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ISS Russian Supply Ship Fails to Reach Orbit; Is "Long Slow" Russian Decline to Blame?

Posted December 4, 2016 by Chuck Black
          By Chuck Black

A Russian Progress supply ship transporting cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) has burned up in the atmosphere and been lost.

The rocket carrying the 7,290-kilogram Progress MS-04 (also identified by NASA as the Progress 65 or 65P mission) lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on December 1st, 2016, at 17:51:52 Moscow Time (9:51 a.m. EDT). A third stage failure of the Suyuz-U rocket carrying the Progress supply ship, which occurred six minutes into the flight, is currently considered the leading cause of the accident, although the investigation is ongoing.

December 1st, 2016 IGN news reports covering the launch failure. As outlined on the December 1st, 2016 Roscosmos Russian state space agency post. “Progress MS-04 Situation,” the loss “took place at an altitude of about 190 km over remote and unpopulated mountainous area of the Republic of Tyva.” with most of the spacecraft fragments burning up in the dense atmosphere. To view the IGN video, simply click on the screenshot. Screenshot c/o You-Tube.  

TASS, the Russian state news agency, has cited space industry sources as saying the combustion chambers in the third stage engine may have burnt out, possibly due to defective assembly.

As outlined in the December 1st, 2016 The Verge post, “Russian supply ship headed for the Space Station burns up in the atmosphere,” this is the second time in the last two years (and the third time since 2011) that Russia’s space agency has had trouble with an ISS resupply mission:

In April of 2015, Roscosmos lost control of its cargo spacecraft during the Progress 59 mission. That ship spun wildly out of control and eventually burned up in the Earth’s atmosphere. 

Roscosmos lost a Progress resupply much in similar fashion to today’s mishap back in 2011, when the third stage burn of the same type Soyuz rocket failed. That Progress ship was also lost in the atmosphere.

According to the December 1st, 2016 Russian Space Web post, “Progress MS-04 fails to reach orbit,” the supply ship was launched on the “last Soyuz-U rocket before the switch to a new-generation Soyuz-2 family, which did not depend on avionics produced in Ukraine.”

But the Soyuz-2’s have also been having troubles. As outlined in the article:

The switch to the new variant (from Soyuz-U to Soyuz-2) acquired the new political significance after the Kremlin’s confrontation with Kiev in 2014.

However, inside the Russian space industry, this move became controversial after the loss of the Progress M-27M spacecraft (known by NASA as either Progress 59 or 59P) on April 28, 2015, which was blamed on design features specific to the third stage of the Soyuz-2 rocket.

Although the Soyuz-2 was officially declared fully operational in March 2016, there was a lingering concern over this variant’s reliability in the long term, stressing the need for a potential backup. 

The rocket issue had remained open, as the Progress MS-04 launch campaign got underway.

Design variations showing overlaps and similarities between the third stage of the Soyuz-U/FG, and the Soyuz-2-1a and 2-1b rockets. As outlined in a undated Russian Space web post on the “Soyuz-2 rocket series,” the Russians have been slowly consolidating, relocating and upgrading their Soyuz subcontractor network inside the Russian Federation since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Soyuz-U production finally stopped in April 2015 as part of the transition process to Soyuz-2. Graphic c/o Starsem.

Of course, the Soyuz isn’t the only Russian rocket to have recently failed. The December 2nd, 2016 Planetary Society post, “What’s the matter with Russia’s rockets?,” lists fifteen Russian launch failures within the last six years.

Historian and space journalist Jim Oberg wrote about a Russian space program “Stuck in Decline” for the September 2015 issue of Aerospace America.

The article placed the blame for the Russian failures on shrinking finances, an aging demographics, growing quality control difficulties and “the long, slow decline of the country’s space industry after the breakup of the Soviet Union.”

That decline, might just be starting to accelerate. As outlined in the December 2nd, 2016 Space Daily post, “Russia seeks answers on ISS cargo ship crash,” the Russian investigation could delay the launch of the next Progress cargo ship, which is currently scheduled for February 2nd, 2017.

Chuck Black.


Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog.

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Donald Trump in Space; Now Fortified With Public Private Partnerships!

Posted November 14, 2016 by Chuck Black
          By Brian Orlotti

On November 8th, 2016, New York billionaire real estate mogul and reality television star Donald Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States. As part of the aftershocks of this political earthquake, space analysts and advocates are trying to gauge what form the President-elect’s space policy will take.

A self-explanatory graphic c/o David Reneke.

During his campaign, Trump gained notoriety for his waffling, often contradictory stances on various issues. His space policy, at present, seems painted in only broad strokes.

