Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Small Insight from the 2012 Canadian Space Summit

The team from Concordia shows off their award-winning university-built 3-U cube sat. We heard from this group and many others at the 2012 CSS about the possibilities for exploring our planet and our solar system with small spacecraft not unlike the one pictured above.

A few weeks ago I was participating in the 2012 Canadian Space Summit in London, Ontario (full disclosure: I am on the conference organizing committee). We had a great week full of interesting talks. The highlight speakers were my PhD Advisor, Peter Smith who spoke at the banquet and the last man (and only geologist) to walk on the moon, Harrison Schmitt - the subject of a great deal of media and the host of a separate ticketed lecture.

But one emerging theme is a problem that is particularly acute for Canada - how do we fund space exploration? Even countries with large coffers dedicated to space, like the United States, or Inter-Governmental organizations such as ESA, often run into difficulties with getting their projects funded. As a result, you might be tempted to think that the only way a smaller country like Canada can get their flag into space is by partnering with others and contributing a small piece of a bigger mission.

While this has been a winning strategy, so far, I don't think we need to limit our ambitions here. And neither did a number of presenters at the CSS. We heard several talks on an emerging field: planetary nano-spacecraft or what I might call nano-exploration.

What is a planetary nano-sat or nano-lander? It's basically a cube sat that goes further, much further. There is one key factor that truly distinguishes them from the kinds of missions to which we are used in the planetary sciences: the spacecraft's objectives are highly focused.

This is not a place where mission creep is permitted! That selection of one or two objectives is what permits a spacecraft to shrink drastically in terms of power, mass and communications rate and therefore for a mission to be financed relatively cheaply. However, that means that only certain missions are actually possible. You could not, for instance, fly Curiosity's Sample Acquisition at Mars (SAM) with anything less than Curiosity. It also means that independent launches are often out of the question.

What kinds of missions might you be able to do with such a spacecraft? At the conference we discussed solar sails, visits to small bodies (such as a terrestrial pseudo-satellite), martian orbiting magnetometers and other small martian landers. These missions, and others, might be accomplished for an order of magnitude lower financing than our standard fare: perhaps for as little as $10 Million. Here in Canada, we have a history of investment at this level. The Curiosity APXS was a $17 Million instrument and the "Humble Space Telescope" better known as MOST was Canadian-designed, built and flown for a comparable amount.

Such sums are still a struggle in Canada, however. Despite having an order of magnitude fewer people than the United States (a little over 30 million compared to a little over 300 million), the CSA is also funded at an order of magnitude less per person (now at about $6.50 per person vs. about $60 per person) and even that is falling rapidly under the current administration. That means that, for Canada, financing a $10 Million mission is like trying to pull off a $1 Billion mission in the US.

However, the small size of the sum opens up an interesting possibility - could such a mission be crowd-sourced? With the right objectives and the right price, perhaps it could be! And it would be interesting to try. Traditionally, Space Agencies have been funded above the level of pure utility (and rightfully so) for several reasons. For national prestige, to satisfy the innate desire to explore and understand, to inspire a citizenry towards high achievement in Math and Science, to push the boundaries of technology in harsh environments that yield spinoffs.

But never has anyone made a direct appeal for a sum required to pull off a mission. The knee-jerk reaction is that it would never work in today's era of pragmatism. But maybe, just maybe, a story could be woven that justifies the donation. Twice we heard the term "Heroes" used by distinguished guest speakers at the CSS when describing a deliverable to the public. Certainly, judging by box office sales, people are willing to pay for heroes. But the idea of space exploration as real-life entertainment, as art, is intriguing. I, and perhaps others as well, find deeper meaning in both.

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