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2016: The Year in Space for Canada

Posted December 20, 2016 by Chuck Black
          By Chuck Black

Much like our retired snowbirds, Canada’s space sector spent large portions of the year fantasizing about better times while attempting to relocate to balmier climes and taking photos of family get-togethers.

Unfortunately, while we were busy enjoying those fantasies, any government incentives to help us actually do something have been drying up amid Federal promises to “form committees” which “assess the situation.

But back in the real world, historians have at least uncovered intermittent reminders of our once impressive past accomplishments, and small Canadian businesses with private funding led the way towards a potential future. Maybe it will be enough.

With that in mind, here are some of the high and low points for the Canadian space sector in 2016.

Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen (left) seems to be encouraging the cautious, but curious Minister Bains to pull his finger during a presentation at CSA headquarters in St-Hubert, Que. As outlined in the January 7th, 2016 Canadian Press post, “Canada awards contract to build vision system for space station,” both were on hand to announce “that a $1.7-million design contract has been awarded to an Ottawa firm to develop the monitoring system made up of lasers and cutting-edge cameras.” Photo c/o  Paul Chaisson/ Canadian Press.

The year began on a high note, with the announcement by Navdeep Bains, the newly minted Federal Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED) that the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) had allocated $1.7Mln CDN to Kanata, Ontario based Neptec Design Group for the creation of a new damage detection system for close-up surface inspection on the outside of the International Space Station (ISS).

Unfortunately, as outlined in the January 10th, 2016 post, “Innovation Minister’s Latest Announcement a Rehash of November 2015 Announcement,” that announcement had been made at least once before, in November 2015, and the origins of the contract go back even further, to the previous Stephen Harper conservative government.
Which probably didn’t assist the new liberal government’s intent to create the impression that they care about science and space.
According to Julie Simard, the CSA’s acting manager for strategic communications, the initial November 25th, 2015 announcement that Neptec was awarded the contract was not intended to be an “announcement,” but was intended instead to be a “routine administrative procedure,” which no one was expected to notice.

Out with the old and in with the new. A  screen-shot  of COM DEV’s website on February 8th, 2016 beside a second screen-shot of the same website taken on December 9th, 2016. Screen-shots c/o Honeywell COM DEV. 

In February common shares of Cambridge, Ontario based COM DEV International were de-listed from the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSX) as the iconic Canadian company finished up its final task of becoming a subsidiary of New Jersey based Honeywell International

To commemorate, this blog commissioned a five part series covering the short history of COM DEV, beginning with the February 8th, 2016 post on “Part 1: John Hansen, Samuel Singer and Michael Valentine O’Donovan,” 
Not all of our fellow journalists were as charitable.

Some even pointed fingers at the newly installed Justin Trudeau government, which decided not to review the sale, even though it may have been legally obligated to do so. For an example of this viewpoint, check out the February 29th, 2016 Space News post, “Why didn’t Canada put up a fight for Com Dev?

In the final analysis, it’s worth noting that the COM DEV sale was, as quoted from our short history of COM DEV cited above, “not not the only recent sale of an iconic and militarily significant Canadian company to the US” nor was it the only Canadian company “built on the back of no small amount of government largesse.”
exactEarth Ltd. (XCT) CEO Peter Mabson (center, at the podium) joined Rob Peterman, the director of global business development for the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSX) and quite a number of others, to open the market on February 11th, 2016. The company was first listed on the TSX only two days earlier, on February 9th. Photo c/o CNW Group/TMX Group Limited.
As outlined in the November 7th, 2015 post, “Should the proposed COM DEV sale to US based Honeywell trigger the Investment Canada Act?,” the COM DEV sale was not, initially at least, considered an unmitigated disaster for Canada. 
COM DEV spun out its exactEarth subsidiary into a separate, Canadian owned public company, in order to keep the total value of the sale under the amount that triggers an automatic Federal government review under the Investment Canada Act (ICA). The spin-off also gave Canada another hi-tech space-focused company to root for.

