Monday, January 28, 2013

Planetary Resources in BC Looking for Investors

Just like the CEO's of many other junior engineering companies, Planetary Resources President and Chief Engineer Chris Lewicki was in Canada last week for the recent Vancouver Resource Investment Conference, organized by Cambridge House International.

Founded in 1995, Cambridge House organizes conferences, for public companies involved with mineral exploration and the supporting media, service providers, hedge fund managers, geologists, investing celebrities and industry analysts looking for networking and investment opportunities.

According to Lewicki, Planetary Resources was in town for both networking and investment. However, his company was also "absolutely" looking for more funding. In a January 21st, 2012 interview with Bridget Anderson for the Proactive Investors news organization, Lewicki stated:
Just like many things here on Earth this is going to take a little while to develop and it's going to take a fair amount of capital.and we've got a lot of that to begin with but we're certainly always interested in new people joining the team.
Although the long-term goal of the company is to mine asteroids, initial plans call for developing a market for small (30–50 kg) cost-reduced space telescopes for both Earth observation and astronomy. But even this more modest, intermediate goal requires investors with deep pockets, patience and tens of millions of dollars.

Current public backers include Canadian film director James Cameron, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, Google founder Larry Page, computer software executive and space tourist Charles Simonyl and venture capitalist Ram Shriram.

The January 21st, 2013 Planetary Resources presentation to the Vancouver Resource Investment Conference is available for viewing below.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Small Space Engineering Firm Looking to Grow

      by Brian Orlotti

Roman Ronge.
With the increasing emphasis on micro and nano satellite systems in today’s fiscally restricted environment, Brampton based Aflare Systems seems poised to become a major player. The company, formed in 2005, is a privately-owned engineering firm that specializes in the design and development of real-time systems for the aerospace, defense, and medical industries.

I recently had the chance to speak with Roman Ronge, the owner and President of Aflare. Ronge, an aerospace engineer and former researcher at the University of Toronto’s Institute for Aerospace Studies (UTIAS), provided some insight into his company in the context of the current aerospace business climate.

Could you please give us an overview on Aflare Systems? What does Aflare do and what does it hope to achieve? How did your company begin?
Aflare Systems started as software consulting company back in 2005 and transformed into an engineering company in 2010 that provides more complete set of services in systems design and development for operation in demanding environments. Our products, currently under development, are also helping Aflare to find its niche primarily in the aerospace market.
Founding our business on effective and responsible engineering, we see a synergy and significant opportunities in the growing low cost, small satellite and UAV markets. Two industry segments, where we can supply our products and services that will satisfy our clients and advance Aflare into a recognized industry player and further its vision.
Why did you choose to start your own firm instead of working for someone else?
I guess that comes really from my personality. Being labelled a maverick over the span of my employment career several times perhaps explains it better. I would say that it is more the drive to achieve something new in combination with persistence and in very significant part, passion for space exploration and pushing our limits. Not a small motivation is also seeing our customer’s satisfaction with delivered results that exceed their expectations. And as an entrepreneur, I am certainly much closer to this goal than as an employee.
What can you tell us about Aflare’s current projects?
As an example, I could perhaps mention our project to develop a low cost, high performance receiver/transmitter usable in different variations on both UAVs and nano/micro satellite platforms.
Although no agreement has been signed yet, recent acceptance of our project in the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) Space Technologies Development Program (STDP) will certainly help to move it in the right direction.

We are also working on standardized software control components and modules both platforms could certainly benefit from.
What is your take on the current situation of space/aerospace advocacy groups? Who do you think are the ones to watch?
Not being involved or following their activities, I really cannot comment on most of the associations and advocacy groups.
With that said, I really like what the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada (AIAC) under Jim Quick’s leadership is developing into. Being a major unifying voice for the Canadian aerospace businesses needed to drive our government to support and promote this fantastic industry. An industry that has helped put Canada on the world map and advances its whole industrial and research base.
Additionally, the more research-oriented Canadian Space Society (CSS) and truly enterprise-focused Canadian Space Commerce Association (CSCA) are great networking and collaborative groups.
They have great visions of Canada’s future in Space and are playing a greater and greater role in capturing the spirit of young Canadians.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Buy Canada: New Firm Tracks IRB Offsets

OMX CEO Nicole Verkindt.
Canadian government policies set up to insure that firms with Federal defence, aerospace (including space) and security contracts spend money in Canada equal to the value of the contracts received, could be about to undergo a private sector (and small business) makeover.

