Sunday, November 22, 2009

Time to Take a Coffee Break

Anyone who knows me also knows that I'm addicted to coffee and over the next few weeks, I plan to take a short break from the Commercial Space blog to drink some coffee and also watch some television, go on a date, read the newspaper (before they disappear altogether) and generally recharge my batteries.

I'm also going to see if it's possible to turn this blog into a revenue generator. There are certainly some interesting ideas that I've come across over the last little while that might be practical and worth a second look.

These ideas include fund raising and financing opportunities relating to crowd sourcing and crowd funding and the development of aerospace specific community installations such as hackerlabs and business incubators. I'm also going to learn a little more about the Canadian venture capital and angel investor communities and their various criterias for funding different projects.

I'd also like to take some time to learn a little more about the people who actually work in space related industries whether they're with Telesat, MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates, COM DEV, working directly with the Canadian Space Agency or even hourly unionized employees with Canada's largest private sector union representing aerospace employees at Boeing Canada (Local 2169), Bombardier/ de Havilland (Local 112), Cascade Aerospace (Local 114), CMC Electronics, Magellan Aerospace/ Bristol (Local 3005) and Pratt and Whitney Canada (Local 510).

The Commercial Space blog will return in January 2010 with all new posts on the 2010 Canadian Space Commerce Association annual general meeting plus more newspace and aerospace related news and maybe even a few opportunities to make a little money off the high frontier.

We'll see you then.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Preparing for the Next Great Canadian Gold Rush!

Today John Chapman sits at his desk in J A Chapman Mining Services where he provides general engineering and mine economics consulting for a variety of mining companies, but he started out in the field doing exploration, development and operations work for bigger firms including Placer Dome and Manalta Coal (then Canada's largest coal company) where he developed strong technical, managerial and administrative skills and learned how to operate major mining equipment such as loaders, dump trucks, bulldozers, graders and scrapers.

At one point, he even acted as a welder on the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line high up in the Canadian Arctic.

But all this practical expertise might just make him a bit of an anomaly in his other role as an advocate focused on the commercial development of useful space technologies. This is an area of expertise heavily populated by narrowly focused academics and scientists who often seem more comfortable writing well crafted abstracts for theoretical symposiums than going out in the field and getting their fingernails dirty operating heavy machinery.

Chapman is perhaps a little more modest regarding his capabilities. For example, according to an open letter he wrote to Canadian Space Agency (CSA) President Steve MacLean on October 30th, 2009:
I am a semi-retired mining engineer that for the past nine years has invested in the space industry and at the same time worked to raise the Western Canadian awareness of the importance of space science and technology to Canada and to society in general. I have authored and presented several papers on mineral exploration, mining and finance at space conferences in China, Europe and Canada. In 2008 I was the lead organizer and sponsor of the Return to the Moon event at the BCIT Aerospace Campus in Vancouver that featured Harrison Schmitt, Tom Jones and Robert Richards (see As the "space champion" on the UBC Thunderbird Robotics Advisory Board I am pleased to report that the Team just returned from placing sixth at the NASA Centennial Challenges, Regolith Excavation Challenge at the Ames Center in California. They used UBC students that were US citizens in order to qualify in the Competition.
Why would someone write an open letter to the CSA President? According to Chapman:
…the reason for me writing this letter is to seek your support in creating a system of prizes for Canadian universities, business and individuals, similar to the NASA Centennial Challenges in the USA. It is my opinion that a Canadian system of prizes will yield greater and faster returns for government and private space investors. 
He quotes from the October 22nd, 2009 issue of the Economist in an article titled “Space Hopper: a prize for a moon lander will be won this month.”
I quote from this week's Economist in the Science and Technology Section, "…provided ample demonstration of the effect, long known in technology-prize circles, that the money and effort invested in winning far exceed the financial value of the prize itself….in the right context, and with right design, prizes can work. Their other advantage is that – in contrast to the fat government contracts on which much of the aerospace industry thrives - the money is handed out only when the goals are achieved. That is a lesson in incentives that governments would do well to remember".
So far there has been no response to the letter by CSA officials but Chapman believes that “someone needs to be the Western Canadian champion” for this sort of activism to train the next generation of mining engineers, experts and space focused entrepreneurs.

He also believes there are lessons to be learned from financing mechanisms used in the mining industry where the high up-front costs, expected long lead times before generating a profit and adverse physical conditions create surprisingly similar financial and technical constraints no matter where the mine happens to be located.

Even if that mine is located on the Moon, states Chapman unequivocally. 

He cites financial tools and tax credits used specifically to build the Canadian mining industry as tools which can also be used to build aerospace and newspace focused Canadian business. One of his suggestions is to expanding the use of something called “super” flow-through shares and related investment tax credits to include space focused investments. He recently co-authored (along with several executives from MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates) the paper titled “Creating a Robust Canadian space research exploration and development industry” which focused on these investment tax credits and was presented at the 2008 Canadian Space Summit.

But both financial and educational processes and procedures need to be in place in order to grow Canadian opportunities and that’s why Chapman always talks about both mining the moon and funding student prizes to teach people the necessary and practical skills needed to do this successfully.

Chapman is on the Advisory Board of The UBC Thunderbird Robotics TEAM TREAD that was recently profiled in the November 2009 issue of Resource World along with a second article titled “Mining on the Moon Revisited” by author Jennifer S. Getsinger. Previous articles in the publication have profiled astronaut Harrison Schmitt and mining helium 3 on the moon (June 2008).

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Policy Meetings, Summits and Conferences

The Canadian Space Summit begins this Friday, November 20th and continues on until Sunday afternoon, November 22nd at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario.

