Monday, July 12, 2010

PSLV Roars to Life with a Canadian Microsatellite on Board

Today, an Indian PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle) lifted off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre with a large Earth observation satellite (Cartosat 2B) and a Canadian microsatellite on board!

The Canadian microsatellite was the AISSat 1 from the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies Spaceflight Laboratory (UTIAS - SFL).  Way to go SFL!  Of note, there were also two other student satellites from India and Switzerland that launched along with Cartosat and AISSat 1.

The successful launch of the PSLV today bodes well for MSCI's upcoming launch of the NEOSSat spacecraft.  NEOSSat will also use the PSLV launcher for its launch in 2011.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

A "Standard" Price

Boy, oh boy.  Talk about nickels and dimes ... but try $50's and $100's instead!!!

I remember a day, not so long ago, when aerospace standards (such as soldering, cabling, materials, etc.) were all available free of charge (or for a minimal printing fee).  Now, it seems as if almost all standards, be them IEEE, IEST, ISO or whatever, can only be purchases for upwards of $100.  Companies like IEST seem to be popping up all over the place, putting price tags on the latest versions of standards that aerospace companies require to do their jobs properly.

For large space companies that produce many, many large satellites in the 10's or 100's of millions of dollars, a few standards every few months at a few hundred dollars per standard is not likely to be much of an issue.  However, for the microspace sector, margins are generally pretty low and so we need to choose carefully where we put our money.  This is further complicated by the fact that with microsatellites becoming more and more prevalent in the space industry, stakeholders are putting increasing demands on the performance of microsatellites, which further strengthens the need for standards!

I understand people wanting to make money in the business of standards production.  Let's face it -- everybody is out to make a buck or two on something.  However, I have to question the ethics behind charging almost $200 for an industry-wide standard on contamination control (which used to be freely available as MIL-STD-1246C).  Yes, you can still download the older versions of the standards from sites like EverySpec, but they are just that -- old versions.

So, what ends up happening?  Usually one of two things.  Either engineers simply use the older versions and hope that nothing has changed, or they don't cite the use of any standard, defeating the entire purpose of standards in the first place.  Yes, you could argue that it's the cost of doing business in the space sector, but standards should not exist for the the sole use of companies that can afford to constantly purchase the latest and greatest versions of every relevant spec out there.  It doesn't seem right to me.

I think the situation gets even more serious with residential building / electrical codes.  At over $100 per copy, I'm certain that most "do-it-yourselfers" decide to forgo the expensive code and just "wing-it".  Is this what we want?  One has to wonder, is this a means of forcing would-be "do-it-yourselfers" to hire qualified electricians for relatively mundane tasks like installing a light switch or moving an outlet.  I'm not a conspiracy theorist or anything, it just makes you go "hmmm".

I suppose there is also the question of who would be willing to put these standards together for "free".  Good question.  Space agencies around the world?  International organizations?  Again, I'm not sure.  It's quite a conundrum.

But one thing is for sure:  If more and more people don't use "standards" for whatever the reason, they are not "standard".

Friday, July 2, 2010

When Flight History Backfires ...

So, this doesn't really have anything to do with "small space" or Canada (at least in any direct way), but it's news and I think it's worth commenting on.

A Russian resupply ship heading for the International Space Station has apparently experienced some issues while attempting to autonomously dock with the orbiting outpost.  Here is a photo taken from the supply ship during it's "final" approach:

So, interesting news, but what does this mean (if anything) for the future of automated docking and other rendezvous activities in space?  It's hard to forget the issues that happened in 1997 when a Progress resupply ship collided with the Russian space station Mir, causing a near catastrophe to the space station and its occupants. 

Arguably, since the collision 13 years ago, the Russians have done an incredible job perfecting their automated docking technology.  Let us not forget the many, many (probably approaching 100 by now) successful automated dockings that have taken place since then by outstanding Russian hardware.  While we usually only hear about space shuttles visiting the International Space Station, much of the resupply missions have actually been carried out by Russian resupply ships like this one without any human intervention at all.

However, often all it takes is one failure (perhaps like the one that just happened) for the space community to make an about face.  Is this really warranted?  Should we now look at the Russian docking technology or the whole idea of automated docking with a suspicious and questionable eye now? 

I would like to think not.  As much as we would like to think that spaceflight is as routine as a freight train making a trans-continental trip, it's simply not.  A lot of space technology is still in its infancy (relatively speaking).  This isn't to say that we shouldn't take a long and hard look at what went wrong and how to learn from this mistake.  In fact, quite the opposite.  I think we should scrutinize this event and learn as much as we can.  But, let's not get ridiculous here and take this event as an indication that automated space maneuvers like this should be avoided at all costs because of "what happened back in 2010".

I've often found it to be unfortunate that sometimes it's far too easy to forget about the many successes in the space industry in favour of the few failures.  Sure, people invest a lot of money into space, and for good reason.  But let's not let a few mistakes artificially impede our progress.  Mistakes will happen, we will learn, and the space industry will continue to move forward.