At least that's the intent of Nicole Verkindt, the CEO of Toronto based OMX Marketplace, an online database set up to provide government contractors with Canadian suppliers able to fulfill Industrial and Regional Benefit (IRB) program obligations. According to Verkindt, over $20 billion dollars still remains to be fulfilled under the program and this total is growing.

The money, known more formally under the term "offset credits," are derived from a complex calculation of "Canadian content" for each item purchased, which then must be "topped up" by further Canadian purchases until the amount spent in Canada through Canadian suppliers is calculated to be 100% of the cost of the original government contract.

A sample offset agreement, with a supplier providing 300 tanks for $400 million dollars, plus a series of direct and indirect offsets. Graphic c/o Wikipedia.

"What my company does is provide a structured database of tens of thousands of potential Canadian offset recipients (including suppliers, investment opportunities and R&D projects) by region, classification and capability accessible to Federal contractors so that they can find appropriate Canadian companies for their offset credits" stated Verkindt, in a January phone interview.

Over the next few months, OMX also intends to roll-out a "robust transactional system" for connecting prime contractors (government contractors with offset credits) to recipients (Canadian firms able to spend offset credits on Canadian programs and projects) in order to streamline internal processes and provide detailed data visualization reporting tools for both. According to Verkindt, "the end result will be a more efficient process designed to provide a clear understanding of exactly where the money is going by business size, region, type and various other metrics."

A more complex offset agreement, with different values added to reflect the importance of different types of activities to the overall contract. Graphic c/o Wikipedia.

Since going live in December 2012, the OMX company database has garnered support from a variety of Canadian and international sources. The firm is currently funded by its founders, private investors, and Government sources including the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC-IRAP), Coral CEA, the Ministry of Economic Development and Innovation of Ontario and the Canadian Youth Business Foundation. The advisory board includes membership from Colt Canada, Seaspan (an association of Canadian companies involved in marine transportation), Textron, Thales and others.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Deep Space Industries at CSCA National Conference in Toronto on March 7th

Rick Tumlinson.
Commercial space advocate Rick Tumlinson, the chairman of Deep Space Industries Inc. and considered to be one of the 100 most influential people in the space industry by Space News, will be speaking at the upcoming Canadian Space Commerce Association (CSCA) National Conference, being held in Toronto, ON on March 7th, 2013.

Tumlinson will provide an overview of this new company, the “FireFly” spacecraft which will perform the search and the 3D printing system (called the "MicroGravity Foundry") which will use nickel to create "high-density high-strength metal components even in zero gravity."

As outlined in the January 22nd, 2013 PRWeb press release "Commercial Asteroid Hunters announce plans for new Robotic Exploration Fleet," Deep Space Industries has announced that it will send a fleet of asteroid-prospecting spacecraft out into the solar system to hunt for resources to accelerate space development to benefit Earth.

The CSCA conference, focused on commercial space resource utilization, and taking place just one day after the 2013 Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada Annual Conference (PDAC 2013) in Toronto, will also include presentations from:
Ram Jakhu.
  • Ram S. Jakhu - As an associate professor of space law at the McGill Institute of Air and Space Law, Dr. Jakhu teaches and conducts research in international space law, the law of space applications, the law of space commercialization, the government regulation of space activities, the law of telecommunications and Canadian communications law, and public international law. Since 2009, he has also acted as an advisor on Optional Rules for Arbitration of Disputes Relating to Outer Space within the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
Lana Paton.
  • Lana Paton - A partner in the tax services practice of PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP. With a broad range of experience providing tax advice to mining companies and multinationals including knowledge on Canada's Mineral Exploration Tax Credit (commonly called the "super" flow through program) and the Canadian Exploration Expense (CEE), Ms. Paten develops detailed and highly successful tax plans for her clients whether they work in a terrestrial or an extraterrestrial environment.
Nicole Verkindt
  • Nicole Verkindt - The CEO of Toronto based OMX Marketplace, an online database set up to provide government contractors with Canadian suppliers able to fulfill Industrial and Regional Benefit (IRB) program obligations. Ms. Verkindt, will discuss the over $20 billion dollars still remaining to be fulfilled under the program and add some insight on how Canadian mining, manufacturing, aerospace and space firms can access it.
Peter Visscher.
  • Peter Visscher - The space and robotics manager for Ontario Drive and Gear (ODG). With the expertise his firm has developed building the Canadian Artemis Jr. lunar rover to meet the requirements of NASA's Regolith & Environment Science and Oxygen & Lunar Volatile Extraction (RESOLVE) project, expected to hunt for water, ice and other lunar resources, Mr. Visser will talk about the hardware available in Canada today which can contribute to commercial space resource utilization.
Topics and other speakers will be announced over the next few weeks. As well, a late afternoon panel discussion, focused on “After Emerson and after Steve MacLean: Canada’s Space Future for the CSA and the Domestic Space Industry” will also take place.