But almost immediately, and as outlined in the February 14th, 2016 post, “Newborn exactEarth Faces its First Battle for the Worm,” the new firm found itself in direct competition with New Jersey based Orbcomm for the renewal of a “key Canadian satellite-AIS contract.

That contract was originally worth $19Mln CDN when last won by exactEarth, back when it was a subsidiary of COM DEV. However, the dollar amount ended up shrinking substantially by the time the new contract was finally awarded.

As outlined in the May 7th, 2016 post, “Orbcomm, Skywave, exactEarth, CSA Rovers, High School Robotics, MDA, Emerson, Magellan, Honeywell & UrtheCast,” the new contract was now only worth $116,000 CDN in total. For exactEarth, this represented an approximately $600,000 CDN reduction in revenue for each month the contract was in force, which was a big hit to take given that the firm only booked $26.6Mln CDN in total revenue for the twelve month period ending October 31st, 2015. 
At this rate, exactEarth will never get the chance to become one of those iconic space companies “built on the back of no small amount of government largesse,” like its COM DEV parent.

While Federal ministers were attempting to avoid providing any new funding for space, they seemed to have no problem being associated with the photo opportunities which naturally flow from a space program. Top Left: CSA astronaut David Saint-Jacques, CSA president Sylvain Laporte and Ontario Drive and Gear (ODG) space and robotics manager Peter Visscher discuss Canada’s newest (and, so far at least, missionless) rovers with Innovation Minister Bains at CSA headquarters on May 5th, 2016. Top Right: Innovation Minister Bains at the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum (CASM) with astronaut David Saint-Jacques and surrounded by students from Marc Garneau Elementary School plus the So-What Youth for Science Program on May 16th, 2016, making the announcement that Saint-Jacques would visit the ISS in 2018. Bottom Left: Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, announcing a $48.5Mln CDN upgrade of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) Polar Epsilon 2 program on June 17th, 2016. As outlined in the July 17th, 2016 post, “That 2013 “Fixed Pricing” Contract for RCM Might Not be Entirely Fixed,” the Polar Epsilon project was an add-on to the original RADARSAT Constellation mission (RCM), which also originated with the previous government. Bottom Right: Minister Bains at CASM again, this time on June 17th, 2016, when he announced an open call for two new Canadian astronauts. Photo’s c/o CSA, Adrian Wyld/ Canadian Press & MDA.

By March, it was becoming apparent that many of the hopes placed in the palms of the new liberal government by Canadian space advocates might just possibly be misplaced.

As outlined in the March 13th, 2016 post, “Waiting for Garneau,” ex-astronaut and veteran liberal MP Marc Garneau, was too busy with the transport portfolio even to begin to focus on the space industry.

And, as outlined in the March 27th, 2016 post, “No Puppies Falling from the Heavens With Space Funding in this Federal Budget,” the March 2016 Federal budget didn’t help much either. 

It instead predicted large deficits over the next five years (beginning with $29.4Bln CDN in the first year), which would be used to finance tax-free monthly child benefits, more money for First Nations, infrastructure spending and extended employment insurance benefits to hard-hit regions.

But not space…

And the “big announcement,” that the government has committed up to $379Mln CDN over eight years (beginning in 2017), to maintain Canada’s commitment to its International Space Station (ISS) partners, is something the government always knew it had to do in order to preserve slots for Canadian astronauts David Saint-Jacques and Jeremy Hansen to travel to the ISS in 2019 and 2021.

However, those travel commitments were made well before the current government took office, much like that award to Neptec in January 2016, which was discussed earlier in this post.

Science minister Duncan at the at the 8th Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC2016) in Ottawa on November 10th, 2016. As outlined in the November 10th, 2016 transcript of her speech under the title, “Minister Duncan Reflections: One Year as Minister of Science,” much work has occurred over the past year “to rebuild the government’s respect for and trust in our scientists,” but much remained to be done. Photo c/o Chuck Black.
By June, as outlined in the June 13th, 2016 post, “Government Announces Comprehensive Review of Canadian Science,” the Federal government felt uncomfortable enough with its performance to announce a “comprehensive review” of just about all Federal funding for science and academics as part of “Canada’s Innovation Agenda.”
It included the activities of the National Research Council (NRC), the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), as well as programs like the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), the various Canada Research Chairs, Genome Canada and others.

