Monday, February 27, 2017

MacDonald Dettwiler & DigitalGlobe, the Worldview Legion Constellation, Canada's RADARSATs & America's "Deep State"

          By Chuck Black

After a whirlwind romance, which included a truncated public courtship lasting barely a week, Richmond BC based (officially, mostly and for now) MacDonald Dettwiler (MDA) has announced its intent to purchase US based satellite imagery provider DigitalGlobe Inc. (DGI) for about $3.10Bln CDN. It's a deal categorized by some as being "the biggest yet in a fast-consolidating earth-imaging satellite market."

And there's a reason for the public brevity of this courtship.

The New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) where MDA shares will soon be publicly traded. Photo c/o History Click.

While the deal provides synergies benefiting existing stockholders and the US government (especially its military and intelligence services), there are entire nations full of people the deal absolutely does not benefit.

Like Canada, for example. Here's what we know so far.

As outlined in the February 24th, 2017 MDA press release, "MDA to Acquire DigitalGlobe, Creating Industry Leader in End-to-End Space Systems, Earth Imagery and Geospatial Solutions," MDA will acquire DGI for $35 US ($46 CDN) per share "in a combination of cash and stock."

The complete transaction provides an equity value of approximately $3.1Bln CDN with an enterprise value of $4.7Bln CDN for DGI, but also includes $1.6Bln CDN in DGI net debt, which will be taken over by MDA.

The transaction has been "unanimously" approved by the boards of directors of both companies and is expected to close in the second half of 2017, contingent on stockholder and regulatory approval.

Those regulatory hoops are perhaps the most interesting given DGI's status as a major subcontractor to the US military and "deep state" intelligence services. As outlined in the press release:
As part of the transaction, MDA will apply to list its shares on the (New York Stock Exchange) NYSE in addition to (its current listing on) the (Toronto Stock Exchange) TSX. Upon completion of the transaction, the combined Company will continue to execute its US Access Plan strategy.
This will include further reorganization of all or part of the combined Company s corporate and operating structure to ensure that the ultimate parent of DigitalGlobe is incorporated in the US by the end of 2019, subject to customary approvals. 
Even better, at least according to the press release, "MDA undertook a corporate reorganization in 2016 that included the formation of SSL MDA Holdings, the US. Operating Company of MDA, under the guidance and approval of the US Department of Defense (DoD)," in order to gain access to US military contracts.

That re-org was discussed in the October 7th, 2016 post, "Iconic MacDonald Dettwiler is Now SSL MDA Holdings, a US Based Company with a Canadian Subsidiary."

It can't be clearer. Canada's MDA, is currently operating "under the guidance and approval" of the US DoD.

Of course, there are synergies and useful business components in the latest deal.

At the very least, the purchase will make it difficult for any company not owned by Delaware incorporated SSL MDA Holdings to effectively bid on the upcoming Worldview Legion Constellation.

As outlined in the February 24th, 2017 Space News post, "In buying DigitalGlobe, MDA ensures SSL will build just-disclosed WorldView Legion constellation," before going public with their plans to merge, "Canada’s MDA Corp. and DigitalGlobe were already working together on a next-generation imaging constellation called WorldView Legion they say will be able to revisit some locations on Earth up to 40 times in a day."

But there are at least one or two business concerns of interest to stakeholders.

MDA CEO Lance. Photo c/o Twitter.
First of all, the investment community is concerned over the total amount of net debt created as a result of the transaction.

Net debt to operating earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) for this deal, often called "net leverage" will work out to approximately 4.1 at the conclusion of the deal, which is substantially higher than the traditional MDA corporate net leverage of around 2.5.

According to MDA CEO Howard Lance, MDA expects to be able to reduce net leverage back down to 3.0 between now and 2020, a period of three years.

Since the net debt to EBITDA ratio is also an estimate of how many years it would take for a company to pay back its debt given no change in conditions, the implication is that MDA is planning only a slow payback of its outstanding debts, and may even be intending to reduce net leverage by growing the company, instead of paying down debts.

And it won't be the last re-org. According to Lance, "'the ultimate parent of DGI" will be incorporated in the US before the end of 2019.

Secondly, as outlined in the February 24th, 2017 Access Wire press release "SHAREHOLDER ALERT: Levi & Korsinsky, LLP Announces an Investigation Concerning Whether the Sale of DigitalGlobe, Inc. to MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. is Fair to Shareholders - DGI," at least one US based law firm, NY based Levi & Korsinsky, LLP, has offered to give "shareholders a voice," in the upcoming merger in the form of presently undefined legal action, likely some form of class action lawsuit.

But Levi and Korsinsky lawyers are also exploring or currently engaged in class actions on behalf of shareholders against a variety of companies including Endologix, Inc.Cemtrex, Inc.Inotek Pharmaceuticals Corporation, the Board of Graña y Montero and even FaceBook.

So any reports of potential litigation, especially from this particular firm, should be taken with a grain of salt, at least for now.

Besides, Canadian's don't need a US based "ambulance chaser" to tell us whether or not the deal is good for Canada. As noted above, the deal involces Canadian government security concerns related to the RADARSAT-2 and the upcoming RADARSAT Constellation mission (RCM).

MDA's decision to operate in compliance with US regulations "under the guidance and approval of the US Department of Defense (DoD)," opens up Canadian based programs to US regulations and oversight, even when the contracts are undertaken with the Canadian government using Canadian facilities to support Canadian business and security interests.

In essence, MDA's new corporate structure puts Canadian civilian and military projects at substantial risk when US concerns perceive a need, or even a simple business focused competitive advantage.

Here's a recent example.

As outlined in the March 30th, 2001 Globe and Mail post, "Bilateral spat causing delays, costing millions," RADARSAT-2 was once at the core of a US/ bilateral disagreement relating to its capabilities (which were considered to be equal or better than anything the US was capable of generating at that time) and the potential uses of the satellite data.

