Tuesday, January 17, 2017

UrtheCast Closes $180Mln OptiSAR Deal, SpaceX's Success, Canada's Contribution to SWOT & More Thirty Meter Telescope

          By Henry Stewart

Here are some of the items we're currently tracking for the Commercial Space blog:

Sales and promotion graphic from the UrtheCast website. According to the literature, "OptiSAR™ is designed to be the world’s first fully-integrated, multispectral optical and Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) constellation of Earth Observation satellites. Providing unprecedented capabilities, OptiSAR™ is aimed at solving real-world problems and creating tools for world change." It's worth noting that, when an Earth imaging company receives a contract from a "confidential government customer," that customer is likely to be tied into a national military or intelligence agency. Graphic c/o UrtheCast.
  • Vancouver, BC based UrtheCast has announced a "binding agreement" with a "confidential government customer" for the "sale and shared operation" of the first two satellites in the UrtheCast OptiSAR constellation, described by the company as "the world's first commercial EO constellation with integrated optical and Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) sensors." 
The announced value of contract is $180Mln USD ($235Mln CDN) but could include up to an additional $30Mln US (CDN) for "products and services related to the sale of the satellites, contingent on the parties reaching mutual agreement on the final scope of these deliverables."
As outlined in the January 17th, 2017 UrtheCast press release, "UrtheCast Enters into Binding Agreement Worth US$180 Million to Sell and Operate Two Satellites in the OptiSAR™ Constellation," the sale could "accelerate the negotiation of similar agreements with other customers for the purchase of the remaining satellites."
But the agreement is also subject to a number of conditions. 
As outlined in the press release, those conditions include, "UrtheCast obtaining the necessary customer commitments to allow for the build, launch and financing of the first eight satellites in the Constellation, the Customer obtaining within the next 12 months the funding for its payment obligations, the parties reaching mutual agreement on the detailed procedures for the shared operation and tasking of the two satellites, and other customary covenants and regulatory approvals for agreements of this nature."