For more information or to register, please go to the CSCA website

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Praising Steve MacLean

Steve MacLean.
It's a reflection of outgoing Canadian Space Agency (CSA) President Steve MacLean that he leaves office known more for his two trips to the International Space Station (ISS) as part of the crews of STS-52 in 1992 and STS-115 in 2006 than for his more recent work as a public bureaucrat.

It's likely that Dr. MacLean would approve of this, since he often made discrete comments disparaging the bureaucrats and their political masters and never seemed terribly keen on ever becoming one, even after becoming CSA president in 2008.

Of course, he always had at least one very good reason for this. Back at the beginning of his term, he was promised the world on a platter by politicians who didn't deliver.

As outlined in the September 5th, 2008 Space Politics blog post "A new Canadian space plan," then Industry Minister Jim Prentice made the following comments about the then new CSA president and his supposed mandate:
Jim Prentice.
I have given Steve a mandate to make sweeping changes at the CSA. As we stand at this crossroads, he will revitalize the Agency. He will restore its ability to punch above its weight in an international quest. He will develop Canada’s capacity for a new era of prestige and achievement.

And to that end, as one of Steve MacLean’s first acts as new President, the CSA will begin consultations with stakeholders that will lead to a new Long-Term Space Plan. I expect this plan – the fourth in the series – to be as influential for our generation of exploration and development as any plan that Canada has produced for charting our future in space. That’s a tall order. I know that Steve is capable of bringing together the stakeholders. Time is of the essence, and I look forward to the plan in the coming months. 
But while a new long-term policy infrastructure for Canadian space activities and the promised, sweeping changes are now finally beginning to occur, these changes took years rather than months and Dr. MacLean is not likely to get credit for them. They will most likely end up being associated with ex-politician and civil servant David Emerson, the head of the recently concluded Aerospace Review and a man cut from much the same cloth as the people Dr. MacLean sometimes discretely questioned.

David Emerson.
This will happen for several very good reasons.

First of all, whatever the MacLean developed long-term space plan (which does indeed seem to have been completed in late 2009) may have said or recommended, it wasn't something that the Federal government would ever support or champion.

So the original report, essentially died.

But the political rumors, bureaucratic asides and semi-public innuendo surrounding the document (as outlined in the May 2nd, 2010 post "Space Men Invade Parliament: Parliament Retaliates Through Committee!"), when added to the ongoing problems surrounding the RADARSAT Constellation mission (most recently discussed in the January 13th, 2013 post "A $706M Fixed Price Contract and Hard Launch Date for RADARSAT Constellation"), left the political door open for further review.

A second catalyst for a renewed Federal government interest in the topic was an October 2010 Deloitte Report on the Strategic and Economic Impact of the Aerospace Industry. The report, funded by the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada (AIAC) served as the basis for the core set of assumptions under which the Aerospace Review, originally announced as part of the Federal 2011 budget, operated under when it began in February 2012.

The Canadian space industry, chafing under years of perceived neglect from both government and the CSA, responded to the review with the majority of the public submissions (which was pretty good for an industry 1/10th the size of the larger Canadian aviation industry) and ongoing public calls for further action. In essence, the political demands of burying the first report led directly to the political will necessary to complete and publicly release the second report.