The committee was originally expected to present to Federal Science Minister Kirsty Duncan before the end of the year. As of December 19th, it hasn’t. Twelve presenting days left till the end of the year!

Later in the year, as outlined in the October 18th, 2016 post, “A Quick Update to ‘Iconic Macdonald Dettwiler is now SSL MDA Holdings, a US Based Company’,” there was a second government announcement that “the Government of Canada is seeking candidates for a Space Advisory Board that is inclusive, forward-thinking and positioned to drive innovation and science in Canada, and that will help identify future opportunities for economic growth that will benefit all Canadians.”

Even more recently, as announced in the December 12th, 2016 post, “exactEarth, Lybid-1, the CSA (which Needs more Committees) and the Upcoming 2017 Earth Observation Summit,” the CSA organized three more committees tasked with providing “independent advice to the CSA on Space Utilization science priorities and (to) provide feedback on CSA programs and initiatives.”

We’re hopeful that, in 2017, at least one of those committees will issue some sort of report, announcing something. Frankly, almost any announcement which doesn’t involve forming another committee would be an improvement over 2016.

CSA international partnerships with other space agencies also seem to have been less successful in 2016 than in the past.

For example, as outlined in the March 28th, 2016 post, “Japanese Hitomi (ASTRO-H) Satellite Suffers Major Malfunction,” noted the failure of the The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) Hitomi (ASTRO-H) X-ray astronomy satellite, which was launched on February 17th, 2016.

Hitomi carried the Canadian built Astro-H Metrology System (CAMS), a laser alignment system used to measure the distortions in the extendable optical platform which the Hitomi satellite uses for image correction. The CAMS system was built by the Ottawa based Neptec Design Group, in consultation with Canadian researchers.

Also of note was the October 2016 crash of the Schiaparelli Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM), a joint mission of the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Russian space agency Roscosmos, with Canadian participation.

As outlined in the October 24th, 2016 post, “Schiaparelli Goes Splat!,” the lander, the first of the two part exobiology on Mars (ExoMars) astrobiology project designed to search for evidence of Martian life, ceased communicating with ESA mission control approximately one minute before its planned touchdown on October 19th.

It wasn’t an altogether disastrous year for the CSA.  Canada’s Maritime Monitoring and Messaging Microsatellite (M3MSat) was launched successfully by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), from Sriharikota, India, along with another Canadian satellite owned by Montreal based GHGSat Inc. on June 21st, 2016. As outlined in the June 22nd, 2016 CSA press release, “Canada’s M3MSat Successful Launch – Advancing Canada’s capabilities to monitor maritime traffic from space,” the M3MSat mission “will improve ship detection and marine traffic management in Canadian waters.” Photo c/o You-Tube.
In April, this blog focused on the first of two examples of well funded CSA studies which failed to turn into successful programs.

As outlined in the April 22nd, 2016 post, “2009 Canadian Space Agency Report on Indigenous Canadian Launcher said “Yes!” But CSA Didn’t Move Forward,” the CSA had the option to build and support a small domestic launcher, but chose not to.

And, as outlined in the September 26th, 2016 post, “The REAL Reason Why Canada Won’t Be Participating in the NASA Resolve Mission Anytime Soon, Probably!,” the CSA really, really wanted to contribute a rover to the NASA Resolve mission, but seems to have messed that up as well.

Once the headquarters of Canada’s preeminent space company, MDA HQ in Richmond, BC is now just another regional office for a Canadian subsidiary of a giant US multinational. Photo c/o T-Net.

One Canadian company which seemingly understood better than the rest the need to “get the hell out of Dodge,” was Burnaby, BC based MacDonald Dettwiler (MDA).