Ten critical minutes of the SpaceX Falcon-9 return to flight on January 14th, 2017. Screenshot c/o SpaceX/ You-Tube
  • They said there was a lot riding on the flight and there may have been. But it didn't need to fly on that specific day (it had been delayed previously) and the SpaceX Falcon-9R rocket certainly didn't need to return to Earth, "as God and John W. Cambell intended," on its tail and ready for reuse after a soft landing on the drone-ship "Just Read the Instructions." 
But that's exactly what happened. As outlined in the January 15th, 2017 CBC News post, "SpaceX launches 1st rocket since explosion in Florida,"the two-stage SpaceX rocket "lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base at 9:54 a.m. ET carrying a payload for Iridium Communications Inc., which is replacing its entire global network with 70 next-generation satellites."
And, "about nine minutes after the rocket blasted off, to cheers from the control room, its jettisoned first stage landed upright on a so-called droneship in the Pacific Ocean south of Vandenberg — part of Spacex's effort to make boosters reusable."
The Canadian connection to the launch was mostly covered in the January 3rd, 2017 post, "SpaceX Pad Explosion Investigation Concluded; Iridium Launch Scheduled January 8th," and included the first four of exactEarth's next generation constellation, exactView™ RT powered by Harris, as outlined in the January 16th, 2017 exactEarth post, "exactEarth Announces Successful Initial Launch for its Second Generation Real-Time Constellation."
But the title of that January 3rd, 2017 post was also a reminder that the commercial space rocketry industry is a lot like the US rail system, which is often delayed.  
This was the first launch for SpaceX this year and first since a Falcon 9 exploded on the pad in September last year. SpaceX will attempt to launch 27 rockets in 2017, more than triple the eight flights the privately held firm managed in 2016.
An overview of the Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) mission presented during the 2011 IEEE International Geoscience and Remote Sensing Sensing Symposium (IGARSS), which was organized by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and took place in Vancouver, BC from July 25th - 29th, 2011. To view the complete presentation, simply click on the illustration above. Image c/o IGARSS 2011.
As outlined in the January 16th, 2017 Waterworld post, "Canadian Space Agency to Provide Components for Survey of Earth's Surface Waters," the Canadian contribution to this international mission is "a set of extended interaction klystrons (EIKs) built by CPI. The high-power EIKs will be used to generate microwave pulses to collect precise water measurements." 
CPI is well known for its expertise in this area and no other firms have built and flown EIKs. In exchange for the contribution, Canadian scientists will have early access to SWOT data and scientific expertise.
As outlined in the August 18th, 2014 CSA press release, "The Government of Canada Announces investment in innovative Mapping System for First-Ever Global Surface Water Survey," this is the second grant provided by the Canadian government to support the mission. The Conservative government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper provided an initial $3.3Mln CDN grant to CPI in 2014.
As outlined in the November 23rd, 2016 Spaceflight. 101 post, "SpaceX wins NASA Launch Contract for Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) Mission," SWOT is a  "cooperative effort between NASA and the French Space Agency CNES with the spacecraft currently under construction at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory." 
The total cost of the mission is expected to be approximately to $1.1Bln USD ($1.45Bln CDN) including launch and operational costs. 
The SWOT Canadian science component will be led by teams from Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) and Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO).
Culture vs. Science. This April 2015 photo shows protesters on Mauna Kea attempting to halt construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope. Photo c/o Irtiqa.
  • The embattled $1.4Bln US ($1.84Bln CDN) Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) project has suffered another legal setback. 
As outlined in the January 10th, 2017 Hawaii News Now post, "TMT project could face hurdle with another contested case hearing," a local judge has ordered "yet another contested case hearing before construction on the $1.4 billion telescope can begin, but the state (of Hawaii, where construction is planned) intends to fight that ruling with an appeal in the next few weeks." 
Mauna Kea, where the TMT is currently scheduled to be constructed (and where thirteen other telescopes have already been built), is designated by Hawaii as conservation land under the direction of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. 
Although leased by the University of Hawaii, the university is required to obtain approval before subleasing it to others. 
In April, 2015, the Canadian government under then Prime Minister Stephen Harper committed $243.5Mln CDN to the project. But, as outlined in the December 6th, 2015 post, "Hawaii Supreme Court Rescinds Permit to Build Thirty Meter Telescope," the project began to unravel shortly afterwords. 
And, as outlined in the November 1st, 2016 post, "Thirty Meter Telescope Builders Choose Alternative Site To Mauna Kea In Hawaii," the consortium promoting the project has begun exploring alternative sites
For more, check out upcoming posts in the Commercial Space blog.

Henry Stewart is the pseudonym of a Toronto based aerospace writer.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Quantum Computing Is Real; A Canadian Company Now Offers Open-Source Tools & the Chinese are Building Spacecraft

          By Brian Orlotti

The Canadian company behind Google's quantum computer has released a new set of open source tools so coders can create software without needing an advanced physics degree.

D-Wave officials pose in front of one of their machines alongside American businessman and venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson (on the far right) in 2014. Photo c/o Steve Jurvetson.

As outlined in the January 11th, 2017 Wired post, "Quantum Computing Is Real, and D-Wave Just Open-Sourced It," the new tools were released to the public by Burnaby, BC based D-Wave Systems in order "to get more smart people thinking about applications."

As outlined in the article, the new tool, called Qbsolv, "is designed to help developers program D-Wave machines without needing a background in quantum physics. A few of D-Wave’s partners are already using the tool, but today the company released Qbsolv as open source, meaning anyone will be able to freely share and modify the software."

The goal, according to D-Wave International president Bo Ewald, is to "kickstart a quantum computing software tools ecosystem and foster a community of developers working on quantum computing problems. In recent years, open source software has been the best way to build communities of both independent developers and big corporate contributors."

D-Wave is only one of several dozen organizations included in the Wikipedia List Companies involved in Quantum Computing or Communication, who are attempting to develop quantum computing technology.

Although Canada remains a leader in this field, calls for greater investment in quantum and other leading internet technologies from other countries are becoming louder. And at least one country has taken the lead in developing space based assets to study quantum computer technologies.