Those concerns led the US government to cancel the original NASA launch. A second launch from California was first postponed and then cancelled as well. New components needed to be sourced from non-US based suppliers when the original US suppliers cancelled orders. All told those disruptions and delays led to hundreds of millions of dollars in cost overruns.

Thank goodness MDA, then the prime contractor for RADARSAT-2, was without question, fully and legitimately Canadian owned and operated at the time. Otherwise the program would have completely derailed. RADARSAT-2 was eventually launched on December 14th, 2007, almost seven years late, from Kazakhstan's Baikonur Cosmodrome.

The April 10th, 2008 CBC News post, "Federal government blocks sale of MDA space division." Wanna know why the Federal government under then Prime Minister Stephen Harper blocked the sale of MDA to Alliant Techsystems (ATK) in 2008? That's easy. The Canadian government objected to US efforts to put the kibosh on RADARSAT-2. Screenshot c/o CBC News.

The September 2009 Canadian Space Agency (CSA) document on the "Evaluation of the RADARSAT-2 Major Crown Project," stated explicitly that:
NASA had (originally) agreed to this "Arrangement for Enhanced Co operation in Space between NASA and CSA," signed in May 1994. This document (the "Clark Evans Agreement") was an agreement in principle to co-operate on several undertakings including RADARSAT 2. 
Information in the 2009 RADARSAT-2 Revised Project Brief indicates that NASA informed the CSA in December 1998 that it would not honour the Agreement, citing reasons related to the commercial nature of the satellite and the fact that its enhanced performance would be a major competitor to US industry.
The 2009 CSA evaluation also noted that, while the RADARSAT-2 program was "aimed to develop the (Earth observation) EO sector," and used much the same methodology as was used in the 1970's to grow the Canadian commercial satellite communications sector, the various delays to the program gave other competitors time to generate alternative offerings and prevented Canada from dominating the marketplace.

Trudeau and Harper. Two contrasting Canadian leaders with contradictory ideas of how to best serve Canada. As outlined in the February 27th, 2017 Financial Post article, "Justin Trudeau meets with auto industry as concerns mount over NAFTA," our current PM favors international agreements with open borders and minimal government interference in business decisions. As outlined in the August 27th, 2014 Bloomberg post, "Secret Canada Security Panel Said to Review Foreign Deals," our previous PM favored a more activist approach and rejected the sale of several important Canadian firms to US interests on the basis of national interests. Only time will tell which approach ends up working best. Photos c/o 107.5KoolFM/ Bloomberg.

Of course, MDA is no longer fully and legitimately Canadian owned and operated. MDA, is currently operating "under the guidance and approval" of the US DoD.

Company executives have confirmed this.

Rumour has it that the current Federal government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is collaborating with US government and MDA executives in the US and Canada to facilitate US re-incorporation and restructuring to take advantage of US military and government opportunities and benefit MDA shareholders.

If so, they are doing so at the expense of MDA's Canadian employees and the Canadian public at large. The government should be held accountable and a public debate should be held.

Otherwise, our Canadian space industry is going to end up either moving to the US, or working in retail and Canada will loose access to the very useful capabilities available through our RADARSAT program.

RADARSAT Constellation, with MDA as the prime contractor, is currently scheduled for launch sometime in 2018. Here's hoping that our latest Canadian satellites don't end up as part of "'the ultimate (US based) parent of DGI" which MDA CEO Lance has promised for 2019.
Chuck Black.

Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog.

VASIMR Moves Forward; Franklin Chang-Diaz Remains Unbowed

          By Brian Orlotti

The Ad Astra Rocket Company's (AARC) variable specific impulse magneto-plasma rocket engine (VASIMR) has reached a major milestone towards fulfilling its NASA contract. As outlined in the February 23rd, 2017 ArsTechnica UK post, "NASA’s longshot bet on a revolutionary rocket may be about to pay off," VASIMR has been fired at 100kW for 10 seconds and at 50kW for one minute.

Now, reaping the fruits of perseverance after years of criticism, the engine’s designer stands on the verge of opening up more of the solar system to humanity.

Of course, the company still has much to do. 

In 2015, under NASA’s NEXTSTep program, AARC was awarded a three-year, $9Mln USD ($11.8Mln CDN) contract. To fulfill the contract, AARC must fire VASIMR for 100 hours at a power level of 100 kilowatts by 2018.

The VASIMR engine uses radio waves to heat and ionize a propellant (currently, argon gas), turning it into into a plasma, which is then accelerated by magnetic fields to generate thrust. The plasma provides a constant and efficient thrust, building up speed over time.

VASIMIR’s primary advantage over traditional chemical rockets is efficiency; various studies have concluded that a VASIMIR engine would use up to 90% less fuel while carrying equivalent tonnage to chemical rockets. This efficiency could greatly reduce mission costs, significantly improving the economics of spaceflight.

VASIMR is the creation of Dr. Franklin Chang-Díaz, a former NASA Space Shuttle astronaut with seven missions under his belt. In 1969, Chang-Diaz, speaking almost no English at the time, immigrated to the United States from Costa Rica to finish high school. He then earned a doctorate in plasma physics from the MIT. As of 2014, Chang-Díaz is on record (tied with Jerry Ross) for the most spaceflights. Photo c/o AARC.

In 2005, Chang-Diaz founded AARC in Houston, TX to privatize the VASIMIR engine after years of development work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and NASA. In 2013, AARC ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for developing a documentary about VASIMR, with 603 backers pledging over $76,746 USD (over $100K CDN).

A key Canadian connection to VASIMR exists. Nautel Ltd., a Nova Scotia-based firm specializing in AM/FM transmitters and radio navigational aids, built the solid-state radio emitters used in VASIMIR to heat the xenon gas into plasma. 

Nautel is also known for being the first company to develop a commercially available fully solid state broadcast transmitter and was first profiled in the November 7th, 2009 post, "Our Next Real Canadian Rocket Scientists."

