This Week in Space for Canada

Rocketplane Global‘s CEO George French recalls his failed attempt to build a Space-X competitor with funds from “a Canadian teachers’ pension fund” and academics at the University of Lethbridge attempt a “reawakening of aerospace research in Canada.” Meanwhile, the Financial Times reports a “long awaited revival of nuclear civilian ships” which bodes well for advanced space propulsion technologies. All that and more, this week in space for Canada.


Our first story comes to us via the December 11th, 2010 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Online article “Financial meltdown scuttles dreams of Green Bay’s rocket man.” According to the article, businessman George French almost succeeded in turning his private dream of going into orbit into direct competition with Space Exploration Technologies (Space-X) for a series of government contracts to supply the International Space Station (ISS).
According to the article, “French enlisted a high-tech investment bank to help raise the serious capital and secured commitments, he said, for more than $300 million, much of it from a Canadian teachers’ pension fund.
However, that wasn’t enough and the sub-prime mortgage crisis turned Wall Street cold on raising further money. NASA, after twice postponing a deadline for Rocketplane to show a bank balance sufficient to complete the project, canceled the contract and went with Space-X.
The article makes no mention about whether the unnamed Canadian teachers pension fund ever got it’s money back, but budding Canadian entrepreneurs should take note that sometimes, staid institutional investors just might invest in projects that are a little bit “out of this world.”
Especially if Americans are serving as the front men which coincidentally brings us to our second story.
According to the December 11th, 2010 Lethbridge Herald article “Universities team up to relaunch aerospace research in Canada” members of the Institute for Space Imaging Science (ISIS) have “set out to brainstorm direction in response to both the provincial aerospace initiative and the Canadian Space Agency’s new vision for space.”
According to ISIS member and Director of the University of Lethbridge Astronomical Instrumentation Group, Dr. David Naylor:
Canada has got pockets of expertise in building things that can get into space (but) the Canadian Space Agency recognizes that it launched its last rockets in the 1980s, it launched its last scientific balloons in the 1990s and it has lost a whole generation of people that know how to build stuff that works in space.
Naylor also acted as the lead Canadian researcher for the Canadian Space Agency’s contribution to the Herschel Space Observatory which makes him well respected and knowledgeable on Canadian space focused activities.
The fact that he would come out in a local paper and state that Canadian space research needs to be “relaunched” and brainstorming must be done to respond to both the provincial aerospace initiative and the Canadian Space Agency’s new vision for space, does seem indicative of a strong negative opinion on his part.
It also seems to contrast with yesterdays announcement that Pratt and Whitney Canada (P&W Canada) will be investing up to $1 billion dollars in R&D over the next five years for the next generation of high-performance aircraft engines as outlined in the December 13th, 2010 Associated Press article “Pratt & Whitney Canada investing $1 billion in R&D.”
According to the article, P&W Canada has more than 6,200 employees at plants in Alberta, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Ontario and Quebec but the R&D will be done in Mississauga, Ontario, and Longueuil, Quebec.
P&W Canada is the subsidiary of US based Pratt & Whitney, the US based jet engine manufacturing subsidiary of United Technologies Corp.
Not that there is anything wrong with that but it does bring us to our final story.
The Financial Times is predicting the long awaited revival of nuclear powered civilian ships according to their December 5th article “Long-awaited revival for nuclear civilian ships.”
According to the article:
The technology, previously used only experimentally in the civil maritime sector, is one of several alternative power options under review as looming restrictions on ships’ emissions force owners to reconsider the use of heavy fuel oil.”
The study is being led by London-based Lloyd’s Register and funded by Enterprises Shipping and Trading, one of Greece’s largest oil-tanker owners.
This certainly bodes well for the further development of suitable technologies to help power engines like the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VaSIMR), under development now at the Ad Astra Rocket Company (with a little help from Canadian based subcontractor Nautel).
The latest VaSIMR engine (requiring 200MW of power to function at full throttle) is scheduled to be tested aboard the ISS in 2012 and will boost the entire station into a higher orbit.
The ISS experiences fairly high levels of atmospheric drag, making periodic boosts of altitude necessary and chemical rockets are normally used for this. But if the tests of VaSIMR re-boosting of the ISS goes according to plan, the increase in specific impulse could mean that the cost of fuel for altitude re-boosting will be one-twentieth of the current $210 million annual cost.
But the test won’t be made at full power, because the ISS, despite it’s huge solar arrays, simply doesn’t have enough to give to the VaSIMR engine.
So the engine needs an alternative power supply in order to function at full capacity.
Current suggestions are based on the large scale reactors powering a good portion of the America sub fleet, and either scaling the reactors up or using a series of smaller reactors that in tandem add up to the required power levels. The development of a parallel market for this type of reactors as part of a commercial navel fleet will certainly go far towards encouraging the type of development needed to make large scale VaSIMR engines a reality.
Is this a great industry or what.
That’s all for this week in space for Canada.

MDA

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