According to the website:
The goal of the Summit is to engage industry, decision-makers and the public in an open and positive discussion of the future of space exploration and development through lectures by invited speakers, panel sessions and networking opportunities.
The speaker list and schedule for the Summit is posted on the Canadian Space Society (CSS) website here and, according to CSS President Kevin Shortt, "things really look like they are shaping up for a great conference."

Jacquie Perrin from CBC Newsworld has agreed to be our host for a talk show-style question and answer period with all the session chairs during the Friday night registration session.

Of course, not all media coverage is from the mass media. Social media users like Jay Daily have also posted comments and information on the Space Summit of sites like facebook, twitter and others.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

CSA Releases 2008 Canadian Space Sector Report

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) has just released it's 2008 State of the Canadian Space Sector Report with conclusions reflecting consistent double digit growth for Canadian space focused firms much in line with other recent reports published on the Commercial Space blog including "Satellite Market "Remarkably Unaffected" by Global Economic Crisis" and "Canadian Component Builders "Moving Up the Food Chain" to Build Complete Satellites."

According to the report, the Canadian space sector employed 6,742 people in 2008 with increasing revenues to $2.79 billion which is a 17.8% increase over the previous year. The top ten highest earning space companies each showed double digit real growth ranging from 12% to 48%.

It is however, a slight shame that CSA President Steve MacLean seems to be taking total credit for all this growth when he states in his "Message from the President" on page five that:
2008 was a year marked with success for the Canadian space sector, where commendable accomplishments were only possible through the collaboration between the CSA and the Canadian space sector.
Maybe some (or even perhaps quite a bit) of the growth in our national market over the last year could be reasonably attributed to CSA "seeding", guiding or otherwise developing opportunities and collaborating on new developments.

But certainly the recent success by Telesat, MDA and others in the international marketplace is the results of efforts by the companies themselves and not directly related to any specific or ongoing CSA activities.

The 2008 Canadian Space Sector Report, prepared by the CSA Policy and External Relations Directorate is available on the CSA website for download, along with copies of the previous years reports.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Satellite Market "Remarkably Unaffected" by Global Economic Crisis

According to the article "Space markets post strong growth, defy economic crisis" which was posted yesterday on the SpaceFlight Now web page, markets for commercial communications satellites, Earth observation spacecraft and their launchers are all "remarkably unaffected by the global economic crisis" and continue to soar ever higher with yearly double digit growth.
The article is based on recent report from a variety of sources, including consulting firms Northern Sky Research, Euroconsult, Futron Corporation and Forecast International and include assessments of commercial satellite supply and demand plus growth in the world market for expendable launch vehicles, both of which are expected to continue along their existing strong growth trajectory for at least next several years.

One exception to the generally positive forecast is the "Space Coast" region around Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center.

According to the article:
...very little of this new business will be launched from the world's foremost spaceport. Without new Presidential direction on human space goals, KSC is seemingly "moon stuck," facing major layoffs as the shuttle program ends.
And the growth is also detouring around Cape Canaveral's expendable boosters because the United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 and Delta 4 largely priced themselves out of the commercial market, now better satisfied by Europe's Ariane, the Russian Proton and Chinese boosters in emerging markets. 
In Canada, although there are no long term goals being set through the Canadian Space Agency (and with the CSA still patiently waiting for President Steve MacLean to release his update on Canadian space policy) local firms are well positioned to either expand into new areas of expertise (like what satellite component builders MDA and COM DEV are doing as described in my recent post "Canadian Component Builders "Moving Up the Food Chain" to Build Complete Satellites") or partner with larger firms (as Nautel has done with Ad Astra Rocket Company).
Recently, four commercial satellite services providers (EchoStar, Intelsat, SES and Telesat) formed the Coalition for Competitive Launches, an organization aimed at officially enhancing worldwide competition in the provision of commercial satellite launches but which unofficially seems to be focusing primarily on American launch providers.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Our Next Real Canadian Rocket Scientists

It's interesting to note that portions of what the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) has called one of the "Top Ten Emerging Technologies for 2009" are being designed and built, at least in part, by a small firm based out of Hackett's Cove in Nova Scotia.


Nautel, a Canadian manufacturer of AM and FM radio broadcast transmitters has been credited (along with the Ad Astra Rocket Company and NASA, where most of the preliminary research was undertaken) with commercializing the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (or VASMR) to the point where it will be ready for orbital testing aboard the International Space Station in 2013, according to the article "New rocket engine could make trips to Mars realistic," originally posted on the website.

The company, previously best known as the first to develop a commercially available fully solid state broadcast transmitter, can certainly point to a history of successful technology commercialization to back up the current claims.

According to the article:
A new NASA rocket engine, designed partly in Canada, raises the revolutionary possibility that a manned trip to Mars could take less than three months instead of two years.
Although the expected thrust of the system isn't high enough to overcome planetary gravity and it must be launched into orbit using conventional rockets, the continuous (if low powered) thrust of the VASIMR system allows for the build up of velocities which substantially decreases overall travel time between planets.

VASIMR is one of a dozen or so ion or "plasma type" propulsion systems currently on the drawing board, according to the Atomic Rockets list of potential engines for spaceflight which includes some basic VASIMR schematics. According to the website, one of the main advantages of the systems is it's ability to "shift gears" and "trade exhaust velocity for thrust."

This feature is also reflected in NASA Technical Paper 3539, titled "Rapid Mars Transits With Exhaust-Modulated Plasma Propulsion."

Until recently however, VASIMR was considered one of the least likely plasma propulsion systems to ever become commercially viable given that quite a few different plasma designs have been ground tested and a few (including Hall effect thrusters, arcjets and ion thrusters) are either already operational as part of existing satellite propulsion/ steering systems or else have been at least successfully tested in the space environment.

In essence, VASIMR was considered an "also ran."