So Dr. MacLean actually leaves office with his original mandate from Jim Prentice fulfilled, just not in the way anyone expected.

The outgoing CSA president is scheduled to leave office on February 1st. Here's hoping him a more direct route, with far fewer political detours and compromises, in his future endeavors.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Creating a Virtual Final Frontier for NASA and the CSA

     by Brian Orlotti

Traditionally, video games set in space have relied on far-flung futures with exotic tech and an emphasis on combat. Now, a Winnipeg-based firm is preparing something a bit more left-field; a massive sci-fi sandbox designed to help teach science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills.

Project Whitecard Studios Inc. of Winnipeg, MB is currently at work on 'Starlite," an online multiplayer game being developed in cooperation with NASA

The company was founded in 2008 by Khal Shariff, a former web developer and news writer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in Toronto. Unfulfilled with the job, Shariff left the CBC in 2005. After hearing of declining math and science scores in both Canada and the US, Shariff decided to return to his hometown of Winnipeg to pursue his dream of utilizing game technology for educational purposes.

Project Whitecard’s involvement with National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) came about from its association with the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), where it had previously worked creating an International Space Station (ISS) construction simulator called "RoboMath." Robomath’s success brought an invitation from NASA to speak at two events on the efficacy of using gaming in education. NASA staff was impressed with Shariff and offered his company a contract to develop an educational game.

Starlite’s development is being funded from several sources. Contributors include NASA, Kickstarter, The Province of Manitoba, The University of Manitoba, and the Canadian Media Fund. The game is being developed in accordance with a Space Act agreement with NASA Learning Technologies.

Set in the year 2035, Starlite portrays an era where humanity has begun settling and industrialising the solar system. Players take on the role of astronauts, helping to build the infrastructure of these new worlds. Players travel across the solar system, building and flying spacecraft, constructing space stations and ground facilities (i.e. mines and power stations) as well the gear needed to do these things. The game will have a hard sci-fi slant, emphasizing present and near-future space tech over the more exotic tech typically seen in sci-fi games.

Minerva, preview from Starlite image gallery.
Starlite’s gameplay mechanics combine elements found in both traditional online quest-based games (i.e. World of Warcraft) with those of open-world 'sandbox' games (i.e. Grand Theft Auto). The thread tying these elements together is the use of real-world STEM skills to solve problems.

At the start of the demo, your spacesuit-clad character is inside a monster truck-sized rover (called ‘Minerva’) on the surface of Mars. Your mission is to investigate a magnetic anomaly and you have just arrived on the scene. Moving your character around the cargo hold of the rover, you gather your equipment and then open the large airlock door. As you step out onto the red surface, you’re followed by two small rovers (looking suspiciously like the offspring of Spirit and Wall-E) who serve as your companions. Your character’s first task is to setup a work camp which involves dropping an inflatable tent and deploying a power generator. The generator then extends a robotic snake-like appendage which connects to a port on the tent and inflates it.

It’s at this point that you’re interrupted by a distress call from a nearby aircraft. The aircraft has suffered damage, and is about to crash nearby. A cutscene shows the aircraft screaming overhead and plummeting towards the ground. The pilot’s air supply is low and he’ll need assistance. To locate the pilot, your character needs to triangulate his distress signal. Your character steps inside their tent and picks up two small radios and a spool of wire. Using a ‘crafting’ screen similar to other games, you combine the wire with the radios to make a pair of receivers to mount on the rovers. When the items are combined, a window appears displaying an equation that needs to be completed to determine the antennas length. You type in the variables (distance in meters, and frequency in MHz) and the process is complete. The equation is shown in a non-intimidating way (with the variables clearly labelled) and makes sense in the context of the game.

You then take control of an individual rover, driving it around and sweeping the sky with radio beams (shown on screen as coloured waves) to locate the signal. The beams shimmer and crackle the closer you get to the target. When you finally triangulate the pilot’s signal, you’re treated to a cutscene where a twin-engined jet aircraft called ‘Medevac’ hovers in for a landing. Mission Complete!