China’s quantum satellite takes off from Jiuquan in Gansu provinceon on August 16th, 2016. As outlined in the August 22nd, 2016 Indian Express post, "In fact: Understanding Micius, Beijing’s big push for quantum security," the satellite is not the only satellite designed to study quantum effects. According to the article, that honour belongs to "SPEQS, a joint project of the National University of Singapore and the University of Strathclyde, which reported success in creating correlated photon pairs in orbit in May (2016)." Photo c/o China Daily via Reuters

In August 2016, China launched an experimental quantum communications satellite into orbit.

The Quantum Experiments at Space Scale (QUESS) satellite, also called Micius (after an ancient Chinese philosopher), will establish a quantum key distribution network and perform a series of quantum entanglement experiments in space over the next two years. 

Micius is part of the Quantum Science Satellite (QSS) program sponsored and managed by the China Academy of Sciences (CAS). The satellite’s payload was a joint development of the CAS’s Shanghai Institute of Technical Physics (SITP) and the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC).

Micius will also perform three sets of experiments. In the first phase, secure transmission of quantum data will be tested by beaming chains of photons containing a message from Micius to three ground stations at Beijing, Hainan and Xinjiang, to be processed by the National Space Science Centre (NSSC) of the CAS. These ground stations will then beam the photon chains (now containing an encrypted message) back to Micius, which will relay them to other ground stations for decryption.

The second and third phases will be more ambitious, focusing on the use of particle entanglement to enable long distance communications (using photons) without the need to transmit radio signals.

"So it is said that if you know others and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know others but know yourself, you win one and lose one; if you do not know others and do not know yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle." From The Art of War, by Sun Tzu.

QSS is a classic ‘dual-use’ program, with both civilian and military applications. While advancing research that could form the basis for the much-speculated "quantum internet," QSS will also advance quantum cryptography, communications and cyberwarfare capabilities for the Chinese military. 

China plans a constellation of quantum satellites by 2030, which will augment a ground-based quantum computer network, which will likely be extended from the currently operational 2,000 kilometer link between Beijing and Shanghai.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) also foresees quantum communications being used in combination with synthetic aperture radar (SAR) and optical reconnaissance satellites. 

The SAR and optical satellites would gather information on sea and ground-based targets in real-time and in all-weather conditions. Quantum communication satellites would then be used as data relays to securely transmit targeting data to and from command centers while evading interception. These capabilities would serve as a force multiplier, enabling air and naval superiority in contested areas.

Tony Lacavera looking pensive. Photo c/o Canadian Business.
The January 13th, 2016 Computer Dealer News post, "Globalive CEO Tony Lacavera on how Canada can become a leader in AI," quoted Tony Lacavera, the former CEO of Wind Mobile (now Freedom Mobile), and founder of tech angel investment firm Globalive Communications Corp., who felt that Canada has the potential to become a world leader in fields such as artificial intelligence, fintech, machine-learning, autonomous vehicles, and quantum computing, though its institutions must step up their efforts to fulfill it. 

Lacavera, who has helped finance at least two satellite companies (Toronto, ON based Kepler Communications and Vancouver, BC based UrtheCast) also said that Canada’s efforts must go beyond presentations and broad allocations of resources; Canada must narrow its actions and focus on areas where it can win.

Our traditional dependence on its close ties with the US for economic growth will soon be under threat by the incoming protectionist, ultra-nationalist Donald Trump Administration. China is independently pursuing new technologies to fuel future growth. 

Canada must do the same if it is to survive in the coming world. 
Brian Orlotti.

Brian Orlotti is a network administrator at KPMG and a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

The REAL Funding Opportunity Behind the Upcoming Canadian Space Agency "Long-Term Strategy"

          By Chuck  Black

Want to know why a "long-term strategy" for the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) is expected to be announced in June 2017?