As outlined in the November 11th, 2016 Scientific American article, “What Will Trump’s Space Program Look Like?,” former NASA Deputy Administrator and Obama space adviser Lori Garver noted that one very likely outcome of Trump’s victory will be a gutting of NASA Earth Science and green tech programs.

Ex-NASA deputy director Garver. Photo c/o Space News.

During the campaign, Trump made clear both his denial of climate change (dismissing it as a Chinese lie intended to cripple the US economy) as well as his support for increased domestic extraction of fossil fuels, such as coal and oil.

Garver went on to say that the future course of the US space program will likely be indicated by the Trump Administration’s choice for NASA Administrator. Donald Trump’s close relationship with former US House Speaker Newt Gingrich, could potentially herald a great shift in the US space program’s direction.

Gingrich, a long-time space advocate, is well-known for his desiring a more ambitious US space effort, both public and private. During the 2012 US election, Gingrich openly advocated for colonizing the Moon and making it the 51st US state. Gingrich has also been a staunch supporter of NASA’s Commercial Crew program.

A NASA administrator of the Gingrich school could see increased support for the commercial space industry as well as a shift back to the Moon as the NASA destination of choice.

Trump, with Gingrich. Photo c/o Seth Wenig/AP.

Trump’s past statements indicate that he views space not just as a driver of scientific and technological advance, but as an instrument of national prestige and US exceptionalism.

And he even has a basic idea on how to fund it.

As outlined in the October 25th, 2016 Space Policy Online post, “Trump: “I Will Free NASA” From Being Just a LEO Space Logistics Agency,” Trump is on record as stating:

A cornerstone of my policy is we will substantially expand public private partnerships to maximize the amount of investment and funding that is available for space exploration and development.  This means launching and operating major space assets, right here, that employ thousands and spur innovation and fuel economic growth. 

I will free NASA from the restriction of serving primarily as a logistics agency for low earth orbit activity. Big deal. 

Instead we will refocus its mission on space exploration. Under a Trump administration, Florida and America will lead the way into the stars.  With a victory in November, everything will change.  Just think about what we can accomplish in 100 days.

Donald Trump, in his quest to “make America great again,” seems poised to re-infuse space with nationalism even while instilling in it the drives of capitalism.

Or not. The clock will soon begin ticking on those first 100 days.

Brian Orlotti.


Brian Orlotti is a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

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MacDonald Dettwiler, Chinese Rockets, SpaceX, the X-37B and the EmDrive

Posted November 7, 2016 by Chuck Black
          By Henry Stewart

Here are a few of the stories currently being tracked by the Commercial Space Blog:

MDA HQ in Richmond, BC. Photo c/o T-Net.
  • New Macdonald Dettwiler (MDA) CEO Howard Lance is evidently off to a slow start, but it’s not his fault. As outlined in the November 2nd, 2016 Space News post, “Canada’s MDA says commercial satellite market shows unexpected softness,” the Canadian satellite builder and geospatial-services provider has “pulled back from earlier optimistic assessments of the global commercial telecommunications satellite business,” saying strong customer interest in new satellites was not translating into contracts. According to Lance, 2016 will end with no more than around 16 orders, similar to 2015, but well down from the historical average of around 20 satellites. 

Lance made the comments during the quarterly investor conference call on November 1st, 2016. Consolidated revenues for the quarter were down slightly to $495.9Mln CDN compared to $515.4Mln CDN for the same period of 2015. The decrease reflected lower revenues from communications business line, partially offset by higher revenues from the surveillance and intelligence business lines.

Of course, things aren’t all bad. As outlined in the November 1st, 2016 MDA press release, “MDA reports third quarter 2016 results, declares quarterly dividend,” MDA continued to make “substantive progress to obtain facility security clearance for its operations in California, through which the Company can effectively pursue and execute the broad range of U.S. government contracts including defence and intelligence work. In addition to investments in organizational and required regulatory structure, the Company has also started building out a government business development and management team.”

MDA has also “declared a quarterly dividend of $0.37 per common share payable on December 30, 2016 to shareholders of record at the close of business on December 15th, 2016.”

According to the article, “the CZ-5 belongs to a new generation of rockets that will be used in China’s future space projects,” including lunar and Martian exploration programmes.

The Long March 5 is planned to roughly match the capabilities of the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV heavy rocket.

The company currently has a backlog of about 70 missions, worth more than $10Bln USD ($13.4Bln CDN). 

  • The International Business Times is reporting that the US Air Force is currently testing out a version of the EmDrive electromagnetic microwave thruster on the X-37B unmanned military space plane, while the Chinese government has made sure to include the EmDrive on its orbital space laboratory Tiangong-2. 