It’s quite clear from the demo that this is a different animal from other games. The slow and methodical pacing favours the patient, logical player. Space enthusiasts and puzzle-inclined players will be drawn in, but whether the larger public will sign up in numbers remains a question mark. This thought seems to have occurred to the developers since the game will be released first on the iPad. Sharif has stated that if the game gathers a strong following on a mainstream product like the iPad, a port to the more ‘hardcore’ PC platform could follow.

Starlite, by treading a different path, offers a more realistic view of the final frontier. In Starlite’s world, space is a place that will require more from us than combat skills or firepower. It will demand our creativity, ingenuity and inner strength to succeed…a truly game-changing idea.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Robotic Refueling, Sapphire, NEOSst, CanX 3a, 3b and CASSIOPE on a Falcon 9

With all the recent changes going on at ground level among corporate and government stakeholders, it's easy to forget that Canada possesses quite the list of currently functioning and ready to launch space based assets.

Here's a short listing of several currently being tracked by the Commercial Space blog.

A NASA Robotic Refueling Mission (RRM), scheduled for January 14th - 24th aboard the International Space Station (ISS), will use the Canadian-built Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator (SPDM or DEXTRE) and NASA’s RRM multifunction tool, to show that space robots controlled from Earth can transfer fuel to satellites which were never designed to be accessed.

According to the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) robotic refueling mission website, the mission "marks the first time that Dextre is being used for a research and development project, and illustrates how the space station is increasingly being used as a technology test-bed.

The Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) flight C20, currently scheduled for February 14th, 2013 at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre (SHAR) after a series of both recent and long-term delays as outlined in the September 12th, 2012 post "Sapphire, NEOSSat, CanX 3A & 3B Standing By...," now looks like it might finally go forward.

NEOSSat architecture c/o eoPortal Directory.
The launch will include the Department of National Defence (DND) Surveillance of Space (Sapphire) satellite, the largest Canadian component of the proposed Canadian Space Surveillance System (CSSS) plus the Near-Earth Object Surveillance Satellite (NEOSSat) and the CanX-3a BRIght-star Target Explorer (BRITE) and CanX-3b (TUGsat1) micro-satellites, which were designed and built at the University of Toronto Institute of Aerospace Studies (UTIAS) Space Flight Laboratories (SFL).

The main payload is the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) Satellite with ARgos and ALtiKa (SARAL), which is a cooperative altimetry technology mission between ISRO and the French Space Agency (CNES). Also scheduled for launch aboard PSLV flight C20 is the Max Valier micro-satellite and the AAUSAT3 cube satellite.

The Cascade Smallsat and Ionospheric Polar Explorer (CASSIOPE) small satellite, complete with a scientific experiment package (the enhanced Polar Outflow Probe or ePOP set of eight scientific experiments to collect data on how solar storms effect communications and navigation), plus a broadband commercial communications system (Cascade) to transmit the large quantity of data collected back to Earth, is confirmed for launch aboard a Space-X Falcon 9 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California "sometime in April," according to the January 10th, 2013 "Worldwide Launch Schedule" update on the SpaceFlight Now website.

CASSIOPE is another in the long line of Canadian satellites experiencing ongoing launch delays, according to the June 26th, 2012 article "Canada's CASSIOPE Satellite Nearing Liftoff." Lets hope they all move forward this year.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

A $706Mln Fixed Price Contract and Hard Launch Date for RADARSAT Constellation

While generally conceded to be a big win for BC based prime contractor MacDonald Dettwiler (MDA), the terms attached to the latest $706Mln CDN infusion of new Federal government funding into the long-delayed and seriously over budget RADARSAT Constellation (RCM) have also suggested that the government is finally coming to grips with its current, flawed procurement policies.

Federal Industry Minister Christian Paradis being interviewed by host Don Martin on the January 9th, 2013 edition of the CTV News program Power Play.

According to the January 9th, 2013 Canadian Press article "MDA signs $706M Radarsat Constellation deal" the latest contract included a fixed price which covers the completion of "phase D" or final construction, plus launch costs, operational costs for the first year and even a contractual requirement to "launch the (three) satellites in 2018."

Fixed pricing and defined delivery dates are not often used in the Canadian space program, although they have been used in the NASA Space Act agreements for the Commercial Orbital Transportation (COTS) and Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) programs, as a way to keep costs down. The use of these procurement methodologies for RCM suggests that the Federal government is finally learning the lessons from the recently concluded Aerospace Review and the 2011 Jenkins Panel (discussed most recently in the November 14th, 2011 blog post "Open Season on Canadian Science Policy"), which both dealt at length with Federal procurement.