Nautel's focus will be on building the high power RF amplifier for "plasma generation and subsequent acceleration in an electric spacecraft propulsion system" according to documents available on their website. Ad Astra is acting as the prime contractor for the project.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

That Crowded List of Unsupervised Space Agencies

Laws, contracts, definable milestones and proper procedures are certainly useful to the ongoing success of any business venture. But sometimes the rules are already in place to serve as useful guides to obligations and responsibilities and at other times (in an unregulated environment) we end up making up the rules as we go along.

Maybe that's what handshakes are for.

But while the signs are good (especially based on some of the early work relating to satellite orbital slots), only time and further discussion will define the legal rules and responsibilities relating to access to the high frontier.

For example, the United Nations has just released the document "Debating Outer Space Cooperation, Fourth Committee Hears Growing Number of Actors in Outer Space Could Risk Security of Space Assets, Limit Scope of Peaceful Uses" as part of their sixty-fourth General Assembly activities.

The document is interesting, not only for what it does say but also for what it doesn't say. For example:.
Highlighting the many ways in which space technology had proven essential, not only for exploring outer space, but also for addressing many of the global challenges facing the world today, the representative of Sweden, speaking on behalf of the European Union, said that the growing number of actors in outer space could risk the security of space assets.
There are certainly a lot of agencies and organizations focused on activities related to outer space and space exploration. For example, a Wikipedia list of "government only" space agencies includes over seventy players with over a dozen possessing independent launch capabilities including the Israeli Space Agency, the Iranian Space Agency, the French Centre National d’Études Spatiales (National Center of Space Research) and the National Space Agency of Ukraine.

And the Wikipedia list doesn't include any of the up and coming newspace private sector players, the universities (focused on research but with the capability to build and control satellites) or the private telecommunication companies also operating satellites.

Without even a proper inventory of the players it's not yet clear what type of cooperation is required in order to protect "the security of space assets" and the UN document doesn't really go into a lot of detail.

As a guess, this phrase might relate to keeping military focused activities out of the high frontier but reconnaissance has always been a legitimate military activity and it's often difficult to tell the difference between military satellites directing cruise missiles and civilian satellites tracking commercial aviation (GPS satellites have distinctly military origins).

There is also an entirely reasonable concern over the tracking and cleanup of space debris to "keep the orbital channels free" for manned and unmanned spaceflight activities.The Sapphire project, partially organized by the Department of National Defense (DND) as part of it's contribution to the US Space Surveillance Network is a sample of Canadian contributions in this area..

But the phrase might also be intended to focus on issues surrounding banning weapons from space and at first sight, there does seem to be an obvious differentiation between weapons and other objects like reconnaissance collection devices or data transmission satellites. However, remember that any object impacting at 3 km/sec delivers kinetic energy equal to its mass in TNT and this includes any object accidentally (or intentionally) falling out of orbit.

So any object placed in orbit can act as a weapon no matter what it objectively looks like or ostensibly does simply by dropping out of orbit.

Most satellites do that eventually.

And then there's the The Kzinti Lesson, taken from a series of science fiction novels by Larry Niven where it was discovered that "a reaction drive's efficiency as a weapon is in direct proportion to its efficiency as a drive." This means that anything able to lob an object into orbit is also likely to make a pretty reasonable weapon in a pinch.

Perhaps these are some of the reasons why the US doesn't want China, Iran or North Korea to possess a satellite launch capability.

Here's our best guess of what a near future space war would look like.

Current UN delegates might remember the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, one of the first attempts to develop an internationally recognized set of laws governing space activities.

Although it's been ratified by almost 100 nations and is primarily focused on banning space based nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction, the treaty provides no proper definition of what weapons of mass destruction are and doesn't forbid the placement of more "traditional" weapons in space. It also contains clauses covering "international responsibility" which are commonly perceived of as being a hindrance to space focused business activities.

Only time will tell how these current UN discussions and position papers effect business opportunities in the high frontier. Hopefully, the UN will not just attempt to simply deny access to space until the legal concerns and conflicts are ironed out.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Canadian Component Builders "Moving Up the Food Chain" to Build Complete Satellites

According to the recent Space News article "MDA Eyes Telecom Satellite Prime Contractor" by Peter B. de Selding, Canadian space subcontractor, MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (MDA) is actively competing for contracts to produce complete commercial telecommunications satellites among central Asian nations that were once part of the ex-Soviet Union.

According to MDA CEO Dan Friedman during an investors conference call on October 28th:
We’ve been winning pieces of communications satellites … on other people’s satellites. As we go forward, we see opportunities to sell complete satellites. We’re putting our own communications payload on it, which increases our value added and our margins.
This MDA initiative follows closely on those of Ontario-based COM DEV International to inaugurate its own line of small satellites. According to ComDev CEO John Keeting, as quoted in the article "Today’s investment climate ‘sad,’ COM DEV chief says" the firm is doing as well as anytime in it's history and is investing heavily in new technology and new products even during the present tough economic times. Most recently, an American based ComDev subsidiary won a $7 million USD contract to supply space equipment to the US government.

As these two traditional pillars of the Canadian space industry grow from niche player into prime contractors, a number of newer players are developing innovative components, creating new, knowledge intensive jobs and winning contracts from government and private business all the while generally turning into profitable, skilled replacements for the roles that MDA and COM DEV are hoping to grow out of.