Influential in 2012 but do their conclusions still matter in 2017? Emerson Aerospace Review advisory council members Sandra PupatelloDavid Emerson, Jim Quick and Jacques Roy in 2012. Photo c/o Aerospace Review

That's easy. The CSA's "key strategic priorities," need to be defined, assessed and costed out before the next CSA "five year investment plan" is approved in 2018 - 2019. The time-frame for those decisions were made in 2014, based on the findings of the 2012 David Emerson led Aerospace Review.

At least that's the story you get when reading the June 2015 Audit on Governance Report (Project #14/15 01-13), which was posted on the CSA website in February 2016 and the June, 2016 follow-up report under the title Management Action Plans Follow-up for Internal Audit Annual Report as of March 31st, 2016, which was posted on the CSA website on November 18th, 2016.

Both documents were created to measure Federal compliance with the second volume of the 2012 Aerospace Review, an arms length, independent assessment of the Canadian aerospace and space industry. The review was mostly (although not completely) adapted as Federal policy by both the current Justin Trudeau Liberal government and the previous Stephen Harper Conservative government.

As outlined in the June 2015 report:
2014 was a turning point for the organization (the CSA), when a large number of new structures and procedures were established in order to implement the recommendations set out in the report entitled Aerospace Review, Reaching Higher: Canada's Interests and Future in Space, November 2012 (volume two of the David Emerson led Aerospace Review). 
Although it is acknowledged that these new structures and procedures will still require some adjustment over time, they are nonetheless the basis for a new governance framework, the objective of which is to strengthen the oversight of CSA activities, improve decision-making and accountability reporting procedures, and more effectively fulfill the expectations of CSA stakeholders.
CSA president Sylvain Laporte outlined Canadian initiatives at the Heads of Agency Plenary, which took place during the 67th International Astronautical Congress (IAC 2016) in Guadalajara, Mexico from September 26th - 30th, 2016. Was the June 2015 Audit used as a guide for the current CSA president, who assumed office in April 2015? Video c/o IAC 2016.

Those new structures and procedures were designed to gain control over CSA finances and programs plus provide for stakeholder and public input into funding decisions. They included:
  • Three committees tasked with coordinating the Federal government's space focused priorities and requirements, including those originating with other government departments. They included the Deputy Ministers' Governance Committee on Space (DMGCS), which is co-chaired by a deputy minister and the CSA president; the Assistant Deputy Ministers' Space Program Integration Board (ADMSPIB) and the Director Generals' Space Program Integration Board (DGSPIB).
The plan defined the CSA president's responsibilities as being essentially equal to that of a deputy minister, since both would be needed to co-chair the DMGCS. 

Taken together, the committees were responsible for the fiscal and scientific aspects of developing five year fiscal and operating plans, which would allow the CSA to develop long-term, multi-year programs and partnerships with some assurance that money would continue to flow in a predictable manner.

The release of the February 2014 "Canada's Space Policy Framework," was considered to be one of the "noteworthy achievements of 2014," according to the June 2015 Audit. The summary of recommendations (Section 1.4) also listed the "adoption of a five-year investment plan (2014-2015 to 2018-2019), in accordance with Treasury Board of Canada policy, that will demonstrate how the CSA intends to soundly manage public funds over the next five years," plus "the adoption of by the CSA Executive Committee on February 5, 2014, of a new investment governance and monitoring framework and the implementation of procedures to improve investment oversight," and the "setting up of several new committees." Screenshot c/o CSA.

But the resulting structure also tied the CSA to a level of oversight more appropriate to its role as a subsidiary of a larger government department, rather than as the stand-alone ministry with direct access to the prime minister. Many, both inside and outside the CSA, considered the stand-alone ministry to be the most effective structure for the CSA to embrace.

Be that as it may, the first five year investment plan rolled out in 2014-15 and is set to expire in 2018-2019. The CSA, under current president Sylvain Laporte, is operating as a well supervised department within ISED.

Here's where it gets interesting.

Bureaucracies, full of appointed state officials focused on their job description and long-term job security, tend to act in predictable ways. They set up a reporting structure so as to minimize errors and diffuse responsibilities so that no one gets fired when problems occur.