RCM, originally expected to cost well under $600M CDN has functioned until now under a series of so called "cost reimbursable" contracts where all direct expenses incurred by RCM contractors were covered automatically and a predefined profit (generally a percentage total of the overall contract) was added on top.

As outlined in the March 4th, 2010 article "RADARSAT Constellation Mission gets Funding in Budget," the original Federal government plan allocated a total of $497M CDN over five years for RCM design and construction. Most of that money ran out last year and this new cash infusion is in addition to the earlier allocated amount.

COM DEV CEO Mike Pley.
But of course, there are still plenty of details remaining to be discussed over the next while and not everyone is even officially happy with the new contract arrangements. For example, one of the items on the January 10th, COM DEV International (COM DEV) quarterly conference call was RCM, and according to COM DEV CEO Michael Pley:
... we have carefully considered our role in the next phase of our RCM development. We are funded on a cost reimbursable basis through to the end of the second quarter (of 2013) for phase C, which involves the development of key parts of the central electronics of RCM.
For phase D, we have decided that we will transition this development work to our customer, MDA, for flight manufacture of the complete central electronics. Given the lessons learned two years ago regarding bidding on large firm-fixed-price contracts for challenging hardware with unresolved technical risk, I'm not prepared to carryout the remainder of the work on a fully fixed-price basis...
As outlined later in the call, COM DEV will continue to bid for the RCM automatic identification system (AIS) payload and data processing services through its exactEarth Ltd. subsidiary. The final AIS contract for RCM is expected to be an "eight figure type of contract," according to Pley.

After a short halt in the trading of MDA stock until the announcement was made, MDA stock prices on the Toronto Stock Exchange rose 4% on the same day as the new contract was announced. BMO Capital Markets, which currently has an outperform rating on MDA stock, also lifted the MDA price target from $63.00 to $65.00, according to its January 9th, 2013 research report.

Monday, January 07, 2013

What's Next for Neptec?

Neptec CEO Iain Christie.
With a core business originally wrapped around the various sensor systems needed to provide real time alignment and positioning cues for International Space Station (ISS) construction components, the employees of Ottawa based Neptec Design Group always understood that the ISS would eventually be finished, the shuttle program would finally wind down and everyone would then need to move on to other projects.

So what's next for Neptec now that this future has come to pass? Well, according to CEO Iain Christie, Neptec's future has three parts:
  • The first is the commercialization of existing intellectual property (IP) developed though 20 years of involvement with the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and NASA as part of the Canadarm, space shuttle and ISS programs. As described in the December 5th, 2012 Spar Point Group article "New player in laser scanning hardware, software," the firm has even set up a second company, Neptec Technologies Corporation, to focus on terrestrial industries dealing with more traditional issues but looking for innovative solutions with an appropriate return on investment. Of course, this is a little different from the typical methodology required by the harsh environment of space, which is to focus on the very best solution regardless of cost, and that's why the new firm was set up separately from the original. According to the article, the new firms' first project will be to leverage Neptec’s Obscurant Penetrating Auto-synchronous Lidar (OPAL) technology, for commercial use.
A graphic showing the Orbital Sciences Corporation Cygnus spacecraft using Neptec TriDAR to dock with the ISS. Deliveries are expected to begin in 2013.
Artemus Jr. A four-wheeled, skid-steer design with a two-speed mechanical drive train powered by two brushless DC electric motors, one for each side.
Only time will tell if the three items listed above will lead Neptec towards a rosy future. But if nothing else, Christie does possess a solid sense of the past, the importance of the space program and Canada's role in making space important.

Check out his December 6th, 2012 presentation at the Canadian Aerospace Summit to learn more.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

COM DEV Receives $11M Satellite Contract from MDA

COM DEV operations. From the 2011 Annual Report.
Cambridge based COM DEV International has been awarded an "authorization to proceed" from Richmond based MacDonald Dettwiler (MDA) to deliver Ku-band and Ka-band multiplexers, switches and microwave components for a commercial communications satellite scheduled to be launched in 2014.