For example, according to the recent article "Canadian Technologies Featured on ESA Proba-2 Mission" three smaller Canadian companies are contributing to the upcoming European Space Agency (ESA) PRoject for OnBoard Autonomy (Proba-2) satellite which contains the following Canadian components.
All things considered, Canada is a pretty good place be if you're interested on either creating your own or investing in an already existing aerospace or newspace company, at least according to the recent Futron 2009 Space Competitiveness Index which states that:
  • Canada jumped nearly 10 percent in SCI points (a Futron developed measurement of the business climate and how investment is made in the space industry) based on government metrics around both civilian and military space policy, along with a commitment to increase overall funding on space programs.
  • Canada ranks well in human capital indicators due to its strong academic network and large number of university aerospace programs and civilian research centers.
The only exception to this and other rather positive reviews of Canada is still the recent Near Earth LLC report on Small Aerospace Companies, which indicates that the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) provides "no dedicated programs to small aerospace firms" at least when compared to organizations like the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the European Space Agency (ESA).

The Near Earth Report was first mentioned in my post "Canadian Space Agency Provides "No Dedicated Programs" to Support Small Aerospace Firms" which received quite a bit of comment from readers (most of which was posted under the heading "OK, So Maybe the CSA Does Provide Some Support for Small Aerospace Firms...") but no feedback or serious attempt at rebuttal from the CSA, at least so far

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Needed: An Isaac Asimov "Mnemonic Service"

I've just finished up my first full day at the 2009 Canadian Science Policy Conference and couldn't help but notice the large number of leading experts on Canadian science, policy and innovation in attendance.

These include Gary Goodyear, Minister of State for Science and Technology, John Milloy, the Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities and Minister of Research and Innovation, Preston Manning (these days with the Manning Centre for Building Democracy) plus the presidents of the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), the Ontario Centres of Excellence and about 220 other scientists, engineers, policymakers, industrial R&D managers and others with an interest in the intersection of policy, science and technology.

I'm told that at least two people from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA)  were there as well and it's important for them to attend science policy conferences like this because of the CSA mandate as listed on their website which is:
To promote the peaceful use and development of space, to advance the knowledge of space through science and to ensure that space science and technology provide social and economic benefits for Canadians.
But I couldn't help but notice the overall lack of aerospace, new-space and "just plain space" focused people at the conference (with the exception of the two CSA people, Rachel Woen Tjoen from Bombardier and Kevin Shortt, President of the Canadian Space Society out of a total of 300 attendees).

This seems odd given the recent speech by Claude Lajeunesse, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada (AIAC) at the 2009 AIAC Annual General Meeting on October 14th, where he stated:
A recent AeroStrategy study commissioned by AIAC and Industry Canada on the impact of Globalization on Canada reveals that today, Canada is absent from the top 10 countries in the world for investment in Aerospace R&D, manufacturing and MRO.  Canada has not sufficiently taken advantage of the ‘investment boom’ of the past 20 years.
The full text of the speech is posted on the AIAC website here but it seems that anyone with this sort of concern would reasonably want to meet with Canadian scientists and politicians to discuss these trends and go over options on how to reverse them.

Perhaps Mr. Lajeunesse just didn't know about the event this week or perhaps he was tired and shagged out after the AIAC AGM last week. Maybe he'll attend next year.

Perhaps the real problem is that that organizations tend to focus on conversations within specific narrow specialties ("scientists" or "engineers" or "space agency representatives" or "aerospace business people") but the problems cross disciplines and require multidisciplinary solutions with awareness of issues and debates in multiple contexts using terms of reference from seemingly incompatible disciplines which may not normally socialize, compare notes or even understand each other.

We might need a "mnemonic service."

What's that you might ask? Here's an example, from "Sucker Bait", a 1954 novel by Isaac Asimov:
"Mnemonic Service," said Sheffield, patiently. "Emm-enneee- emm-oh-enn-eye-see Service. You don't pronounce the first emm. It's from a Greek word meaning memory."

The captain's eyes narrowed. "He remembers things?"

"Correct, captain. Look, in a way this is my fault. I should have briefed you on this. I would have, too, if the boy hadn't gotten so sick right after the take-off. It drove most other matters out of my mind. Besides, it didn't occur to me that he might be interested in the workings of the ship itself. Space knows why not. He should be interested in everything."

"He should, eh?" The captain looked at the timepiece on the wall. "Brief me now, eh? But no fancy words. Not many of any other kind, either. Time limited."

"It won't take long, I assure you. Now you're a space-going man, captain. How many inhabited worlds would you say there were in the Confederation?"

"Eighty thousand," said the captain, promptly.

"Eighty-three thousand two hundred," said Sheffield. "What do you suppose it takes to run a political organization that size?"

Again the captain did not hesitate. "Computers," he said.

"All right. There's Earth, where half the population works for the government and does nothing but compute and there are computing subcenters on every other world. And even so data gets lost. Every world knows something no other world knows-almost every man. Look at our little group. Vernadsky doesn't know any biology and I don't know enough chemistry to stay alive. There's not one of us can pilot the simplest spacecruiser, except for Fawkes. So we work together, each one supplying the knowledge the others lack.

"Only there's a catch. Not one of us knows exactly which of our own data is meaningful to the other under a given set of circumstances. We can't sit and spout everything we know. So we guess, and sometimes we don't guess right. Two facts, A and B, can go together beautifully sometimes. So Person A, who knows Fact A, says to Person B, who knows Fact B, 'Why didn't you tell me this ten years ago?' and Person B answers, 'I didn't think it was important,' or 'I thought everyone knew that.'"

The captain said, "That's what computers are for."

Sheffield said, "Computers are limited, captain. They have to be asked questions. What's more the questions have to be the kind that can be put into a limited number of symbols. What's more computers are very literal minded. They answer exactly what you ask and not what you have in mind. Sometimes it never occurs to anyone to ask just the right question or feed the computer just the right symbols, and when that happens the computer doesn't volunteer information.

"What we need . . . what all mankind needs . . . is a computer that is nonmechanical; a computer with imagination. There's one like that, captain." The psychologist tapped his temple. "In everyone, captain."