Of course, Chang-Diaz has faced various challenges working toward his goals. For the past several years, he has also been engaged in a bitter, but mostly one way feud, with Mars Society President Robert Zubrin.

Zubrin penned an acidic July 11th, 2011 SpaceNews article titled, ‘The VASIMR Hoax,’ in which he referred to VASIMR as a “hyper drive” and a “hoax” which “must be exposed.” Zubrin has frequently used invitational "debates" at Mars Society conferences to question the capabilities of VASIMR, using Chang-Diaz’s absences as pretexts to slander him.

As outlined in the August 1st, 2011 Space Review article "VASIMR and a new war of the currents," Zubrin, in typically chauvinist and histrionic style, has often attacked VASIMR on technical and ideological grounds.

Zubrin’s main criticisms of VASIMR are that it is less efficient than other types of electric thrusters, requiring unrealistically efficient power sources, and that electric propulsion is unnecessary to reach Mars (and therefore should not be funded).

Chang-Diaz has kept his poise throughout, never stooping to Zubrin’s level. In the Ars Technica article, Chang-Diaz does admit that large but manageable solar arrays would be needed to provide the 1 megawatt of energy needed to power VASIMR.

However, this assumes solar energy levels at Earth’s distance from the Sun. Because solar energy quickly decreases beyond Mars, a solar-powered VASIMR will only be viable within the inner Solar System. Within these limits, however, the technology would still retain its advantages over chemical propulsion.

For travel beyond Mars, Chang-Diaz frankly admits that a nuclear power source will be needed to bring VASIMR to its full potential.

William Ernest Henley from his short poem "Invictus." Graphic c/o izquotes.

Over the years, Chang-Diaz has persevered with his creation through trying obstacles; the endless hustle of fundraising, NASA politics and the parochial pedantry of the space advocacy movement.

In addition, the fact that his goals are nearing fruition amidst a rising tide of hatred and intolerance in the US toward immigrants, particularly Spanish-speaking ones, is of no small significance.

His story is an example of the energy and enlightenment that immigrants bring to other lands.
Brian Orlotti.

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

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Where's Canada's "Ministry of Space?"

          By Brian Orlotti

The UK government has announced upcoming legislation to allow spaceports to be built in the United Kingdom; enabling the country, for the first time, to launch its home-built satellites from its own soil.

But the move calls Canada’s own longstanding space policies into question since, much like the UK, the Great White North has also long been unable to launch its own pioneering homegrown spacecraft and has suffered for it.

The new spaceport initiative enjoys broad support throughout the UK, even among tabloid readers. As outlined in the February 20th, 2017 The Sun post, "START SAVING NOW! You could fly to SPACE from the UK within three years as plans for space port are unveiled," the specifics of the new Spaceflight Bill "will be revealed in Parliament this week." Graphic c/o The Sun.

As outlined in the February 20th, 2017 UK government press release, "New legal powers could send UK scientists into space to research vaccines and medicines," the new legislation, called "The Spaceflight Bill," calls for commercial spaceports to be established across the UK beginning in 2020.

These spaceports will provide a variety of services, from satellite launches to space tourism to zero-gravity research.

The Spaceflight Bill builds upon a £10 million GBP ($16.3Mln CDN) grant announced earlier this month by the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to create an environment in which the UK’s commercial space sector can thrive.

UK Lord Ahmad. Photo c/o UK Government.
Next steps will involve the UK government encouraging industry to come forward with specific proposals for space launches.

After introduction of the Bill later this year, rules and regulations will be developed for space operators i.e. safety and insurance matters. In addition, the UK government will invite individual commercial space firms to solicit funding to help kick-start a UK space launch industry.

The press release also quoted UK Aviation Minister Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon as stating:
The UK’s space sector is the future of the British economy. It already employs thousands of people and supports industries worth more than £250 million to the economy, and we want to grow it further. Forty years ago, meteorologists couldn’t have imagined the importance of satellites for predicting the weather. Today over 90% of data used in every forecast comes from a satellite, with hundreds of other applications used in GPS, telecommunications and broadband. 
We have never launched a spaceflight before from this country. Our ambition is to allow for safe and competitive access to space from the UK, so we remain at the forefront of a new commercial space age, for the next 40 years.
The UK could have pioneered manned spaceflight in the 1950's,  landed on the Moon in 1957 and established a 700 person colony on Mars by 1969 according to Warren Ellis in his "Ministry of Space" graphic novels. Artwork c/o Chris Weston/  Image Comics.

In his influential 2001 - 2003 graphic novel series, "Ministry of Space," British writer Warren Ellis posits an alternate history in which the UK captured the German rocket base at Peenemünde in World War II before the US and the Soviet Union, and brought all the key personnel and technology to Britain.

The graphic novel mirrored the real-life Operation Paperclip, a secretive United States Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency (JIOA) program in which more than 1,600 German scientists, engineers, and technicians were brought to the United States for government employment from post-Nazi Germany.

Upon this foundation, a new "Ministry of Space" is established to pursue the development of British space technology. Eventually, the ministry forges a new off-world British Empire, ushering an age of unparalleled prestige and prosperity for Britain.

Canada, with its own federal space program withering and its space industry unable to launch its own products despite possessing a skilled scientific and industrial base, stands at its own crossroads. The UK has chosen to see space as a path back to prosperity, not an expense to be minimized.

What choice will Canada make? When will our "Ministry of Space" emerge?
Brian Orlotti.

