India launches a Norwegian micro-satellite built by a Canadian university without any help from the American space program, which insists that it’s “not dead yet” as the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee “unanimously” approves legislation adding an extra shuttle mission and development funds for their proposed heavy-lift rocket while the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) just might possibly have said something if it wasn’t for those “pesky” politicians. All that and more, this week in space for Canada.
Our first story of the week comes to us via the July 15th, 2010 Spaceref.ca article “University of Toronto Built Nanosatellite Launched by India’s PSLV-C15 Rocket” which reports on the July 12th launch of the Automatic Identification System Satellite 1 (AISSat-1) built by the Space Flight Laboratory (SFL) at the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies (UTIAS).
The article illustrates an existing pattern relating to the use of international outsourcing to find the best rocket launchers (in this case, the Indian PSLV-C15) and a second, emerging pattern relating to the development of standardized micro-satellite parts, such as the Generic Nanosatellite Bus (GNB) – a multipurpose bus with three-axis pointing capability developed at the SFL and used for the AISSat-1.
To illustrate the first pattern, the payload was boosted into orbit aboard an Indian polar satellite launch vehicle (PSLV). This expendable launch system was developed specifically to allow India to launch its Indian Remote Sensing (IRS) satellites into sun synchronous orbits, a service that was until the advent of the PSLV, commercially available only from Russia. These days, India allows a wide variety of spacecraft and micro-satellites to “piggyback” alongside the primary payloads and the availability of this second system has undoubtedly lowered overall costs to orbit.
Elon Musk thinks his rockets are even cheaper than the Indian rockets, at least according to the article “Elon Musk on Why His Rockets Are Faster, Cheaper and Lighter Than What You’ve Seen Before” posted June 18th on the Private Equity website (peHUB), so it will be interesting to see what happens if he’s right and Earth to orbit costs continue to come down.
But of course, satellite companies have historically looked for the best launcher deals and that’s why this second pattern is so interesting. In essence, the micro-satellite industry is beginning to standardize around a series of useful parts, beginning with the satellite bus in order to save money and speed up fabrication and testing.
This is a pattern that’s been anticipated and expected for years (take a look at this 2004 article from High Beam Research titled “Common Micro-satellite Bus Key To New Space Business, Transformation Officials Say“) but it’s quite satisfying to see this finally happen and for Canadians to be major players.
Certainly the SFL at UTIAS isn’t the only organization pushing it’s proven satellite parts. Microsat Systems Canada Inc. wraps it’s satellite components around a standardized multi-mission micro-satellite bus (MMMB) architecture which has won some support from the CSA. COMDEV International is also moving into this space and there are others (plus quite a few foreign competitors) waiting in the wings to see how the market develops.
Which brings us to our second story of the week. According to the July 15th, 2010 article posted on the Flame Trench blog (part of the Florida Today website) titled “Senate committee approves new direction for NASA” the The U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee has “unanimously approved bi-partisan legislation that would add a shuttle mission and jump start work on a heavy-lift rocket next year.”
The legislation is perceived as being a reasonable compromise between advocates of the original Obama plan to increase international co-operation and focus on breakthrough technologies and those who felt that the main thrust of the US space program should remain focused around the existing Constellation program. If it turns out that this is indeed a broadly supported bipartisan compromise, then there is a good possibility that the US space program will get it’s act together and move forward. Unfortunately if NASA funding and mission focus issues are not resolved soon the US space program will slowly slip into irrelevance as outlined in my August 27th, 2009 Commercial Space post titled “NASA as the Next General Motors and What That Means for Canada.”
Irrelevance is also the focus of our final story as reported by Tom Spears on the Canada.com website under the title “A statement on space that your government doesn’t want you to read.” The post outlines a series of requests for information that Spears made regarding the changes being made in the NASA budget and the effects these changes are likely to have on the CSA.
After much back and forth, Spears ended up receiving no real reply to his request from either the CSA or from Industry Canada, the government department that oversees the CSA.
Of course, it’s perfectly reasonable that an organization like the CSA, but with no mandate, plan of action or clue as to how the world is going to shake out might try to say as little as possible and hope for the best.
For his part, Spears seems to blame the politicians for the lack of CSA communications and that seems a reasonable place to start given that politicians are indeed the ones responsible for approving budget requests, policy documents and even long term space plans.
But Spears might also want to check out articles like the one posted July 16th, 2010 on the Space News website titled “Effective Cost-Control Strategies Remain Elusive, NASA Officials Say” which specifically mentions the CSA and cost overruns associated with the James Webb Space Telescope to get more insight into how changes at NASA could end up affecting the CSA.
That’s all for this week in space for Canada.