As outlined in the October 7th, 2016 post, “Iconic MacDonald Dettwiler is Now SSL MDA Holdings, a US Based Company with a Canadian Subsidiary,” only “eight years after the Federal government rejected its sale to US based Alliant Techsystems (ATK) because it was not of “net benefit” to the country, BC based Macdonald Dettwiler (MDA) has quietly turned into a Delaware holding company, changed its name, added several new US based board members and moved its corporate headquarters to San Francisco.”

Best of all;

… those actions seem to have been undertaken without triggering a formal review under the Investment Canada Act (ICA), the Canadian Federal law governing large, foreign direct investment in Canada, which was used as the legal basis for rejecting the 2008 sale (of MDA to ATK, as outlined in the April 10th, 2008 CBC post, “Federal government blocks sale of MDA space division“)

That perception was reflected in both the October 17th, 2016 National Post article “U.S. firm stages ‘stealth takeover’ of Canada’s largest space tech company,” and the October 18th, 2016 National Post follow-up article, “EDC financing satellite construction in California because of ‘direct benefit’ to Canada.”

Maybe ICA reviews are like the Star Trek prime directive, which seems notable only for being ignored.

Of course, MDA begged to differ. As outlined in the December 16th, 2016 post, “MDA says No Sale of Canadarm Technology to the US Government in NASA RESTORE-L, DARPA RSGS or “Any Other” Project,” it claimed, at least as outlined by MDA communications manager Wendy Keyzer, to have never left the country or sold any Canadian technology to the US.

At this point, the real resolution to this difference of opinion appears destined for our “top stories of 2017” coverage.

But perhaps the most important space story of 2016 is how the activities of the space sector are being driven by the private sector, and not the public sector.

As outlined in both the October 3rd, 2016 post, “Sixteen Organizations Currently Developing Small-Sat Launchers,” and its follow-up October 12th, 2016 post, “Sixteen More Organizations Currently Developing Small-Sat Launchers,” almost three dozen privately funded rocket companies are currently in operation.

And, as outlined in the November 20th, 2016 post, “SpaceX, Telesat & Kepler Just Three of the Dozen Satellite Constellations Currently on the FCC Table,” more satellites are expected to launch into orbit over the next few years than have been launched since our current space age began in 1958. 

Most of those new satellites will be privately funded.

Toronto based Kepler Communications, as last profiled in the August 16th, 2016 post, “Kepler Communications Raises $5Mln in Venture Funding,” is certainly one of the rising stars of the Canadian space industry, but there are others such as Montreal, PQ based GHGSat which, as outlined in the December 9th, 2016 GHGSat press release, “Claire Makes 500th Measurement!,” is slowly turning its small emissions tracking satellite into a major revenue stream.

And maybe that’s the real future of Canada’s space industry, as private sector companies competing for market share and profits rather than as supplicants of a government funded program with no defined goal.

Author Robert Godwin with Colleen Lapp at the Canadian Aeronautics and Space Institute (CASI) Toronto branch meeting at the University of Toronto Institute of Aerospace Studies (UTIAS) on November 24th, 2016. Godwin was in town to speak on the topic of “The Empire Strikes Out – The Commonwealth Space Program,” and to promote his latest books. According to Godwin, Phil Lapp “embodied Canadian Space achievement” and even “put the space in CASI.” Among other things, Lapp helped to found the Canadian Astronautical Society (CAS) in 1957, and then helped it merge with the Canadian Aeronautical Institute (CAI) to become the Canadian Aeronautics and Space Institute (CASI) in 1962. Photo c/o Chuck Black. Graphic c/o CG Publishing.

It’s also noteworthy that two books focused on Canadian aerospace and space pioneers were published this year.

This blog covered those books in the November 27th, 2016 post, “Apogee Publishes New Book on ‘The Father of Canadian Astronautics’,” and the September 12th, 2016 post on “William Leitch: Presbyterian Scientist & the Concept of Rocket Spaceflight 1854-64.”

So what’s going to happen next year in space for Canada? Find out, when the Commercial Space blog returns with all new stories beginning January 3rd, 2017.

Chuck Black.

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Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog.

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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.

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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.

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

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