Sunday, October 1, 2017

We're going to the Moon. No we aren't. Maybe we are.

This will be confusing. Don't say you weren't warned.

Concept proposals can sure stir up dust and confusion. In the case of NASA's Deep Space Gateway (DSG), that would be lunar dust.

The DSG is a proposed space station at the Moon that could be used as a gateway for deep space activities.

Here's how the events unfolded.

A story from Russian space writer Anatoly Zak said Russia had agreed to join the United States in developing the DSG. (Russia will team up with NASA to build a lunar space station)

Not so fast, said SpaceNews. Russia had agreed to study the idea. They hadn't agreed to build anything. (NASA and Roscosmos to study Deep Space Gateway)

Mr. Zak responded on Twitter to Jeff Foust of SpaceNews with this:

Mr. Zak seems to be saying that there's more to the story than just a study.

Now the media reports start coming thick and fast.

In a CBC News story, comments from NASA and Russian space agency Roscosmos make it sound like these guys didn't sign the same agreement. (U.S., Russia to collaborate on spaceport orbiting moon)

NASA said the agreement is for a concept study. Igor Komarov, head of Roscosmos, said the agreement means they will build the station.

Mr. Komarov is also quoted in a press release from Interfax, a Russian news agency, as saying the agreement is for a study but they will build the station between 2024 and 2026. They'll discuss money in the next round of talks.

Note that the release is in Russian. This explanation is based on Google Translate.

So, does Canada fit into this project?

Yes. The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) could contribute several key parts to the DSG.

Canadian interest in a Moon project is clearly there. The CSA has put out several requests for information and tendered concept studies over the last few months for new technologies that could be used at the Moon.

According to another article by Mr. Zak, CSA engineers are keen on developing a solar sail for the station. (NASA, international partners consider solar sail for Deep Space Gateway)

The solar sail would help the DSG stay in orbit, which would save on hydrazine propellant. NASA is said to like the idea.

The CSA could also provide a pair of robotic arms for the station, as stated in a third CBC News story. (Canadian Space Agency developing robotic arms for moon station)

The article notes that Moon rovers and mining are also possibilities. Gilles Leclerc, the Director-General of Space Exploration at the Canadian Space Agency, is quoted in the article.

Recently, Mr. Leclerc made a comment on Twitter in response to another CBC News article called Are we really headed to the moon?

Is Mr. Leclerc being optimistic or does he know something?

The important thing to remember is that the DSG is a still at the concept stage (translation: no financial commitment). Many a concept has come and gone, never to be heard of again except in the musings of space historians.

To sum up, everyone seems to agree that a concept study was approved for the Deep Space Gateway. Beyond that, though, there's lots of lunar dust kicking up.

Fly me to the moon
Let me play among the stars...

Or maybe not.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

New space policy for Canada coming in June 2017

If you like the Emerson aerospace report, you'll probably like the government's new space plan, scheduled for release in June 2017.

You might want to get reacquainted with that report, known officially as The Aerospace Review: Volume 2: Reaching Higher: Canada's Interests and Future in Space. The previous Conservative government had commissioned former Member of Parliament David Emerson to create a framework for making the Canadian aerospace industry more competitive internationally.

The change of government after the October 2015 federal election didn't dampen enthusiasm for the report.

In November 2015, Navdeep Bains made his first public speech as Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED) at an Aerospace Industries Association of Canada (AIAC) event in Ottawa. In that speech, Mr. Bains gave a clear signal that he was paying attention to the Emerson report.

Mr. Bains said, "my primary role is to represent all Canadian industry, including the aerospace and space sectors, at the Cabinet table..."

"...I have the Emerson report on my desk. Rather than reading the 25 recommendations, I thought I would call Mr. Emerson instead. I am aware of the work that the Association and its members did with Mr. Emerson on the Review of Aerospace and Space Policies and Programs. I'm impressed by what has been accomplished, and I'll review what remains to be implemented." (emphasis added)

This past October, a key element of the Emerson report dropped into place when ISED announced they were looking for qualified people to participate in a "revitalized" Space Advisory Board. (See the SpaceRef Canada article, Wanted: A few good space advisors.)