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

Monday, February 20, 2017

DigitalGlobe in "Buyout Talks" With MacDonald Dettwiler, 17 New CSA "Enabling Technologies" & the 2017 NSERC Awards

          By Henry Stewart

For the week of February 20th, 2017, here are a few of the stories we're currently tracking for the Commercial Space blog:

An overview of Digitalglobe stock price on February 17th, 2017, when the news broke that MDA might be attempting to buy the company. As would be expected, Digitalglobe shares went up in heavy trading on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) after the story broke. MDA's shares were down slightly on the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSX). Both the NYSE and the TSX were closed for holidays on Monday but will reopen on Tuesday. Graphic c/o Marketwatch.
The February 17th, 2017 Reuters post, "Canada's MacDonald Dettwiler to buy DigitalGlobe: Dow Jones," quoted unnamed sources as stating that a final deal would close for about $2Bln - $3Bln USD ($2.6Bln - $3.9Bln CDN). 
But Dow Jones was also hedging its bets on the validity of its source. As outlined in the post, "financial conditions of the deal couldn't be learned and it is also possible that talks might fall apart before a decision is reached, the Dow Jones report said." 
DigitalGlobe’s current market cap is approximately $1.8Bln US ($2.4Bln CDN). 
Curiously enough, both MDA and Digitalglobe, as publicly traded corporations, will be holding their quarterly conference earnings calls over the next week. DigitalGlobe is set to report its full year and fourth quarter 2016 financial results on Monday, February 27th, 2017 and MDA will release its fourth quarter and year end financial results on Thursday, February 23rd, 2017. 
Perhaps by then, the real situation will begin to shake out. 

Screenshot c/o

  • The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) has issued a letter of interest (LOI) for seventeen "enabling technologies," needed in order to facilitate Canadian contributions to a variety of potential international space missions.
As outlined in the February 16th, 2017 listing, "Development of enabling space technologies - Letter of interest (9F063-160864/A)," the LOI will focus on the development and improvement of technologies able to reach CSA "technology readiness level TRL 6." 
TRL-6, as defined by the CSA, normally includes the development of "a representative model or prototype system," suitable for testing and showing off to potential customers.
The technologies identified under the program include upgrades of existing technology relating to Earth imaging, space medicine and rover technologies. The LOI includes time-frame, beginning and ending tech-levels and estimated budgets once the programs are underway,
Budgets range from $75 - $100K CDN (for the "development of technology that will help to secure Canada’s position as leader of inspace biological sample analysis in support of space research and health monitoring") to $1 - $1.3Mln CDN (for the "development of an advanced low frequency power amplifier for the harsh space environment around Mars"). 
The CSA normally defines "enabling technologies" as components or subsystems of space missions organized by other nations and/or private companies, which the CSA will commit to developing in order to be allowed to participate in the mission.
Funding for the development of "enabling technologies" are normally allocated under the CSA's space technologies development program (STDP).

Seven short videos, highlighting several of the 2017 winners were posted (but with very little fanfare) to the 2017 NSERC Prizes You-Tube page on February 7th, 2017. That's a bit of a shame since the individual awards focus on useful accomplishments from Federally funded scientists and are well worth celebrating.
This years winners include:
  • Sylvain Moineau, from the Université Laval, who received the 2017 John C. Polanyi Award for playing a leading role in the international collaboration which identified the adaptive immunity system known as CRISPR-Cas, found in about half of all bacteria. 
  • André Longtin and Leonard Maler, from the University of Ottawa, who received the 2017 Brockhouse Canada Prize for interdisciplinary research in science and engineering, for combining their expertise in physics, mathematics and neurobiology to uncover the neural code that underlies the operation of the brain. 
For a complete listing of the 2017 NSERC prizes and their winners, check out the February 7th, 2017 "NSERC Prizes page."
For more, check out future posts in the Commercial Space blog.

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

Those Pesky Kids at Kepler Communications

          By Chuck Black

The future of Canada's space efforts, and the growth of its telecommunications infrastructure, is suddenly a lot less reliant on Canadian government initiatives and foreign controlled multinationals.

Toronto, Ontario based, Kepler Communications has contracted Amsterdam based Innovative Space Logistics to launch their first nano-satellite, using an Indian polar satellite launch vehicle (PSLV), from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, in November 2017.

Some of the "pesky kids" at Kepler include, from left to right: Nick Spina, Stephen Lau, Mina Mitry, Mark Michael, Wen Cheng Chong and Jeffrey Osborne. As outlined in the January 26th, 2017 Xconomy post "Techstars Picks 9 Startups for Seattle, Complementing Local Strength," Kepler, a graduate of the Techstars Seattle 2016 program, was the accelerator's first investment in the space sector, but was considered so successful that Techstars is actively looking for more space focused start-ups for their 2018 program. Photo c/o Kepler Communications.

As outlined in the February 16th, 2017 Kepler press release, "Kepler Contracts Innovative Space Logistics for Inaugural Mission" the mission will serve as a technology demonstration of Kepler's Ku-band software defined radio (SDR) and high gain antenna.

Kepler plans to use the technology as the backbone for a proposed constellation of "up to 140" low-Earth nano-satellites, placed in a variety of orbits for use as low cost satellite data re-transmitters. As outlined in the November 20th, 2016 post, " SpaceX, Telesat & Kepler Just Three of the Dozen Satellite Constellations Currently on the FCC Table," the company plans on targeting the fast growing machine-to-machine communications market currently growing up around "internet of things" applications and not the conventional terrestrial telecommunications market.

One hard to reach place where Kepler expects demand is in Canada's far north, particularly satellite-dependent Nunavut. As outlined in the February 16th, 2016 Financial Post article, "Cellphone towers in space: Startup Kepler Communications plans first Canadian nanosatellite launch," the company was co-founded by Samer Bishay, who also owns both Iristel, a Montreal based  provider of voice over internet protocol services, and Ice Wireless, a Canadian mobile network operator and telecommunications company that provides 3G/4G mobility services, mobile broadband internet, and fixed line telephone in the territories of Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

Bishay "absolutely" plans to use the Kepler nano-satellites to improve wireless and internet service in the north, according to the article. "What we're providing is the data pipe basically... with satellite connectivity it helps remote communities where infrastructure like fibre would be very expensive to deploy."

