 2018.

The VASIMR engine uses radio waves to heat and ionize a propellant (currently, argon gas), turning it into into a plasma, which is then accelerated by magnetic fields to generate thrust. The plasma provides a constant and efficient thrust, building up speed over time.

VASIMIR’s primary advantage over traditional chemical rockets is efficiency; various studies have concluded that a VASIMIR engine would use up to 90% less fuel while carrying equivalent tonnage to chemical rockets. This efficiency could greatly reduce mission costs, significantly improving the economics of spaceflight.

VASIMR is the creation of Dr. Franklin Chang-Díaz, a former NASA Space Shuttle astronaut with seven missions under his belt. In 1969, Chang-Diaz, speaking almost no English at the time, immigrated to the United States from Costa Rica to finish high school. He then earned a doctorate in plasma physics from the MIT. As of 2014, Chang-Díaz is on record (tied with Jerry Ross) for the most spaceflights. Photo c/o AARC.

In 2005, Chang-Diaz founded AARC in Houston, TX to privatize the VASIMIR engine after years of development work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and NASA. In 2013, AARC ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for developing a documentary about VASIMR, with 603 backers pledging over $76,746 USD (over $100K CDN).

A key Canadian connection to VASIMR exists. Nautel Ltd., a Nova Scotia-based firm specializing in AM/FM transmitters and radio navigational aids, built the solid-state radio emitters used in VASIMIR to heat the xenon gas into plasma. 

Nautel is also known for being the first company to develop a commercially available fully solid state broadcast transmitter and was first profiled in the November 7th, 2009 post, "Our Next Real Canadian Rocket Scientists."

Of course, Chang-Diaz has faced various challenges working toward his goals. For the past several years, he has also been engaged in a bitter, but mostly one way feud, with Mars Society President Robert Zubrin.


Zubrin penned an acidic July 11th, 2011 SpaceNews article titled, ‘The VASIMR Hoax,’ in which he referred to VASIMR as a “hyper drive” and a “hoax” which “must be exposed.” Zubrin has frequently used invitational "debates" at Mars Society conferences to question the capabilities of VASIMR, using Chang-Diaz’s absences as pretexts to slander him.

As outlined in the August 1st, 2011 Space Review article "VASIMR and a new war of the currents," Zubrin, in typically chauvinist and histrionic style, has often attacked VASIMR on technical and ideological grounds.

Zubrin’s main criticisms of VASIMR are that it is less efficient than other types of electric thrusters, requiring unrealistically efficient power sources, and that electric propulsion is unnecessary to reach Mars (and therefore should not be funded).

Chang-Diaz has kept his poise throughout, never stooping to Zubrin’s level. In the Ars Technica article, Chang-Diaz does admit that large but manageable solar arrays would be needed to provide the 1 megawatt of energy needed to power VASIMR.

However, this assumes solar energy levels at Earth’s distance from the Sun. Because solar energy quickly decreases beyond Mars, a solar-powered VASIMR will only be viable within the inner Solar System. Within these limits, however, the technology would still retain its advantages over chemical propulsion.

For travel beyond Mars, Chang-Diaz frankly admits that a nuclear power source will be needed to bring VASIMR to its full potential.

William Ernest Henley from his short poem "Invictus." Graphic c/o izquotes.

Over the years, Chang-Diaz has persevered with his creation through trying obstacles; the endless hustle of fundraising, NASA politics and the parochial pedantry of the space advocacy movement.

In addition, the fact that his goals are nearing fruition amidst a rising tide of hatred and intolerance in the US toward immigrants, particularly Spanish-speaking ones, is of no small significance.

His story is an example of the energy and enlightenment that immigrants bring to other lands.
Brian Orlotti.
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Brian Orlotti is a network administrator at KPMG and a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Where's Canada's "Ministry of Space?"

          By Brian Orlotti

The UK government has announced upcoming legislation to allow spaceports to be built in the United Kingdom; enabling the country, for the first time, to launch its home-built satellites from its own soil.

But the move calls Canada’s own longstanding space policies into question since, much like the UK, the Great White North has also long been unable to launch its own pioneering homegrown spacecraft and has suffered for it.

The new spaceport initiative enjoys broad support throughout the UK, even among tabloid readers. As outlined in the February 20th, 2017 The Sun post, "START SAVING NOW! You could fly to SPACE from the UK within three years as plans for space port are unveiled," the specifics of the new Spaceflight Bill "will be revealed in Parliament this week." Graphic c/o The Sun.

As outlined in the February 20th, 2017 UK government press release, "New legal powers could send UK scientists into space to research vaccines and medicines," the new legislation, called "The Spaceflight Bill," calls for commercial spaceports to be established across the UK beginning in 2020.

These spaceports will provide a variety of services, from satellite launches to space tourism to zero-gravity research.