As outlined in the November 7th, 2016 International Business Times post, “Space race revealed: US and China test futuristic EmDrive on Tiangong-2 and mysterious X-37B plane,” China and the US both have a vested interest in the EmDrive.

    In a separate report, the results of NASA’s earlier tests on the EmDrive have been leaked, and they seem to reveal that the controversial propulsion system really does work.

    As outlined in the November 7th, 2016 Science Alert post, “Leaked NASA paper shows the ‘impossible’ EM Drive really does work,” the drive “is capable of generating impressive thrust in a vacuum (without fuel), even after error measurements have been accounted for.”

    The full paper is now available online under the title, “Measurement of Impulsive Thrust from a Closed Radio Frequency Cavity in Vacuum.”

    The EmDrive, also known as the Cannae drive, was last profiled in the September 6th, 2016 post, “Impossible‘ Cannae Drive Will Sink or Swim on Proposed Demonstration Flight.” 

    For more, check out upcoming editions of the Commercial Space blog.

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

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    The Canadian Space Agency Gave Out Almost $5Mln CDN in Grants and Contributions Last Quarter!

    Posted October 22, 2016 by Chuck Black
              By Henry Stewart

    CSA Disclosure of Grants and Contributions Awards Page. Screenshot c/o CSA.

    It’s worth noting that recent stories and press releases focused around individual Canadian Space Agency (CSA) initiatives are really only a partial representation of the funds provided through the CSA at any one time.

    These include stories such as the October 21st, 2016 CNW Telebec post, “Une nouvelle technologie médicale de pointe sera mise à l’essai dans l’espace – Cette technologie de surveillance peut être utilisée sur Terre pour les soins de santé,” focused around the astroskin smartshirt and the upcoming health experiments planned for the International Space Station (ISS) as discussed in the October 18th, 2016 Globe and Mail post, “Canadian Space Agency to conduct health experiment on space station.”
    To get a true sense of what’s happening, you need to visit the CSA disclosure of grants and contributions awards page, a quarterly compilation of CSA grants and contributions to third parties. of over $25,000 CDN.
    InSAR images created using the homogeneous distributed scatterers (HDS) technique, showing deformation from multiple surface types including asphalt. As outlined in the December 2nd, 2015 Earth Imaging Journal post, “Learn the Ground Rules: InSAR Enables Proactive Urban Infrastructure Monitoring,”  provides multiple examples of InSAR data being used in a variety of ways. In Q2 2016, nine of the fourteen CSA grants awarded focused on new uses for InSAR data. Images c/o MDA Geospatial Services.
    CSA first quarter totals for 2016/17 (from April – June 2016, the last period for which data is available) include fourteen grants to eleven organizations for a variety of research and experiments. They include:
    Two grants to the University of Waterloo covering:

    Two grants to the University of Western Ontario covering:

     Two grants to York University covering:

    • A second grant, this one for substantially more money (although the amount allocated would be expected to cover more than one fiscal year) to cover an experiment on the perception of self-motion (POSM) in space. According to the description, the project will investigate the “amplitude of motion evoked by a given pattern of optic flow by measuring how far a participant needs to “travel” in a simulated environment to reach a previously viewed target.” ($786K CDN)
    A 2013 Environment Canada (EC) poster outlining the development of Canada’s carbon assimilation system. In Q2 2016, the University of Toronto received a CSA grant to integrate new data derived from satellite measurements, into the program. Graphic c/o EC.

    Individual grants were also awarded to the following universities: 

    As outlined in many previous articles, including this February 23th, 2014 post on “Canadian Firm Plans to Corner the Worldwide Rover Chassis Market,” the CSA has previously attempted to develop rovers it can resell to other space programs. Its most recent attempt is its $1.2Mln CDN grant to Canadensys Aerospace Corporation in Q2 2016. Screen shot c/o Commercial Space Media. 

    Of course the obvious big beneficiaries of CSA largess in the first quarter of 2016 were three privately held corporations, which together received $2.7Mln CDN of the almost $5Mln CDN disbursed in total. They include:

    It’s also worth noting that nine of the fourteen grants presented by the CSA during this quarter went to various universities in order to develop new uses for InSAR derived data.

    At present, the primary Canadian supplier of InSAR data is Richmond, British Columbia based MacDonald Dettwiler (MDA), which collects it as part of its RADARSAT-2 responsibilities.

    That might change over the next little while. As outlined in the October 18th, 2016 post, “A Quick Update to ‘Iconic Macdonald Dettwiler is now SSL MDA Holdings, a US Based Company,'” MDA seems more focused on growing its US business than on maintaining what were once its core Canadian assets.

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

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