The Kepler Ku-band repeater. According to Kepler CEO Mina Mitry, the upcoming flight in November, will launch "the first commercial LEO communications satellite to operate in Ku-band, a coveted band within the communications service provider world. With the increasing interest in mega LEO constellations, being the first company to actually bring this spectrum into use is a major step forward for Kepler." The nano-satellite launch is expected to cost between $200K and 300K US ($262K and $393K CDN), one hundredth of the cost of a standard launch Photo c/o Kepler Communications.

According to Kepler CEO Mina Mitry, “in the most basic sense, we’re putting up cell phone towers in space that can pick up signals from on the ground and from assets in space.”

The initial micro-satellite will serve as a "proof-of-concept" and additional micro-satellites will be added to the constellation as required to service commercial demand.
Chuck Black.

Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Comparing Canada's Northern Watch to Kiribati's Global Fishing Watch

          By Brian Orlotti

The recent failure of the Canadian government's "Northern Watch" program of Arctic air and maritime surveillance, when compared to governmental and private efforts currently in place in other nations, is a reminder that low cost space assets could play a central role in such a system.

It's not as though the Canadian government doesn't understand the benefits of space based surveillance. Perhaps is just prefers to have its programs associated with high costs, long lead times and multiple levels of bureaucracy. The illustration above, from the website of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), shows the kind of weather forecasting that the proposed, Polar Communication and Weather (PCW) constellation of two Earth imaging satellites could have provided when the program completed its first milestone (a "Phase 0" assessment) in September 2008. However, as outlined in the July 18th, 2016 Nunatsiaq News post, "Arctic satellites should serve northerners," the incomplete PCW was all but cancelled in 2016 over concerns about cost and functionality, and amidst bureaucratic infighting between Environment Canada and the Canadian military. For more, check out the July 17th, 2016 post, "The Polar Communications & Weather Satellite (PCW) Mission is Dead; To Revive it, our Military Wants More Money." Graphic c/o CSA.

As outlined in the January 29th, 2017 Toronto Star post, "Bid to monitor traffic in Arctic waters hits snags," the Northern Watch project, was run by the Canadian military’s R&D wing, Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC) from 2007 to 2015.

PM Harper. Photo c/o Wikipedia.
Born of a 2005 election promise by former Prime Minister Stephen Harper to assert Canadian Arctic sovereignty, the project attempted to develop a year-round surveillance system in Canada’s Arctic waters through the use of underwater acoustic sensors, supplemented by land-based cameras and satellite imagery. Northern Watch was based out of Gascoyne Inlet on Nunavut’s Devon Island. The Barrow Strait, on the south shore of the island, is considered a natural choke-point for arctic ship traffic.

As outlined in the article, after eight years of effort, Northern Watch was only capable of monitoring marine traffic twice, and only then for a few weeks during the hospitable Arctic summers. During the system’s last test in the summer of 2015, twenty-one different vessels were logged transiting the Barrow Strait.

According to the DRDC, several reasons contributed to the failure of Northern Watch; insufficient funding, high fuel and transport costs, equipment failures and technical issues. Although a technical failure, the political rhetoric surrounding the project helped carry Stephen Harper’s Conservatives to victory (and nearly a decade of rule) in the 2006 federal election.

The current Canadian government, under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, has recently requested proposals for an Arctic air and maritime surveillance system under a new $133Mln CDN research program to boost Canadian Arctic sovereignty and replace Northern Watch.

A screenshot of the GFW website, taken on February 14th, 2017. Although not a direct equivalency to previous Canadian government plans to track Arctic activities, the GFW systems could certainly be implemented on a commercial basis in the arctic as commercial satellite coverage of the far north improves. For a list of proposed satellite constellations, their coverage and proposed date of service, check out the November 20th, 2016 post, "SpaceX, Telesat & Kepler Just Three of the Dozen Satellite Constellations Currently on the FCC Table." Graphic c/o GFW.

Maybe they could buy something "off the shelf." An example of this, as outlined in the September 19th, 2016 post, "New Leonardo DiCaprio App Tracks Fishy Things on the High Seas," could certainly start with the free service championed by the famous actor.

Actor DiCaprio. Photo c/o Forbes.
In September 2016, DiCaprio unveiled Global Fishing Watch (GFW) which utilizes satellite imagery to enable the public to monitor global fishing activity in an attempt to curb illegal fishing and rebuild depleted fish stocks.

The service is a partnership between the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, SkyTruth, Oceana and Google. GFW uses satellite imagery provided by Orbcomm Inc. and is available online to anyone with an internet connection and a WebGL-capable browser.

Adopting a crowd-sourcing approach, GFW enables the public and non-government organizations (NGOs) to track fishing vessels around the world through a combination of ship transponder beacons, radar data from nearby ships, and ships’ wakes as they travel through water.

The project cost $10.3Mln US ($13.6Mln CDN) over the past three years to build, with $6Mln ($7.92Mln CDN) of that contributed by the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation in January, 2016.

GFW scored an initial success within its first month of operation. Kiribati, an island republic in the central Pacific comprised of 33 coral atolls and isles, has used GFW data to reveal illegal fishing in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, declared off-limits to commercial fishing in January 2015. The offending ship’s owners were fined $1Mln US ($1.32Mln CDN) along with a "goodwill" donation of another $1Mln.

The failure of the Northern Watch project and the (at least initial) success of Global Fishing Watch prove the truth of Frank Herbert’s dictum, “A plan depends as much upon execution as it does upon concept.”

Future Canadian efforts at northern surveillance should take heed.
Brian Orlotti.

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

Monday, February 13, 2017

OMX, Trump, Trudeau, Bombardier's Bailout, the UK Space Agency, UK Spaceports, CSA Earth Imaging Grants & MAFIC Studios

          By Henry Stewart

For the week of February 13th, 2017, here are a few of the stories we're currently tracking in the Commercial Space blog:

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and US President Donald Trump met in Washington, DC on February 13th, 2017. For an overview of their public discussion, check out the February 13th, 2017 CBC News post, "Trudeau meets Trump: Watch the full news conference or read the transcript." Photos c/o CBC News.