"Maybe," grunted the captain, "but I'll stick to the usual, eh? Kind you punch a button."

"Are you sure? Machines don't have hunches. Did you ever have a hunch?"

"Is this on the point?" The captain looked at the timepiece again.

Sheffield said, "Somewhere inside the human brain is a record of every datum that has impinged upon it. Very little of it is consciously remembered, but all of it is there, and a small association can bring an individual datum back without a person's knowing where it comes from. So you get a 'hunch' or a 'feeling.' Some people are better at it than others. And some can be trained. Some are almost perfect, like Mark Annuncio and a hundred like him. Some day, I hope, there'll be a billion like him, and we'll really have a Mnemonic Service.

"All their lives," Sheffield went on, "they do nothing but read, look, and listen. And train to do that better and more efficiently. It doesn't matter what data they collect. It doesn't have to have obvious sense or obvious significance. It doesn't matter if any man in the Service wants to spend a week going over the records of the space-polo teams of the Canopus Sector for the last century. Any datum may be useful some day. That's the fundamental axiom.

"Every once in a while, one of the Service may correlate across a gap no machine could possibly manage. The machine would fail because no one machine is likely to possess those two pieces of thoroughly unconnected information; or else, if the machine does have it, no man would be insane enough to ask the right question. One good correlation out of the Service can pay for all the money appropriated for it in ten years or more."
Maybe a good place to start would be to begin attending each others parties, seminars and conferences.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Naive Profs Offer Hack Writers Science Tutoring

When focused on their core competency of providing background on higher education in Canada, the website "University Affairs" is always a useful read but their recent announcement of the opening of the Science Media Centre of Canada (SMCC) under the headline "Canada's science media centre opens doors" should hold particular interest to companies and organizations dependent on a highly educated and intelligent workforce.

The article states that the media centre "will help journalists better cover science and researchers better understand reporters' motivations" and this is all well and good.

But I'm just not sure if it's possible to accomplish what Suzanne Corbeil, vice-president, external relations and communications, with the Canada Foundation for Innovation and chair of the SMCC's steering committee seems to have defined as her personal primary goal. “That goal is accurate and rational coverage of science issues in the Canadian mass media” she is quoted in the article as saying.

Now don't  get me  wrong. I like the idea of accurate and rational science coverage. It's the mention of "mass media" that confuses me.

After all, mass media is dying. Those who aren't aware of this haven't noticed the financial troubles at CanWest Global Communications, or researched how little subscriptions to McLeans Magazine cost these days (at least according to this post on the Canadian Magazine Blog), or read the article "2020 Vision: What's next for News," or seen the documentary "Stop the Presses: The American Newspaper in Peril" or even noticed that there are more than three television stations on the air (several of whom seem to be fighting to redistribute advertising and cable fee revenue perhaps in order to postpone further bankruptcies).

It's quite possible that any formal Canadian "mass media" will slide slowly down the slippery slope towards extinction over the next twenty years so the MSCC might want to spend less time focusing on declining areas and more time in areas of the media that are either stable or growing.

There are obvious identifiable areas of media growth where liaisons like SMCC can perform useful services, especially the multiple areas in independent online and new media (where this blog is a useful example) or with specialty magazines which, unlike traditional mass media, are presently undergoing strong and long term growth.

Unfortunately, the listing of MSCC contributors on their website under the our members tab doesn't list any large media partners except for the Toronto Star, a daily newspaper which certainly can't be considered in any way shape or form as anything other than an old style mass media publication. Of course, the Discovery Channel (which is more of a television specialty channel) and O'Brian Publishing (the publisher of Canadian Technology and Business Magazine) are also included in the list and perhaps over time they will bring a measure of realism to the MSCC agenda.

But until then, while some other SMCC goals may indeed be laudable (such as suggestions of "mostly virtual and completely bilingual centre(s) that will help reporters find experts and get briefings on topical concerns") they may already be happening and SMCC seems to be coming quite late to the party.

Here's an example from a recent panel discussion on new media at the American Association Advancement of Science Science Policy Forum.

Here's the second portion of the presentation:

I'd suggest that the MSCC needs more (and more knowledgable) media partners before it can begin to perform a useful role. I wish the organization luck, (I'll even link to it) but I think it's got a long way to go before it even understands the media landscape, much less is able to influence it.

Technology and space focused businesses make the same same mistakes and we'll get to that in a future post.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Oh Du Lieber Augustine!

Leiber Augistin
According to legend (and this entry in Wikipedia), Lieber Augustin, referred to in the song "Oh du lieber Augustin" lived in Vienna during the Plague period of 1678-1679.

One evening, Lieber hoisted a few too many glasses of wine and decided to nap off his hangover in a pit next to the bodies of plague victims. Next morning he awoke (much to the shock of those who witnessed the event and assumed him dead) so the rumor spread that wine acted as a cure for the plague. 

How does this relate to the present day Norm Augustine, and his current position as chairman of the Review of United States Human Space Flight Plans Committee? That's easy. Liber, was given a second chance at life and Norm Augustine has been given a second chance to chair an advisory committee on the future of the US space program.

It's interesting to see how the first Augustine report (written in 1990 and available online here) compares with the current report released earlier today. According to the article "NASA needs Direction? Call Norm Augustine!" from the Daily Planet website:
The 1990 panel worried about a “lack of a national consensus as to what should be the goals of the civil space program.” Still true.

They said “NASA is currently over committed in terms of program obligations relative to resources available.” It still is.

The 1990 report (also) lamented management inefficiencies at the space agency, a graying workforce, and the tendency “for projects to grow in scope, complexity, and cost.” Check, check, and check.
Of course the first Augustin ended up scaring people and driving them to drink (but only as an antidote to the plague, of course).