But the reporting structure also need programs to fund and funding to oversee in order to justify their continued existence. That's why the Federal government will announce a "long-term strategy" for space in June 2017, just before it's scheduled to approve and supervise the next "five year investment plan" in 2018.

So there is an opportunity for new funding when the next five year fiscal plan is finalized in 2018.

How will the CSA differentiate itself from the growing private space sector? As outlined in the August 28th, 2015 Macleans post, "13 great Canadian space ideas," Canada's future in space includes the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), RADARSAT Constellation (RCM), the Medium Earth Orbit Search and Rescue (MEOSAR) space-born transceivers and a few other possible rover missions and satellite programs. Not that there is anything wrong with that, unless you look at the November 20th, 2016 post, "SpaceX, Telesat & Kepler Just Three of the Dozen Satellite Constellations Currently on the FCC Table," which discussed the thousands of satellites planned for launch by a dozen private companies over the next five years and the October 3th, 2016 post, "Sixteen Organizations Currently Developing Small-Sat Launchers," which outlined the wealth of private organization building their own rockets. Screenshot c/o Macleans

However, given the general nature of the typical bureaucracy and the specifics of the various CSA committees and reporting structures as outlined in both the June 2015 Audit and its June 2016 follow-up, any new CSA funding will likely be variations or additions to existing programs.

After all, the structure is set up specifically for control and not for innovation.

Of course, we should certainly begin lobbying the Federal government now, if we want to make sure that space is left for our own personal projects when the new policy comes down in June 2017.

We just shouldn't expect too much for our efforts.

The Federal government could potentially end up funding some variation of a revived Polar Communications and Weather (PCW) mission which, as outlined in the July 17th, 2016 post, "The Polar Communications & Weather Satellite (PCW) Mission is Dead; To Revive it, our Military Wants More Money," is currently undergoing intense lobbying/ restructuring within various government departments.

But we likely won't end up with funding for any major projects which aren't already on the horizon.   

The best things about politics are that no experience (or intelligence) is required and anyone can play. As outlined in the September 15th, 2016 post, "Part 1: Abandoning the Emerson Aerospace Review," both the Liberals and the NDP vowed to create a new "long-term space plan" during the last election, in an effort to differentiate themselves from the incumbent Conservative party. The Conservatives, way too wrapped up in secrecy,  failed to release any documentation during the election which would suggest that they might travel down much the same path as the other parties, if re-elected. Such documentation was certainly available. The June 2015 Audit on Governance was finally released by the incoming Liberal party in February 2016, just after the Federal election in October 2015. Screenshot c/o Commercial Space blog.

Taken together, both the June 2015 Audit on Governance Report and its June, 2016 follow-up report provide much context to questions about how (or "if") the Emerson Aerospace Review would ever influence public policy.

Those questions even surfaced in the mainstream media when the Canadian space program, as outlined in the October 11th, 2015 CBC News post, "Canada's space policy enters orbit of election campaign," briefly became a political issue during the last Federal election.

Is this the space agency Canada wants? Maybe. Maybe not.

But it does seem to be the space agency our current Federal government prefers. It makes the CSA well enough behaved to avoid feeding the opposition uncomfortable questions when parliament is in session. 
Chuck Black.

Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

SSL MDA Sells to Both Canada (But Quietly) & the USA (With Fanfare)

          By Henry Stewart

San Francisco, California based SSL MDA Holdings, the current official name for what was once Richmond, BC based MacDonald Dettwiler (MDA), seems able to continue winning substantial contracts from the Canadian government despite the recent reorganization designed to establish its US pedigree.

Those efforts were outlined in the October 3rd, 2016 post, "Iconic MacDonald Dettwiler is Now SSL MDA Holdings, a US Based Company with a Canadian Subsidiary" and the earlier story seems to be having at least some effect on the Canadian government.

At the very least, they seems to be getting a little shy about promoting any new MDA contracts.