But while the typical authorization to proceed normally comes only with the promise of future payment, the January 2nd, 2013 article "Com Dev wins contract worth $11 million," stated unequivocally that $5.1 million CDN had also been released by MDA to cover initial engineering and procurement activities relating to the order.

According to the article, the completed contract is expected to be worth $11 million CDN in total.and includes an option for a replacement flight set of equipment that would be worth an additional $10 million CDN. The work will be done in Com Dev’s Cambridge plant and the company said it expects to complete the initial contact by November, 2013.

Expect more details on the deal to come out when COM DEV releases its quarterly earnings report on January 10th.


Wednesday, January 02, 2013

A Growing Legal Framework for Commerical Space

One of the core requirements for commercial business to thrive is the creation of a suitable legal infrastructure. Without this infrastructure, the civil and criminal court systems, even the ones made fun of by Dewey "Pigmeat" Martin in his classic song "Here Comes the Judge," are simply unable to function in their intended role of adjudicating between the various business stakeholders or anyone else who might come into contact with the business or its activities.

That's why the January 2nd, 2013 Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) press release announcing that "The Commercial Spaceflight Federation Applauds the Passage of a Government Risk-Sharing Regime Extension for the Space Launch Industry" is noteworthy.

In essence, it's a case study on the reasons why space advocates and businesses need to understand the legal issues surrounding space activities and maintain the ability to advocate for the appropriate regulations.

According to the press release, the legislation "extends a liability risk-sharing regime created by (the US) Congress that requires commercial launch companies to purchase insurance for any reasonable risk of damage to third parties, and (also) provides an expedited appropriations backstop above that amount and below a statutory limit." This type of legislation exists in other countries that provide launch services and even in other industries (such as the Price–Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act) where insurance costs are perceived as being so onerous as to be detrimental to commercial activities.

Organizations like the CSF and others knew this and were able to appropriately target legislators to insure its renewal for another year even in the midst of the so called US "fiscal cliff" deadline.

These issues aren't just coming up at the Federal government level, as you can tell from the interview below with Spaceport America Executive Director Christine Anderson and Virgin Galactic Senior Program Manager Mark Butler.

Of course, the US isn't the only place trying to understand and appropriately implement core legal concepts necessary for both tourism and other commercial space activities. The just concluded Federal Aerospace Review (most recently discussed in the December 5th, 2012 post "What the Space Volume of the Aerospace Review Actually Says"), which focused on "concrete, fiscally-neutral recommendations on how federal policies and programs can help maximize the competitiveness of Canada's aerospace and space sectors" is a current example of Canadian initiatives in this area.

Another important Canadian player is the McGill Institute of Air and Space Law, which focuses on training aviation and space lawyers. The faculty maintains close relationships with the American Bar Association (ABA) Forum Committee on Air and Space Law and publishes the Annals of Space Law Journal.

"Space Lawyers are Go," according to this 2008 article on the io9 website. The University of Mississippi School of Law, which graduated the first "space lawyer" in 2008, also tracks aerospace focused legal issues on its popular Res Communis blog.

Even the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), in conjunction with Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada (DFAIT), is doing its part by hosting the Canadian Workshop on the Long Term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities on January 22nd in Ottawa.

The workshop is designed to begin collecting Canadian contributions to the United Nations (UN) Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) Working Group on the Long‐Term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities. The working group focuses its discussions around existing and proposed international agreements such as the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (which has been ratified by over 100 states) and the 1979 Moon Treaty (which has only been ratified by 14 states and is generally considered to be a failed and unenforceable international treaty).

It will be interesting to see what these organizations come up with over the next little while and how their suggestions and recommendations effect commercial space activities in the coming years.

At some point, some judge in some jurisdiction is going to rule on legislation derived from one of these organizations. Lets be ready for it.

Virgiliu Pop knows about space property rights, according to the July 11th, 2011 BBC Focus article "Who Owns Space?"

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Whatever Happened to Space Based Solar Power?