  • Toronto, ON based Offset Marketing Exchange (OMX) CEO Nicole Verkindt has an interesting perspective on the February 13th, 2017 meeting between Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and new US President Donald Trump. 
As outlined in the February 13th, 2017 Linked-In post, "How America Won the Chicken War and why Trump will Try it Again," the real secret to understanding the Trump agenda is to understand a West German tariff imposed at the end of World War II to support small, struggling German chicken farmers, and the US measures imposed in retaliation designed to cut off Volkswagen van imports.
As outlined in the post, "Not all wars have a clear winner, but it would seem today that Americans dominate in pickup trucks much more so than Germans do in chickens. The "Chicken Tax" essentially legislated American success in the light truck market, and now President Trump is hoping to recreate this same sort of success in other markets." 
The article is certainly a more nuanced assessment of Trump, Trudeau and their respective agendas than is typical in these polarized times. Only time will tell if the assessment ends up being more accurate.
OMX was first profiled in the January 23rd, 2013 post, "Buy Canada: New Firm Tracks IRB Offsets." 
  • Montreal, PQ based Bombardier Inc. has its bailout. But the new funds come with new concerns over Brazil's latest World Trade Organization (WTO) challenge to Bombardier's Federal and provincial government support.
As outlined in the February 7th, 2017 CBC News post, "Federal government to give $372.5M in loans to Bombardier," the Justin Trudeau government has said that it will provide $372.5Mln CDN in interest-free loans to Bombardier, "a move that elicited criticism even though it is far less than the transportation giant originally sought more than a year ago." 
As outlined in the June 30th, 2016 Bombardier press release, "Bombardier closes the Government of Québec’s investment in the C Series Aircraft Limited Partnership," the company has also received $1Bln US ($1.31Bln CDN) in recent funding from the Quebec provincial government along with a number of smaller grants and tax breaks. 
But, as outlined in the February 13th, 2017 Globe and Mail post, "Brazil’s WTO challenge over aid to Bombardier is good for the aviation market," the government of Brazil has requested consultations with the Canadian government regarding "subsidies provided to local manufacturer Bombardier for the development of its new C Series commercial jets." 
Brazil’s request, supported by the CEO of Brazilian based Embraer SA, the Brazilian aerospace conglomerate generally considered to be Bombardier's major competition, highlights "subsidies in excess of $4-billion (U.S.) provided by Canada’s national, provincial and local governments." 
As outlined in the article, "attempts to resolve this matter via diplomatic channels have proved unsuccessful, leaving the Brazilian government with no option but to request WTO consultations, action that Embraer supports."
Bombardier was last profiled in the November 1st, 2016 post, "Is Bombardier Another Example of a Company Unable to Find Success in Canada?
  • The UK Space Agency has launched a £10Mln GBP ($16.35CDN) plan to grow the UK based commercial spaceflight market. 
As outlined in the February 10th, 2017 Room post, "UK Space Agency announces £10 million scheme to develop commercial spaceflight launch capabilities," the program is designed to help "develop commercial launch capability for spaceflight – a market that is worth an estimated £25 billion over the next 20 years."
The funding "must be used to develop spaceflight capabilities, such as adapting launch vehicle technology for use in the UK or building spaceport infrastructure." Businesses expected to bid for a share of the newly allocated funding are likely to be joint enterprises of launch vehicle operators and potential launch sites.
While the contest is being held, the UK government has also committed to "preparing legislation to develop a safe and competitive regulatory environment for spaceflight. This work goes hand-in-hand with government’s work internationally to achieve the technical, trade and policy agreements necessary for UK based launch services and developing interest from launch customers and operators from around the world."
All in all, it sounds like the sort of plan that any moderately sized country (and many venture capital firms) could reproduce fairly quickly and easily. Here's hoping the Canadian government takes notice. 
  • The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) is funding a variety of programs exploring new uses for Earth observation (EO) satellites on their own, and in conjunction with Earth based observation techniques.
As outlined in the February 9th, 2017 CSA Earth observation application development post, "Innovative EO solutions: exploring the benefits of using satellites and drones together," the CSA is exploring "the complementary use of drones and satellites to enhance EO applications and provide more comprehensive solutions to end-users," through its Earth Observation Application Development Program (EOADP).
Seven concept studies are currently being funded up to a maximum of $100,000 CDN. They include: 
  • An application for "Mapping and classifying wetlands," through Kawartha Lakes, ON based AG-UAV
  • An application for "identifying the presence of pests in agriculture," through Montreal, PQ based Effigis Geo Solutions
  • Two applications for "monitoring algae blooms" the first, focused around "the use of hyperspectral sensors aboard drones to simulate coarse-resolution data for specific regions," through Quebec City, PQ based Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique (INRS) and the second, focused on collecting data "from EO satellites along with hyperspectral and thermal infrared sensors aboard drones," through Waterloo, ON based H2O Goematics. 
  • An application for "providing land measurements to the mining sector," through Vancouver, BC based TRE Altamira
  • An application for "detecting land movement caused by industrial activities," through Victoria, BC based ASL Environmental Sciences
  • An application to "monitor pipelines" through St. John's, Newfoundland based C-Core.
As outlined in the post, The EOADP program has also provided funding (up to $300,000 CDN) to explore potential uses for EO satellites focused on the management of disasters involving landslides, wildfires, flooding, oil and ice detection, and ice travel. 
The Canadian companies selected to receive funding under this program include 3vGeomatics Inc., AECOM Consultants Inc., Array Systems Computing Inc., AUG Signals Ltd., C-CORE, Hatfield Consultants, MDA Geospatial Services Inc. (a part of Richmond, BC based MacDonald Dettwiler), PCI Geomatics, PolarView Canada and TRE Altamira.
The Sudbury based graphic design firm, last profiled in the April 17th, 2016 post, "Sudbury Graphics Design Firm Sees the Big Picture," is still diligently focused on providing realistic and accurate images for the scientific, engineering and aerospace community. 
As outlined by owner Kris Holland, the new reel was constructed completely in-house, with the exception of the music, which was created by 
As outlined by Holland, "I'm always trying to improve the products I offer, so that the technical community can better convey its message, in order to raise both awareness and funds.  This demo shows the breadth of what I have to offer, from stills, animation, and full production of scripted media."
For more information, check out the Mafic studios website at
For more, check out future posts in the Commercial Space blog.