The Spaceflight Bill builds upon a £10 million GBP ($16.3Mln CDN) grant announced earlier this month by the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to create an environment in which the UK’s commercial space sector can thrive.

UK Lord Ahmad. Photo c/o UK Government.
Next steps will involve the UK government encouraging industry to come forward with specific proposals for space launches.

After introduction of the Bill later this year, rules and regulations will be developed for space operators i.e. safety and insurance matters. In addition, the UK government will invite individual commercial space firms to solicit funding to help kick-start a UK space launch industry.

The press release also quoted UK Aviation Minister Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon as stating:
The UK’s space sector is the future of the British economy. It already employs thousands of people and supports industries worth more than £250 million to the economy, and we want to grow it further. Forty years ago, meteorologists couldn’t have imagined the importance of satellites for predicting the weather. Today over 90% of data used in every forecast comes from a satellite, with hundreds of other applications used in GPS, telecommunications and broadband. 
We have never launched a spaceflight before from this country. Our ambition is to allow for safe and competitive access to space from the UK, so we remain at the forefront of a new commercial space age, for the next 40 years.
The UK could have pioneered manned spaceflight in the 1950's,  landed on the Moon in 1957 and established a 700 person colony on Mars by 1969 according to Warren Ellis in his "Ministry of Space" graphic novels. Artwork c/o Chris Weston/  Image Comics.

In his influential 2001 - 2003 graphic novel series, "Ministry of Space," British writer Warren Ellis posits an alternate history in which the UK captured the German rocket base at Peenemünde in World War II before the US and the Soviet Union, and brought all the key personnel and technology to Britain.

The graphic novel mirrored the real-life Operation Paperclip, a secretive United States Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency (JIOA) program in which more than 1,600 German scientists, engineers, and technicians were brought to the United States for government employment from post-Nazi Germany.

Upon this foundation, a new "Ministry of Space" is established to pursue the development of British space technology. Eventually, the ministry forges a new off-world British Empire, ushering an age of unparalleled prestige and prosperity for Britain.

Canada, with its own federal space program withering and its space industry unable to launch its own products despite possessing a skilled scientific and industrial base, stands at its own crossroads. The UK has chosen to see space as a path back to prosperity, not an expense to be minimized.

What choice will Canada make? When will our "Ministry of Space" emerge?
Brian Orlotti.
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Brian Orlotti is a network administrator at KPMG and a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

Monday, February 20, 2017

DigitalGlobe in "Buyout Talks" With MacDonald Dettwiler, 17 New CSA "Enabling Technologies" & the 2017 NSERC Awards

          By Henry Stewart

For the week of February 20th, 2017, here are a few of the stories we're currently tracking for the Commercial Space blog:

An overview of Digitalglobe stock price on February 17th, 2017, when the news broke that MDA might be attempting to buy the company. As would be expected, Digitalglobe shares went up in heavy trading on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) after the story broke. MDA's shares were down slightly on the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSX). Both the NYSE and the TSX were closed for holidays on Monday but will reopen on Tuesday. Graphic c/o Marketwatch.
The February 17th, 2017 Reuters post, "Canada's MacDonald Dettwiler to buy DigitalGlobe: Dow Jones," quoted unnamed sources as stating that a final deal would close for about $2Bln - $3Bln USD ($2.6Bln - $3.9Bln CDN). 
But Dow Jones was also hedging its bets on the validity of its source. As outlined in the post, "financial conditions of the deal couldn't be learned and it is also possible that talks might fall apart before a decision is reached, the Dow Jones report said." 
DigitalGlobe’s current market cap is approximately $1.8Bln US ($2.4Bln CDN). 
Curiously enough, both MDA and Digitalglobe, as publicly traded corporations, will be holding their quarterly conference earnings calls over the next week. DigitalGlobe is set to report its full year and fourth quarter 2016 financial results on Monday, February 27th, 2017 and MDA will release its fourth quarter and year end financial results on Thursday, February 23rd, 2017. 
Perhaps by then, the real situation will begin to shake out. 

Screenshot c/o Buyandsell.gc.ca.

  • The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) has issued a letter of interest (LOI) for seventeen "enabling technologies," needed in order to facilitate Canadian contributions to a variety of potential international space missions.
As outlined in the February 16th, 2017 Buyandsell.gc.ca listing, "Development of enabling space technologies - Letter of interest (9F063-160864/A)," the LOI will focus on the development and improvement of technologies able to reach CSA "technology readiness level TRL 6." 
TRL-6, as defined by the CSA, normally includes the development of "a representative model or prototype system," suitable for testing and showing off to potential customers.
The technologies identified under the program include upgrades of existing technology relating to Earth imaging, space medicine and rover technologies. The LOI includes time-frame, beginning and ending tech-levels and estimated budgets once the programs are underway,
Budgets range from $75 - $100K CDN (for the "development of technology that will help to secure Canada’s position as leader of inspace biological sample analysis in support of space research and health monitoring") to $1 - $1.3Mln CDN (for the "development of an advanced low frequency power amplifier for the harsh space environment around Mars"). 
The CSA normally defines "enabling technologies" as components or subsystems of space missions organized by other nations and/or private companies, which the CSA will commit to developing in order to be allowed to participate in the mission.
Funding for the development of "enabling technologies" are normally allocated under the CSA's space technologies development program (STDP).

