Another year, another Canadian Space Society Annual Summit!
This event was the original inspiration for my blog, and the start of my personal journey into the world of space exploration.
The promise on the CSS website was this year’s three-day summit, held November 27 to 29, would be “bigger and better than ever” and it was a promise kept. It was held at the posh Brookstreet Hotel in Kanata, seemed to boast bigger attendance, and was in fact multiple events in one: co-hosted with the new Satellite Canada Innovation Network, it featured the regular annual CSS summit, a Canadian Space Policy Symposium, and a SatCom Canada workshop to
focus on the massive disruption in satellite communications coming from LEO constellations and the Internet of Things
Congratulations to Minh On, Ryan Anderson, and all the volunteers and sponsors for another entertaining and informative event.
May You Live In Interesting Times
I’m not in the space industry, and when I first started attending in 2013 I didn’t know anyone or anything. Last year I felt on more familiar ground, and this year the connections were really clicking in my head. I’m starting to know about the technologies, missions, people and players, thanks to these events and the daily SpaceQ newsletters.
Having said that, it’s pretty clear that the ground is changing abruptly under everyone’s feet.
There’s an equal amount of certainty and uncertainty.
What is certain: The cadence of satellite launches and the growth of the space industry is dramatically increasing.
So far this week there has been a Soyuz launch with Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques, and SpaceX launched sixty-four satellites on a booster that has been reused 3 times! And that makes 19 launches by them this year, a pace that is a world record.
Many of the summit presentations began with a bar chart showing the page of satellite launches, and projecting future trends. The current space economy (largely based around satellites) is valued at $330B this year (Space Foundation). By the 2040’s, Goldman Sachs thinks it will be worth $1 Trillion, Morgan Stanley says $1.1 Trillion, and Bank of America Merrill Lynch predicts a value of $2.7 Trillion. Not all of that will involve rocket launches or satellite missions, but those will underpin this projected value.
What is uncertain: What the near future looks like in terms of Canada’s participation in the space industry.
At the summit there was a palpable sense of urgency and and a mix of unease and excitement. The space industry is in upheaval, and Canada is losing ground relative to other countries. Many presentations demonstrated a year-over-year decline in Canada’s contribution to the space economy.
That drop explains the prominent “#Don’tLetGoCanada” campaign launched by industry, which hopes to lobby the Canadian government into continued / expanded spending on space activities, as well as the launch of a new #SpaceMatters campaign on Twitter, which wants to educate and inform Canadian citizens and inspire our youth to study science, engineering, technology and math.
O Brave New World
These trends in the space industry haven’t happened overnight. The trends have been heavily influenced by market and technology pressures from the NewSpace companies, not least SpaceX, Blue Origin, and NanoRacks, which are helping to commoditize rocket and satellite launches. Over the years I’ve recorded many of their activities in this blog, and there is definitely much more going on than ever.
In attendance at the summit were many NewSpace companies hoping to land deals, figure out the market opportunities, and showcase their brands and technologies.
They included Planet which offers on-demand Earth surveillance and OneWeb which wants to provide high speed connectivity from a Low-Earth Orbit constellation which will be launching shortly. Homegrown companies included Sinclair Interplanetary which engineers satellite components, GHGSat which provides satellite-based global emissions monitoring services for industry and governments, Mission Control Space Services which wants to deliver low-cost, innovative solutions to problems in space and on earth through technology development and industry consulting, and Skywatch which consolidates Earth Observation data from various providers and makes it easy to include in downstream software applications.
We’re Rapidly Heading Downstream
In the space industry there is the concept of the “downstream” – the applications (usually telecommunications providers or software applications) that make use of the satellite data or services.
What I found noteworthy was that with one or two exceptions, I was probably the only modern/web software developer in attendance. If the launch and investment predictions are correct, who will be building software applications downstream? I repeatedly asked panelists and attendees what this summit would look like in 5 or 10 years. Will the scientists, engineers, and policy-makers who attend it currently be outnumbered by business-people and software developers looking to integrate a new commodity, EO data, into their systems?
If so, what needs to be done to encourage their participation?
I am one of the organizers of Space Apps Ottawa, the local version of the NASA Space Apps Hackathon. In a 48-hour period, participants address challenges using publicly-available space-based data (and the resulting solution is often working software). I believe strong grassroots efforts are needed to encourage our students and software developers to build software applications using space-based data. These initiatives will build an important bridge to the future downstream industry.
Canada Space Agency and our Natural Resources Canada department provided a great deal of support to our event this year. This included posing some interesting challenges, and providing us not only with some of their satellite data sets but with sustained technical support and subject matter expertise. Perhaps this is an area where Canada can reassert itself in the space industry.
The level of Canadian government participation this year is a very positive sign, because currently downstream users need that to navigate some very complicated waters.
Although I don’t work in the space industry, I’ve started writing experimental web software using some of the Canadian satellite data sets. Right now that is a complicated and frustrating process. I’ve had to spend a lot of time asking around the space industry to even determine what’s available, and then perform various unsupported software experiments to learn the “art of the possible”.
Currently there isn’t one specific place to access Canadian government satellite data, and the policies and timings around making it available to Canadians seem to be in flux. In order to improve that, the Canadian government could:
- Centralize the hosting of its Earth Observation and satellite telemetry data
- Provide samples of proprietary datasets in formats that software developers can use. This will allow businesses tp experiment with non-public datasets quickly and cheaply, before deciding whether to purchase
- Provide reduced licensing fees for students, not-for-profits, and startups
- Wherever possible, make satellite data available under the permissive Open Government license. Make this a fast and transparent process.
- Whether the data is open or not, allow automated system-level access via an industry standard (RESTful API) so software of all types can quickly download it without human intervention
- Provide a service desk that can assist with technical and business support, 24×7. This would range from user self-service (after hours) to incident responses according to some service level agreements. Businesses needing critical support would be able to pay for that level of service, while less-critical support levels would be inexpensive or even free
- Provide a developer portal for government space data, including sandboxes, API keys, and a metered amount of calls per month, with comprehensive documentation and examples
- Provide a software development kit in multiple popular software development languages, including python, .NET and Java
- Provide source control access to the code utilities and data via Github or similar.
- Provide a curated software app marketplace so consultants, independent software vendors, and satcom providers can publish their algorithms, software products, and value-added services easily and widely, just like on a Shopify site (heck, hire Shopify to do it!)
- Publish a roadmap of feature, data-set, and service availability, to help businesses plan ahead.
These are some of the steps that will smooth out the rough downstream waters, and unlock the vast potential of this downstream software development market, which will directly affect Canadian citizens in the coming years.
There’s a famous saying: “Software is eating the world”. Well, software is going to eat the universe too!
Let’s at least make space data easy to digest.