After a promising start, which included strong advocacy during the 2008 US presidential election, a 2009 Symposium on Solar Energy from Space and the release of a follow-on study in 2011 titled "Space Solar Power — The First International Assessment of Space Solar Power: Opportunities, Issues and Potential Pathways Forward," the current crop of space solar power (SSP) advocates, which include the National Space Society (NSS) and Ontario based Space Canada, seem to have dropped the ball in their quest to popularize, commercialize and close the business case for gigantic orbiting solar power arrays beaming gigawatts of power back to Earth.


It's not that people (and especially scientists) have stopped talking about SSP. It's just that, unlike other high cost, high risk endeavors like space resource utilization (embraced by a variety of companies like Planetary Resources and Moon Express) and space access (Space-X, Sierra Nevada Corporation, the Golden Spike Company and others), very few commercial companies have so far decided to jump aboard the SSP bandwagon.

Part of the reason for this commercial reticence is outlined on the NSS Space Solar Power website, which tracks SSP activities. According to the website, the development cost for SSP is large and the business case for the development of the technology is undefined:
Yes, space solar power development costs will be very large, although much smaller than American military presence in the Persian Gulf or the costs of global warming, climate change, or carbon sequestration. The cost of space solar power development always needs to be compared to the cost of not developing space solar power.
Of course, SSP isn't competing directly with the American military presence in Persian Gulf (or anywhere else for that matter) or even against any of the other listed items (although a case can be made that new power sources are one component of the solution to global warming, climate change and carbon sequestration). Even worse from a business perspective, the up-front cost of not developing a new technology is always zero, just like the up-front cost of someone not buying any item is also always zero.

This makes for a very poor business case, since the up-front costs of rolling out SSP projects are typically in the range of tens of billions of dollars.

Ground station for the Desertec Foundation 100GW SSP Project. Its very large.

Even a simple calculation of an order of magnitude estimate to replace conventional power plants on Earth once they've reached the end of their operational life cycle to use as a baseline for estimating overall savings if SSP is adapted is problematic.

The total to replace power plants at the end of their life cycle is a cost which is spread out over a myriad and disparate group of owners/ financiers who can pay for new projects out of existing cash-flow under existing financial models and have a solid understanding of their existing technology with no new requirements for additional innovations or developments.

Space based solar power advocates can currently make no similar claim and don't really even know the overall cost of SSP implementation since it's never been done before and acknowledged technical hurdles remain. Of course, this goes to the core of the business case because it means that, in essence, there isn't one.

And instead of generating the small low cost, proof-of-concepts needed to validate assumptions one at a time and move the business case forward, SSP supporters seem content to continue to advocate large, expensive, all or nothing projects which are fun to talk about, but don't often accomplish anything.

Even the only well known company so far brave enough to have jumped into the commercial market, US based Solaren Corp., seems to have bitten off more than it can chew. The firm signed a power utility agreement in 2009 with the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) to beam power generated from a 200-megawatt orbiting solar farm to a ground station near Fresno, CA. The contract calls for power deliveries from the not yet built facilities to begin in 2016 and any reasonable inventory of assets strongly suggests that the firm is currently not in a position to fund the infrastructure required to fulfill the contract.

As outlined in the December 2nd, 2009 article "Controversy Flares Over Space-Based Solar Power Plans," estimates for the materials needed to construct an orbiting solar farm capable of delivering on the Solaren contract range from between 25-400 metric tons, which would require an estimated 5-20 launch vehicles with a payload capacity comparable to the recently retired space shuttle.

This simply isn't going to happen anytime soon.

So the scientists continue on their merry way to talk about everything except funding the business case. Take for example, the three most recent articles posted on the NSS Space Solar Power website. These include the November 2nd, 2012 Times of India article "China proposes space solar power collaboration with India," the October 22nd, 2012 Aviation Week article "Space Solar Power Looks For Shortcuts," and the  October 18th, 2012 Aviation Week article"Clearing the Obstacles to Space Solar Power."

The first article highlighted ongoing discussions between the Chinese and Indian governments relating to academic collaboration on space missions and especially SSP. The second and third articles discussed a whole new series of academic presentations relating to SSP technical issues, which were presented at the 63rd International Astronautical Congress in Naples, Italy last October.

But talk is cheap and until Solaren finds the assets needed to follow through with its power generation contract or some other private firm brings some serious expertise and funding to the SSP table, talk is all that the space solar power advocates can reasonably expect to receive.

Blah blah blah...

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