Seven short videos, highlighting several of the 2017 winners were posted (but with very little fanfare) to the 2017 NSERC Prizes You-Tube page on February 7th, 2017. That's a bit of a shame since the individual awards focus on useful accomplishments from Federally funded scientists and are well worth celebrating.
This years winners include:
  • Sylvain Moineau, from the Université Laval, who received the 2017 John C. Polanyi Award for playing a leading role in the international collaboration which identified the adaptive immunity system known as CRISPR-Cas, found in about half of all bacteria. 
  • André Longtin and Leonard Maler, from the University of Ottawa, who received the 2017 Brockhouse Canada Prize for interdisciplinary research in science and engineering, for combining their expertise in physics, mathematics and neurobiology to uncover the neural code that underlies the operation of the brain. 
For a complete listing of the 2017 NSERC prizes and their winners, check out the February 7th, 2017 "NSERC Prizes page."
For more, check out future posts in the Commercial Space blog.
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Henry Stewart is the pseudonym of a Toronto based aerospace writer.

Those Pesky Kids at Kepler Communications

          By Chuck Black

The future of Canada's space efforts, and the growth of its telecommunications infrastructure, is suddenly a lot less reliant on Canadian government initiatives and foreign controlled multinationals.

Toronto, Ontario based, Kepler Communications has contracted Amsterdam based Innovative Space Logistics to launch their first nano-satellite, using an Indian polar satellite launch vehicle (PSLV), from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, in November 2017.

Some of the "pesky kids" at Kepler include, from left to right: Nick Spina, Stephen Lau, Mina Mitry, Mark Michael, Wen Cheng Chong and Jeffrey Osborne. As outlined in the January 26th, 2017 Xconomy post "Techstars Picks 9 Startups for Seattle, Complementing Local Strength," Kepler, a graduate of the Techstars Seattle 2016 program, was the accelerator's first investment in the space sector, but was considered so successful that Techstars is actively looking for more space focused start-ups for their 2018 program. Photo c/o Kepler Communications.

As outlined in the February 16th, 2017 Kepler press release, "Kepler Contracts Innovative Space Logistics for Inaugural Mission" the mission will serve as a technology demonstration of Kepler's Ku-band software defined radio (SDR) and high gain antenna.

Kepler plans to use the technology as the backbone for a proposed constellation of "up to 140" low-Earth nano-satellites, placed in a variety of orbits for use as low cost satellite data re-transmitters. As outlined in the November 20th, 2016 post, " SpaceX, Telesat & Kepler Just Three of the Dozen Satellite Constellations Currently on the FCC Table," the company plans on targeting the fast growing machine-to-machine communications market currently growing up around "internet of things" applications and not the conventional terrestrial telecommunications market.

One hard to reach place where Kepler expects demand is in Canada's far north, particularly satellite-dependent Nunavut. As outlined in the February 16th, 2016 Financial Post article, "Cellphone towers in space: Startup Kepler Communications plans first Canadian nanosatellite launch," the company was co-founded by Samer Bishay, who also owns both Iristel, a Montreal based  provider of voice over internet protocol services, and Ice Wireless, a Canadian mobile network operator and telecommunications company that provides 3G/4G mobility services, mobile broadband internet, and fixed line telephone in the territories of Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

Bishay "absolutely" plans to use the Kepler nano-satellites to improve wireless and internet service in the north, according to the article. "What we're providing is the data pipe basically... with satellite connectivity it helps remote communities where infrastructure like fibre would be very expensive to deploy."

The Kepler Ku-band repeater. According to Kepler CEO Mina Mitry, the upcoming flight in November, will launch "the first commercial LEO communications satellite to operate in Ku-band, a coveted band within the communications service provider world. With the increasing interest in mega LEO constellations, being the first company to actually bring this spectrum into use is a major step forward for Kepler." The nano-satellite launch is expected to cost between $200K and 300K US ($262K and $393K CDN), one hundredth of the cost of a standard launch Photo c/o Kepler Communications.

According to Kepler CEO Mina Mitry, “in the most basic sense, we’re putting up cell phone towers in space that can pick up signals from on the ground and from assets in space.”

The initial micro-satellite will serve as a "proof-of-concept" and additional micro-satellites will be added to the constellation as required to service commercial demand.
Chuck Black.
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Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog.

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