Only time will tell what the current Augustine ends up doing.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Ignoring Innovation While Waiting for Augustine

Michael Swartwout, an Assistant Professor of Aerospace & Mechanical Engineering at Parks College, St. Louis University has written a fascinating article on "The promise of innovation from university space systems: are we meeting it" for the October 12th issue of online publication, The Space Review.

In the article, he states unequivocally that:
The first university-class spacecraft was launched in 1981; satellite number 119 was launched in September 2009. At present, an average of 12 university-class spacecraft are launched each year.
Just off the top of my head, those numbers seem to be more than the CSA (or even maybe NASA) has launched lately and the genesis of these prolific little spacecraft are traced back to one specific location:
Faculty and students in the Electrical Engineering Department at the University of Surrey developed the first two university-class spacecraft: UoSAT 1 (1981) and UoSAT 2 (1984). After those successes, they spun off a new company, Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL).
This new firm almost immediately became among the very first and most successful of a number of small satellite companies. After a long and varied independent history portions of the firm were sold to SpaceX in January 2005 and then a controlling interest was brought by EADS Astrium in April 2008. The company still functions today as a subsidiary of EADS Astrium and has recently opened a US office.

Swartwout believes that this specific small satellite company is a case study for future space focused ventures and even makes some observations on where the next breakout organizations will come from:
...we now speak of the “Surrey Model”, whereby a university (a) develops an in-house spacecraft capability, (b) advances to more-capable missions, and (c) spins off the program into a profit-making entity. This approach has been adopted by several other programs, including: the University of Toronto Space Flight Laboratory, the Satellite Technology Research Center in Korea, the Technical University of Berlin, and the King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia. All are actively building highly capable space systems for national governments, and several have international customers.
The next Surrey Satellite might not even be a satellite company but could perhaps be involved in a number of other space focused areas. It might even be developing engines or components required for manned space flight

Essentially, space advocates have a variety of options available for moving forward in space exploration and don't need to wait by the side of the road for next weeks expected formal release of the Augustine Commissions full report on NASA human space flight (or for its hoped for Obama administration follow-on offering lots of money to maintain the existing NASA infrastructure and jobs).

It's good that we're not sitting by the side of the road under a tree waiting for someone else to solve our problems.

Just ask these people if you don't believe me.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Science Policies, Space Summits and Great Gossip

It's the fall conference season, that traditional period from late September until late November when we attend conferences, reacquaint ourselves with colleagues, compare notes and stay up late telling terrible stories about mutual acquaintances who are probably really nice people except for one spectacular slip-up during a previous conference.

So with that in mind here are two quick promo's for conferences I'll be attending and reporting on over the next little while.

The Canadian Science Policy Conference is this October 28th to 30th in Toronto and focused on attracting academics and others with "an interest in the intersection of policy with science and technology." Speakers include Minister of State for Science and Technology Gary Goodyear, Minister for Training John Molloy and conservative populist Preston Manning.

This conference  is specifically targeted at "scientists, engineers, policymakers, industrial R&D managers, association officials, government grant recipients, students, science diplomats, government affairs specialists, public affairs officers, science writers, and others with an interest in the intersection of policy with science and technology" according to their website.

The second conference I'll be attending is organized by the Canadian Space Society, which has just released the speaker schedule for the 2009 Canadian Space Summit at the Royal Military College in Kingston Ontario on November 20th - 22nd.

The Space Summit is expecting to attract a roster of professionals, academics, government officials and enthusiasts interested in this year's theme of "Multi-Use Missions: Opportunities for Collaboration on Space Technologies."

But since I'm chairing the commercial track, you should also know that I'm especially looking for Canadian based aerospace and new-space focused firms interested in business opportunities related to the commercialization of basic science.

If you're attending either of these events, feel free to let me know and we can meet up for coffee and juicy stories.

I'm quite interested in stories from businesses (or even from CSA employees) involved with commercialization and technology transfer through the Canadian Space Agency, especially if you've had exposure to any of the items listed in this document on innovative technical opportunities.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Beating Rocket Shaped Swords into Plowshares

Waterloo, Ontario based Project Plowshares and Superior, Colorado based Secure World Foundation have just released their 2009 Space Security Report on behalf of the Space Security Index.

Partners in the study include the Institute of Air and Space Law at McGill University and the Simons Centre for Disarmament and Non‐Proliferation Research at the University of British Columbia. As well, the project is supported by the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, the Ploughshares Fund and the Erin J.C Arsenault Trust Fund at McGill University.

The report is a useful resource focused on listing the players, their activities and the existing rules governing those activities in near Earth orbit and beyond.

For example, on page 83 the report provides this assessment of the commercial space sector:
The commercial space sector has experienced dramatic growth over the past decade, largely related to rapidly increasing revenues associated with satellite services. These services are provided by companies that own and operate satellites, as well as the ground support centers that control them.

The second largest contribution to the growth of the commercial space sector has been made by satellite and ground equipment manufacturing. This includes both direct contractors that design and build large systems and vehicles, smaller subcontractors responsible for system components, and software providers.

In the early 2000s, overcapacity in the launch market and a reduction in commercial demand combined to depress the cost of commercial space launches. More recently, an energized satellite communication market and launch industry consolidation have resulted in stabilization and an increase in launch pricing.
A healthy space industry can lead to decreasing costs for space access and use, and increase the accessibility of space technology. Of the 49 states that have accessed space to date (see Civil Space Trend 3.1), almost all have been assisted in some way by the commercial space industry.
The full document is available for download at no charge on the Space Security Website in the publications section for those who'd like to take a closer look.

Friday, October 09, 2009

"Kodak" Moment for the Nobel Committee.