The board was created in 2014 by then Industry Minister James Moore. If you didn't know the board existed, don't feel bad—you're in good company. Of those that did know, many weren't sure who was on it, when it met, or what it did, if anything.

The next move came in early November when two events took place in Ottawa on the same day:
Mr. Bains said the new space policy will be part of the Innovation Agenda, the government's plan to make Canada a leader in 21st century technologies. That means space won't be a stand-alone program. The CSA will work with public- and private-sector stakeholders, as recommended by the Emerson report.

Mr. Laporte echoed the point at the CSCA event. He said that "space is going to be very tightly aligned with the Innovation Agenda going forward." He then went into detail about where the agency fits in with the government's plans.

Integrating space with the Innovation Agenda isn't a recent idea. It's been a regular theme from both Mr. Bains and Mr. Laporte over the past year.

One of the more significant ideas that came from the plenaries that followed the speeches at the CSCA event was the need for a "balanced, sustainable" space program.

If you want to know what that is, read the article at SpaceRef Canada, "A Balanced Space Program from the 2016 Space Policy Symposium." Participants from all sectors—government, industry, and academia—weighed in.

What does it all mean? Maybe, just maybe, a Canadian government is ready to get serious about space.

You'll have to wait until June to find out, though. At this point, cautious optimism may be the best reaction.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

SpaceX finds some answers, but is NASA starting to have second thoughts?

SpaceX is closer to understanding why their rocket exploded at Cape Canaveral's Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC 40) on September 1. They may also be getting closer to seriously upsetting NASA.

A September 23 statement on the SpaceX website said, "At this stage of the investigation, preliminary review of the data and debris suggests that a large breach in the cryogenic helium system of the second stage liquid oxygen tank took place."

This isn't the first time the second stage liquid oxygen tank has been involved in a mishap. A faulty strut inside a second stage oxygen tank was blamed for the destruction of a Falcon 9 rocket carrying supplies to the International Space Station in June 2015.

Is there a connection between that incident and the recent one? According to SpaceX, no.

"Through the fault tree and data review process, we have exonerated any connection with last year's CRS-7 mishap."

Even if the cause is different from the last time, SpaceX has a problem with that second stage oxygen tank. And NASA is not convinced that a faulty strut was solely responsible for the first incident.

According to an article at Parabolic Arc, an investigation by NASA's Launch Services Program (LSP) uncovered several potential issues that could have contributed to the first accident.

Based on that LSP investigation, a recent report from the NASA Office of the Inspector General (OIG) said, "In addition to the material defects in the strut assembly SpaceX found during its testing, LSP pointed to manufacturing damage or improper installation of the assembly into the rocket as possible initiators of the failure."

The OIG report went on to say, "LSP also highlighted improper material selection and such practices as individuals standing on flight hardware during the assembly process, as possible contributing factors."

The LSP report noted that NASA was concerned about these issues. They sent a letter to SpaceX last February "...expressing concerns about the company's systems engineering and management practices, hardware installation and repair methods, and telemetry systems based on LSP's review of the failure."

The article at Parabolic Arc has further details and a link to the full OIG report.

Left unsaid is whether or not NASA is starting to run out of patience with SpaceX. Also unknown is whether or not Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, is paying attention to the gathering storm clouds.

Rocket accidents bring out the armchair analysts in droves claiming all sorts of things. One group of space cadets said an alien spaceship destroyed the rocket.

Perhaps the most interesting evaluation was done by a guy who goes by the name Thunderf00t. He did a 17-minute video analysis that identified the second stage oxygen tank as the likely problem. Keep in mind that his video came out before SpaceX's September 23 announcement.

That's all for this week. Let's see what new revelations emerge in the riveting space soap opera, As the Rocket Burns.