The latest Canadian MDA win. Graphic c/o Buyandsell.gc.ca.
An example of this would be the lack of any formal Canadian government announcement surrounding the awarding of a $4.2Mln CDN contract from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) to MDA, now mostly the SSL MDA Canadian subsidiary, for additional training items relating to Canada's contribution to the origins, spectral interpretation, resource identification, security, regolith explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission.

OSIRIS-REx is a NASA sample mission launched on September 8th, 2016 to study asteroid 101955 Bennu, and return a sample of the asteroid to Earth for detailed analysis. The details of the CSA contract awarded is available on the Federal government Buyandsell.gc.ca website under the title, "Spacecraft Instrumentation Development (R&D) (9F052-150828/001/MTB)."

As outlined in the January 6th, 2016 SpaceQ post, "MDA Gets Training and Operations Contract for OSIRIS-REx and SSL Subsidiary Gets NASA Discovery Mission Project," the additional funds were intended to cover, "the provision of training sessions on the OLA (OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter) instrument, operations support as Instrument Engineer(s) (IEs), and engineering support for the OLA operations during Cruise and Asteroid Encounter Operations."

No doubt these were all standard training and support items which no one had thought much about before the satellite launched.

The SpaceQ article also noted the lack of any issued press release or publicity for the award. That lack of publicity might also be perfectly understandable as a simple oversight which will be rectified soon.

Or not...
Editors Note: Things seem to have reconciled themselves. 
As outlined in the January 18th, 2017 press release, "MDA provides operational support to Asteroid Mission," MDA has issued a public statement that "it has received a contract for CA$3.7 million from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) for NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission. MDA will provide operations engineering support for the CSA's contribution to the mission, the OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter (OLA) instrument, which will provide ranging and topographic data of the asteroid Bennu."
The difference between the $3.7Mln CDN award announced in the January 17th, 2017 press release and the $4.2Mln CDN as announced on the BuyandSell website previously can easily be attributed to the 13% Canadian harmonized sales tax, which CSA contracts often include and public press releases mostly don't. 
As outlined in the press release, "This latest contract demonstrates MDA's continued involvement as a leading Canadian supplier to CSA of space exploration instruments for joint US-Canada missions."

Meanwhile, back in the US, another MDA SSL subsidiary received an award for a NASA discovery mission and the Americans were eager to promote it. 

As outlined in the January 6th, 2017 Space System Loral (SSL) press release, "SSL To Provide Spacecraft for NASA Asteroid Exploration Mission," the award will "provide a spacecraft platform for a NASA Discovery Mission to explore the metallic asteroid 16 Psyche," and utilize the SSL 1300 series satellite platform, "which has been proven on more than 100 missions."

SSL MDA CEO Lance. Photo c/o NAB.
According to the January 5th, 2017 MDA press release, "MDA's U.S. business unit, SSL, to provide spacecraft for NASA asteroid exploration mission," the contract "is expected to exceed $75Mln USD (approximately $100Mln CDN), and represents the second major US government project for the company in recent months, demonstrating growing momentum in this sector."

The first major award, as outlined in the December 12th, 2016 post, "Will the New Space Systems Loral $127Mln NASA Space Robotic Servicing Contract Help Canada?," was presented late last year. 

The January 5th, 2017 MDA press release, "MDA's U.S. business unit, SSL, to provide spacecraft for NASA asteroid exploration mission," also quoted SSL MDA CEO Howard Lance.

According to the press release:
"We are very pleased to be able to serve NASA and the U.S. government on an increasing number of missions," said Howard Lance, chief executive officer of SSL MDA Holdings. 
"SSL brings a depth of resources and experience to scientific missions such as the exploration of 16 Psyche and we are committed to demonstrating how we can deliver innovative solutions to U.S. civilian, defense and intelligence agencies going forward.
Given the size of the recent contracts awarded and the accompanying publicity attached to each specific award, only one thing seems clear.

While the old MDA was the go-to single source company for large, distinctly Canadian space projects such as the iconic Canadarm and the various RADARSAT's, the new SSL MDA is finding it more profitable to focus on the American market.

Henry Stewart is the pseudonym of a Toronto based aerospace writer.

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