Although not officially listed as a formal spin-off of the space industry (having been invented in 1969 at Bell Laboratories and therefore more properly considered as a telecom based spin-off) the invention of the charged coupling device (or CCD) has revolutionized the field of astronomy and space imaging.

Yesterday, Canadian-born Willard S. Boyle and Amercan George E. Smith, were honored by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences by being presented with the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics for their invention.

Charles K. Kao also shared the prize for his work in fiber optic light transmission.

The usefulness of CCD's is all about the ability to couple them with sensors (such as photoelectric devices) to produce a charge that can be read electronically, then converted into an image or some other data format and transmitted over a distance (say from a satellite in orbit back to the Earth).

Such devices are found on almost every current scientific or military space vehicle including the International Space Station and the Hubble Space Telescope. They're considered to be quite an improvement over previous methods of collecting, transmitting and retrieving satellite data such as the low resolution television cameras used in the Ranger program or the techniques used by the Corona series of US military reconnaissance satellites (which required the physical retrieval of small re-entry capsules containing exposed but undeveloped film).

No doubt, the CCD also contributed to the recent decision by multinational Eastman Kodak to no longer manufacture kodachrome film since digital camera's also use CCD's for imaging and have essentially taken over what was once a film based industry.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

ITAR, Dual Use and Export Restrictions

The recent announcement that US President Barack Obama has directed his economic and national security advisers to launch a broad-based inter-agency review of U.S. export controls governing military and dual-use technology transfers (according to the article "White House Announced Export Control Review" from the Space News website) cannot help but remind us that no discussion of Canadian space policy is complete without referencing the various US export control regulations and their effects.

Examples of these regulations include the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) and the recent International Emergency Economic Powers Enhancement Act.

As a reminder of why the the Obama administration feels the need to perform a review, we might want to take a look at recent promotional documents like "Coping With The New Export Control Paradigm" published by large American law firm Foley and Lardner LLP (which likely wrote the document to highlight it's expertise in this area). High points include the following statements:
Export compliance for technology requires a different mindset, with the focus as much on the process of creation and the use of the product as the good itself. For example, where software is at issue, the focus is not the physical medium but rather such issues as the method of export (which could be over the internet and thus not involve any good in traditional form) and the potential uses of the software (which might be incorporated into a controlled product by the purchaser). 

Technology also brings into play nontraditional means of export. Such issues as whether there is a “deemed export” (i.e., communication of controlled information to a non-U.S. national, whether by oral discussion, visual inspection, or otherwise), export by access to a company’s information systems, issues relating to the employment of non-U.S. nationals, or even whether the mere exposure of a foreigner to a “data-rich environment” is a violation are all amplified where highly technological goods and services are at issue.
These issues all relate to the potential "dual" or second use of any item as a weapon. Since almost anything can be used as a weapon (even a pen, which was traditionally considered to be mightier than the sword) the US perceives it reasonable to implement and maintain these sorts of sweeping regulations governing possibilities and potentialities.

Of course, many Canadian companies are therefore having difficulties selling into the lucrative US aerospace and defense market but these restrictions also limit trade in the other direction. For example, the article "Allies Rebel Against U.S. Military Trade Restrictions" states unequivocally that:

EADS and other European companies have been working to develop military components that are not subject to a U.S. sales veto. For example, EADS Space Transportation Division boasts it is developing a satellite motor that will be “completely ITAR-free and therefore not subject to U.S. export license restrictions, allowing competitive access to worldwide customers.”

EADS is following in the footsteps of France’s Alcatel Space, which has made it company policy since 2002 to build ITAR-free communications satellites to avoid U.S. control over sales. Last April, Alcatel launched its first ITAR-free satellite on a Chinese rocket.

Morotta, a British maker of spacecraft propulsion and propellant management equipment, advertises that its products “are European and hold ITAR-free status.” And when Surrey Satellite Technology, another British firm, touts the “features” of its satellite propulsion systems, “completely ITAR- free” is at the top of the list.

This is bad news for the U.S. satellite industry, according to a paper published by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. U.S. companies, which must adhere to ITAR restrictions, are at a growing disadvantage as the inventory of ITAR-free components expands.
No one in Canada is so far suggesting that perhaps we should be doing the same but lets hope the Obama requested review at least begins to start putting the US house in order.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

This Blog Now Fortified with an Extra Column and New Sources of Funding

As part of the first major update to the Commercial Space blog, you'll notice a couple of changes to the layout including the addition of an extra column on the right side to help organize some of the recently added links and blog feeds.

I'm hoping regular readers will also notice a couple of new links to Canadian specific sources of funding for technology focused start-ups and established firms looking to grow.

Some of these new links include:

Scientists looking to commercialize space focused scientific activities and entrepreneurs looking to build a business are well advised to acquaint themselves with these organizations.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Cosmonauts, Street Performers and the Kwartzlab Society

As shown in the video below, Canadian billionaire and Cirque du Soleil entrepreneur Guy Laliberté, retired US Army Colonel Jeffrey Williams and Russian Army Colonel Maxim Surayev blasted off today from the Baikonur Cosmodrome.

Russia Today's Gayane Chichakyan was right there, perhaps even a little too close to the action that looks to be only a few dozen meters behind as she provides launch coverage and background material while being blown about by the blast of the Soyuz TMA-16 spacecraft's engines.

Back in the early 1980's, Laliberté was just an enterprising street performer in Quebec, hanging with other street performers in much the same way as he is now hanging with cosmonauts and astronauts.

But how does any of the above relate to the Kwartzlab Society you may ask? In fact, does anyone even know what the Kwartzlab Society is?