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

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Look Ma! No Canadarms!!! MDA & Orbital ATK Battle for US On-Orbit Satellite Servicing Contracts

          By Chuck Black

Richmond, BC based MacDonald Dettwiler (MDA) has issued a press release announcing that its "US business unit," the Paulo Alto, CA based Space Systems Loral (SSL), has "entered into an agreement with the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop the capability to service and maintain spacecraft and other infrastructure" as part of DARPA's Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program.

DARPA RSGS utilizing MDA US Systems robotic arms to repair a satellite on orbit as described in the July 21st, 2016 SSL press release, "SSL To Provide Robotic Arms To DARPA for Satellite Servicing," which announced an earlier $20.7Mln US ($27.1Mln CDN) award. As outlined in the February 9th, 2017 Design Engineering post, "MDA subsidiary's space robot stymied by Orbital ATK lawsuit," MDA subsidiary SSL had been on the verge of winning the latest in a series of lucrative DARPA contracts under the RSGS program. Graphic c/o DARPA/ SSL.

As outlined in the February 9th, 2017 MDA press release, "SSL selected to partner with DARPA to develop satellite servicing business," the program "will be the foundation of a new business for SSL that will serve both commercial and government operators with repair, upgrade, relocation, and refueling of on-orbit assets."

No dollar amount was specified in the announcement, but there's substantial cash at stake and at least one direct competitor has already made a separate claim. As outlined in the February 7th, 2017 Defence News post, "Orbital ATK sues DARPA over robotic satellite-servicing program ," the legal challenge threatens to unravel the RSGS program.

Orbital ATK claims that "the agency's robotic satellite-servicing program violates national space policy," which explicitly directs government agencies "to avoid funding activities that are already in development in the commercial marketplace."

The company also insists that its Space Logistics subsidiary is already working on a Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV-1) in partnership with Luxemburg based commercial satellite operator Intelsat, which duplicates most of the functionality required for the RSGS program.

As outlined in the February 4th, 2017 DennisWingo post, "On Orbit Servicing Controversy; DARPA VS Commercial," on-orbit satellite servicing has a long history, with commercial proposals going back to the 1950's and the 1980's space shuttle missions. More recently, the article mentions the 2005 NASA DART "mishap," the 2007 Orbital Express mission (a DARPA funded mission, utilizing an Orbital Express Demonstration Manipulator System, developed by MDA based upon its experience with Canadarm technology) and the 2011 Space Infrastructure Servicing (SIS) partnership between MDA and Intelsat. That deal, as outlined in the January 12th, 2012 post, "MDA Satellite Servicing Agreement with Intelsat Expires," eventually fell through when the partners couldn't crack the US market. Last year, Intelsat partnered up with Orbital ATK to work on the MEV-1 program. Graphic c/o Dennis Wingo

Two other companies have also been singled out by Orbital ATK as having commercial satellite servicing programs.

As outlined in the January 31st, 2017 post, "Satellite Servicing, Orbital ATK, MDA, Security Control Agreements," CETA, Minister Duncan's Science Adviser & Nova Scotia Spaceports, the first is MDA, the winner of the recent NASA Restore-L satellite servicing mission (also via SSL).

Orbital ATK has insisted that the Restore-L program duplicates the DARPA RSGS program, but is targeted at the commercial, civilian marketplace, an area where, as outlined in the 2010 National Space Policy, DARPA is restricted from entering.

The second is United Kingdom based Effective Space Solutions , which is currently "building small satellites for life-extension and other services," according to its website.

Oddly enough, perhaps especially so given its history of previous partnerships and programs in this area, MDA has insisted that no Canadarm derived technology is involved with the current round of on-orbit satellite servicing projects. The December 16th, 2016 post, "MDA says No Sale of Canadarm Technology to the US Government in NASA RESTORE-L, DARPA RSGS or "Any Other" Project," referenced statements from MDA communications director Wendy Keyser, who specifically requested publication. Graphic c/o Commercial Space blog.

The stakes in this area are high. "DARPA's proposal will effectively use taxpayer funds to establish one company in a dominant position over all other competition," Orbital ATK stated in its complaint.

The Orbital ATK complaint also claimed that:
DARPA will provide hundreds of millions of dollars of services and equipment to a single competitor, in turn providing that competitor with an insurmountable taxpayer funding subsidy that will unfairly and unnecessarily harm any other company's development of private on-orbit robotic servicing technology.
Perhaps in anticipation of the potential big payday, several small organizations and individuals have approached both MDA and Orbital ATK, with patents dating from both the early days of the US space program and from the 1980's satellite servicing experiments with the Canadian built Canadarm.

The patent holders are no doubt hoping that the giant multinational aerospace corporations will be willing to share their expected bounty.

Here's hoping that they have deep pockets to carry on their fight. 
Chuck Black.

Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

UrtheCast & Farming, PPPs, Improperly Disposed Space Debris, Falcon-9 "Flaws" & The HandBook for New Actors in Space

          By Henry Stewart

For the week of February 6th, 2017, here are a few of the stories we're currently tracking in the Commercial Space blog:

An overview of precision farming technologies as from the October 9th, 2012 GIS Lounge post, "Geospatial Technologies in Precision Agriculture."
  • Vancouver, BC based UrtheCast has picked up another customer for its UrtheDaily Constellation, a planned constellation of Earth observation satellites expected to deliver daily, medium resolution imagery of the entire planet's landmass when completed. 
As outlined in the February 7th, 2017 UrtheCast press release, "GEOSYS Becomes Anchor Customer of UrtheDaily Constellation,"  Land O' Lakes, Inc., a member-owned agricultural cooperative based in the Minneapolis-St. Paul suburb of Arden Hills, has announced a long-term agreement for GEOSYS, a Land O'Lakes subsidiary which provides satellite imagery to farmers, to purchase geospatial data from the UrtheDaily Constellation.
As outlined in the press release, "GEOSYS will become an anchor customer for the UrtheDaily Constellation.  GEOSYS, already the UrtheCast group's largest agricultural customer and one of the world's leading providers of digital agriculture solutions, will use the data to improve the decision-making processes for their customers globally, including WinField United, the Land O'Lakes crop input business."
Under the terms of the agreement, payments will begin when UrtheCast begins delivering UrtheDaily Constellation data to GEOSYS, and is subject to UrtheCast arranging its financing for the UrtheDaily Constellation. 
No dollar amount was noted in the press release. 
Graphic c/o "Science Culture: Where Canada Stands," a publication from the Council of Canadian Academies
  • The development of public private partnerships (PPPs) to fund space exploration is the next big thing, at least according to the New York based Space Angels Network, a privately-held financial services company with a network of angel investors interested in investing in the aerospace industry. 
As outlined in the February 6th, 2016 Space Angels Network post, "Private-Public Partnerships, NASA, and the Tipping Point of the Entrepreneurial Space Industry," private, public partnerships (PPP) between NASA and various space companies like SpaceX who provide services, "has been instrumental in the development of the Entrepreneurial Space Age. As the space industry begins the year with its eyes on the prize (so to speak), PPPs will be crucial to further critical R&D and to facilitate practical implementation of emerging technologies." 
The article also noted that space industry has developed "a proven track record" of successful PPP's and plans to use them to fund and develop various "tipping-point technologies." 
As outlined in the November 14th, 2016 post, "Public Private Partnerships, Marc Garneau, Telesat, DND, WGS, DoD, CSA & Urthecast," Canada is considered a world leader in the creation of PPPs. 
It's also worth noting that telecommunications was considered a "tipping point technology." when Telesat Canada, now the fourth-largest fixed satellite services provider in the world, started out in 1969 as a Canadian crown corporation created as a public private partnership to provide telecom access in the far north. 
A slide from the February 1st, 2017 IADC presentation on satellite disposal. As outlined in the presentation, "many satellite operators continue to violate long-established guidelines for end-of-life disposal of their spacecraft, both for larger satellites in geostationary orbit and the many smaller satellites in low Earth orbit." Graphic c/o IADC.
  • An international space debris-monitoring panel has claimed that less than half of the large geostationary-orbit satellites taken out of service in 2015 were properly disposed of.
As outlined in the February 3rd, 2017 Space Intel Report post, "Most geo satellites retired in 2015 violated orbit-debris guidelines,"the claim was made during a presentation to the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) meeting on February 1st, 2017.
As outlined in the article, "the performance of owners of retiring geostationary satellites in 2015 is remarkably poor — 60 percent of these satellites were either moved an insufficient distance from the geostationary arc or were just switched off while on the orbital highway. In 2014, 75 percent of geostationary satellite retirements were in compliance with the guideline stipulating that satellites be placed into graveyard orbits around 300 kilometers above geostationary orbit, which is 36,000 kilometers above the equator."
The expected increased compliance by operators of small satellites in low orbit should be showing up in the annual data, but isn't. 
According to the article, "unlike geostationary-orbit satellites, which are usually large and expensive, satellites in low orbit have a wide variety of owners, especially as the cost of building and launching a satellite weighing just a few kilograms has come down in recent years."
IADC member agencies include the Agenzia Spaziale Italiana (ASI), the Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales (CNES), the China National Space Administration (CNSA), the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), the German Aerospace Center (DLR), the European Space Agency (ESA), the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Russian Federal Space Agency (ROSCOSMOS), the State Space Agency of Ukraine (SSAU) and the UK Space Agency.
Falcon-9 on the launchpad. Photo c/o Fortune.
  • Federal investigators have noticed flaws in the SpaceX Falcon-9 rockets.
As outlined in the February 2nd, 2017 Wall Street Journal article, "Congressional Investigators Warn of SpaceX Rocket Defects," a preliminary report from a Government Accountability Office investigation has found "persistent cracking of vital propulsion-system components, according to government and industry officials familiar with the details."
The article quotes "unnamed sources" and "preliminary findings" from the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) which "reveal a pattern of problems with turbine blades that pump fuel into rocket engines, these officials said. The final GAO report, scheduled to be released in coming weeks, is slated to be the first public identification of one of the most serious defects affecting Falcon 9 rockets."
The crack-prone parts are considered a "potentially major threat to rocket safety," according to the "industry officials," and may require redesign of what are commonly called the Falcon-9’s "turbopumps."
According to the article, "industry officials have known about problems with cracked blades on Falcon 9 versions for many months or even years. But cracks continued to be found during tests as recently as September 2016, Robert Lightfoot, NASA’s acting administrator, confirmed in an interview with The Wall Street Journal earlier this week."
As outlined in the February 6th, 2017 Reuters post, "Exclusive: SpaceX to hit fastest launch pace with new Florida site,"  SpaceX has said that it will be modifying the rocket's engines to increase performance and resolve potential safety concerns.
As outlined in the January 30th, 2017 press release, "SWF Releases the Handbook for New Actors in Space," the goal of the handbook is to "provide both governmental and non-governmental actors coming into the space domain with a broad overview of the fundamental principles, laws, norms, and best practices for peaceful, safe, and responsible activities in space."
It includes overviews of "The International Framework for Space Activities," a section on "National Space Policy and Administration" and a section on "Responsible Operations in Space," which covers pre-launch and launch requirements, on-orbit requirements and end-of-life restrictions. 
The publication is available for download in electronic format at no cost form the SWF website.
For more, check out future posts in the Commercial Space blog.

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

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