As MacDonald Dettwiler (MDA) commences the downsizing of the Brampton based robotics group responsible for the iconic Canadarms, a small group of Canadian Space Agency (CSA) subcontractors and space focused businesses contemplate the “Next Breakthrough Space Technology for Canada.” Meanwhile, Com Dev International subsidiary exactEarth Ltd., wins a contract with the Canadian government and the cost for the James Webb Space Telescope just keeps growing and growing. All that and more, this week in space for Canada.
Our first story this week comes to us via my March 3rd, 2011 story in the Commercial Space blog titled “Downsizing Announced at MDA Robotics” which quotes MDA President Daniel Friedmann as stating “the company has commenced downsizing its Brampton based robotics group.”
The MDA Brampton robotics group is responsible for the US space shuttle’s Canadarm and the Mobile Servicing System for the International Space Station (ISS). Business in this division was always expected to shrink as the space shuttles retire but the lack of a Canadian long-term space plan (which would allow companies to plan ahead for future programs) was also cited as a contributing factor in the decision
The poor health of the robotics division is common knowledge to the Canadian space industry and also came up in the 3rd quarter MDA conference call, as reported in my October 31st, 2010 blog post “Robot Wars II: MDA Attacks.” According to Friedmann, the robotics division requires “an anchor customer” to survive.
Of course, not everyone is looking to simply preserve what already exists and even MDA has ideas for follow-on projects to take advantage of the lessons learned through thirty plus years of experience with space robotics.
Quite a number of those ideas will receive a public discussion when Canadian space focused movers and shakers get together this Friday, March 18th, 2011 for the Canadian Space Commerce Association conference and annual general meeting focused around the discussion of “The Next Breakthrough Space Technologies for Canada,” according to the March 10th, 2011 press release on the PRWeb site.
In the interests of full disclosure, it should be noted that I helped organize and will be hosting the event, introducing the speakers and my bosses at SpaceRef Canada are serving as official media sponsors.
But even with those biases, it’s worth noting that representatives from the largest (and most innovative) Canadian space focused companies will be attending and speaking at the the event along with CSA employees, other government funding organizations and perhaps even one or two private angel investors (since the Canadian Venture Capital and Private Equity Association has signed on a a supporting organization). Most, if not all, have compelling stories and strong, informed opinions of where Canadian space focused companies should position themselves to take advantage of the changing economic environment.
Even the US launch provider Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) is sending their business development manager to give a speech reminding Canada that we have other options to get our astronauts into orbit after Chris Hadfield finishes up the final scheduled Canadian astronaut mission to the ISS in 2013. SpaceX isn’t the only company that’s done this sort of thing recently; in November 2010, Mike Gold, the general counsel for Bigelow Aerospace attended the 2010 Canadian Space Summit in Ottawa to give a speech outlining much the same thing.
One of the other stories we’ll likely getting a mention at the conference will be the recent Canadian government contract worth up to $4.7 million provided to Com Dev subsidiary exactEarth Inc. to monitor ship traffic from satellites in space. According to the March 7th, 2011 press release “exactEarth awarded C$4.7 million Standing Offer to provide exactAIS(TM) data services to the Canadian Government” the company has been contracted to provide:
… data for use across all Canadian Government departments to support a broad range of applications including maritime domain awareness, search and rescue, environmental and fisheries protection, Arctic monitoring and marine security.
The Cambridge, Ontario based firm sells electronic data collected by a variety of Earth imaging micro-satellites. The company is actively expanding it’s coverage and recently completed an agreement with SpaceQuest Ltd of Fairfax, Virginia to purchase two new satellites equipped with advanced AIS payloads according to the March 11th, 2011 CNW press release “exactEarth expands AIS satellite constellation.”
Of course, not every Canadian space focused project turns out quite so well. For example, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has estimated that it will cost up to $30 million dollars to fix problems affecting imaging sensors inside the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), even though no cause for the problem has yet been determined, according to the March 11th, 2011 Space News article ” NASA Puts $30M Cost on JWST Hot Pixel Fix.”
According to the article:
NASA in February established a Failure Review Board to investigate the problem and issue a report in April. If it is determined that a full set of new flight and backup detectors is needed, it would cost about $30 million and take about a year for delivery for integration with the three instruments, JWST Program Director Rick Howard told the NASA Advisory Council during a meeting here.
This seems to be just the latest in an ongoing series of delays and cost overruns that have been affecting this international collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), the CSA and fifteen other nations. According to the November 11th, 2010 article “NASA’s JWST telescope expected to cost $6.5 billion” on the Great Beyond website:
A report released 10 November finds JWST to be $1.5 billion over budget, and will cost NASA at least $200 million more per year for the next two years. Rather than a scheduled 2014 launch date, the report suggests that the earliest the telescope could launch is September 2015.
So far the cost overruns “have not and will not affect Canada’s contributions” according to CSA spokespeople quoted in the November 16th, 2010 Spaceref.ca article “James Webb Space Telescope Cost Overruns Won’t Impact Canadian Contributions.”
But this convenient state of affairs simply can’t last. According to the March 7th, 2011 Sky and Telescope article “Game Plan for NASA’s Planetary Missions,” the JWSP cost overruns are beginning to impact on the budgets of other NASA science missions and they’re growing.
Perhaps that’s another story that needs to be told at the meeting on Friday. Anyway, that’s all for this week in space for Canada.