For those who don't, this Kitchener, Ontario based organization is defined on the about page of their website as focused around something called a "hackerspace," which is a:
physical location where like-minded people get together in a cooperative environment to pool their knowledge, experience, and physical resources with a goal to bringing into reality the projects about which they’ve been dreaming.
The sky is the limit, almost literally: projects range from building hardware to building art, from restoring antique equipment to putting electronic blinking eyes in a crocheted doll.
According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, the Cirque du Soleil was formed in Quebec in the early 1980's by a group of enterprising street performers:
At that time, the province of Québec did not have a circus tradition, so this group of stilt-walkers, jugglers, fire-eaters and buskers banded together to create a performance platform for themselves. They called themselves "Club des Talons Hauts" or "High-Heels Club," since most of them were stilt-walkers.
The group organized a festival "Fête Foraine de Baie St-Paul" (The Baie Saint-Paul Fair), in which the street performers could exchange ideas and techniques and this led to the birth of Cirque du Soleil.
So in the 1980's a group of performers banded together to exchange ideas and techniques and this led to the creation of the Cirque du Soleil and in 2009, another group banded together to pool their knowledge and expertise in much the same way.

I'm not sure yet what the Kwartzlab Society wants to create or build or accomplish over the next few years but at least one of their members has been active in the Canadian Space Commerce Association (CSCA) and worked with the DaVinci Project when it competed for the Ansari X-Prize several years back.

Perhaps in twenty or so years, members of the Kwartzlab Society, using the same techniques as led to the Cirque du Soleil and Guy Laliberté's current adventure will themselves get to hobnob with astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station (or whatever ends up replacing it).

As for Laliberté, the Soyuz TMA-16 spacecraft is scheduled to dock at the International Space Station on Oct. 2, where Laliberté, Surayev and Williams will join Canadian astronaut Bob Thirsk and five others.

The Montreal Gazette has indicated that the "CBC Might Air Show From Space" when Laliberté hosts his unprecedented program from the International Space Station, titled "Moving Stars and Earth for Water" on October 9th. The production is part of his plan to raise awareness of water-related issues and is organized through the ONE DROP Foundation.

Let's hope CBC ends up running the program. 

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Difference Between Butter Knives and Bayonets

Adam Côté, an MA candidate at the Norman Patterson School of International Affairs at Carelton University believes that comprehensive legal structures governing space based activities are vital in order to provide the appropriate framework to undertake space based scientific, engineering, business and technical projects in much the same way as the works of Hugo Grotius, Francisco de Vitoria and Alberico Gentili laid the foundations for modern international law and contributed to the growth of trans-national trade, exploration and discovery beginning in the 17th century.
And the key to any international treaty or legal structure, according to Côté, is a credible verification regime.

He will be speaking at the upcoming Canadian Space Summit, being held on November 20-22, 2009 in Kingston, Ontario as part of the law and policy track, which is focused on space traffic management, potential legal regimes for space debris removal, international space surveillance/situational awareness and space arms control.

According to Côté, verification is the process of gathering and analyzing information to assess compliance or non-compliance with an international agreement through the development of defined criteria to distinguish between harmful, space based devices and benign satellites.

Simply put, we should be able to tell the difference between a "butter knife" and a "bayonet," the latter of which generally doesn't work well when spreading marmalade.

"The design of a space system, which is constrained by the initial launch and by the space environment, is generally closely related to its function which can be extrapolated from form, location and observed activities," states Côté. "Plus, the development of verification mechanisms based on observational evidence is something that has been done many times previously as part of a international treaties on trade practices, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles.”

So what's the real difference between a space based butter knife and a space based bayonet?

Côté won't tell me that over the phone. He says I need to go to the 2009 Canadian Space Summit and attend his presentation in order to find out.

For more information on the 2009 Canadian Space Summit, please contact the Canadian Space Society.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Science "Blinded" by Social Media

Thomas Dolby, one of the more famous one hit wonders of the 80's but also a working artist today (having begun performing again in 2006 after a long hiatus) is best remembered for the quirky, playful synth-pop song "She Blinded me with Science."

Of course, these days social media is blinding, confusing, modifying and changing science all out of recognition, at least according to Hornby Island resident Fraser Cain and the rest of his team at Universe Today, a popular internet site dedicated to news about astronomy and space exploration. The site receives over 600,000 page views a month, and the newsletter edition goes out to 26,000 subscribers every weekday.

Along with Dr. Pamela L. Gay, he hosts the Astronomy Cast podcast and recently had some interesting things to say about the advent of social media and how it affects the scientific process.

For example, according to Cain and Gay:
Astronomy is one of the scientific fields that have been completely shaken up by new media. The internet has enabled communication by researchers in a dramatic new way creating new collaborations, removing obstacles and drawing in an army of enthusiastic volunteers to help with the research.
Changes include:
  • The advent of portable text based content that can be read by small devices or cell phones anywhere in the world. This essentially means that there is no more need for traditional library or even formal internet access since the data is now posted online and available anywhere cell phones function.
  • A more open research environment using blogs to provide ongoing research updates, compare notes and provide context for scientific collaborations. This new environment is building an openness among scientists who may always have hungered for the opportunity to discuss problems, compare solutions, build community and provide insight into the "life of a scientist," but were never able to do so until now.
  • The creation of entire "virtual worlds" through social media constructs like Second Life, which has pretty much replaced the construction of physical buildings for the traditional planetarium experience of astronomy for a generation of students.
Essentially, where before solitary scientists would toil for years in private before eventually publishing a paper in a prestigious journal and then wait patiently for feedback and "peer review," science today is now done "out loud" and peer review is done in real time without the "middle man" to screw things up.

According to Cain and Gay, there is nothing scarier for a scientist than to talk to a "network or a mainstream journalist" because "they get it wrong a lot."

The podcast (episode 148 in the long running series titled "Astronomy and the New Media") is available here, for those who'd like to learn more.

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