The BBC Blogs - Spaceman

Archives for June 2010

Planning for Mars sample return starts here

Jonathan Amos | 14:16 UK time, Thursday, 24 June 2010

I think we were all inspired by the Japanese adventure in bringing samples of asteroid Itokawa back to Earth. The Hayabusa capsule which landed in Australia is now safely installed in the Sagamihara curation facility in Kanagawa.

Jonathan Amos and the ExoMars prototypeWe await news of the opening of the canister and confirmation that asteroid dust is inside.

Of course, the really big prize would be to return samples of surface material from Mars, a planet where microbial life may once have thrived (and may still in some corner).

And I've had an opportunity in recent days to discuss the topic with top Nasa officials who've been on a tour of Europe to review progress on the European Space Agency's (Esa) ExoMars rover.

As previously mentioned in this blog, all US and European activity at the Red Planet will become a combined effort from mid-decade onwards.

This joint initiative will start in 2016 with an orbiting spacecraft that will investigate trace gases such as methane in the Martian atmosphere, and then progress on to a double rover mission that will launch in 2018.

The Americans plan on using a "skycrane" to land both the ExoMars vehicle and a robotic rover of their own design.

This will be an extraordinary sight - if only you could be on Mars to see it!

The skycrane is a kind of rocket-powered cradle. The crane will lower a pallet containing the two rovers on to the surface before moving itself clear and dropping to the ground at a safe distance.

We'll be able to assess how well this technology works in 2012 because the exact same system is being used to land the next US rover, MSL-Curiosity.

Artist's impression of MSLThe one big difference is that MSL will be put down directly on to its wheels; there will be no pallet involved.

The crane should be capable of landing a tonne or so, which means ExoMars and its co-passenger American vehicle will be allocated 300kg each.

But what will the US robot actually do? I've written a lot about ExoMars and how it will drill below the surface looking for extinct or extant life, but I must confess I've been a little vague on the American side of things.

Their vehicle will be what's termed a caching rover. Its working name is Max-C (Mars Astrobiology Explorer-Cacher [PDF]). It will seek out interesting rocks on the surface of the planet, study them with a suite of instruments and then bag samples. Charles Whetsel, a spacecraft systems engineer at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, described the US rover's mission to me this way:

"The concept right now is that it will have a coring tool able to go about five centimetres in, about a centimetre in diameter. It will be able to go up to the rocks we find most interesting and take a 'biopsy', if you will, to lift the core out and start building up a library onboard the rover. If we can do one of those every week or so, and we plan on being there for the better part of a year, at the end of that year we could have a little 'backpack' of about 30 samples."

Nasa now says these cores gathered by Max-C will be the same ones that a later mission, perhaps in the 2020s, will attempt to retrieve and bring back to Earth. Doug McCuistion, the director of the Mars Exploration Program at Nasa Headquarters in Washington DC, told me:

"Our expectation is that these samples will be acquired with the intention to go get them, unless something significant occurs that prevents us from doing that."

So, the Mars sample return project starts in earnest with the launch of ExoMars and Max-C in 2018. This makes it a hugely significant venture.

Early rendering of the Max-C roverIt raises some interesting questions, too, which Nasa and Esa planners have really only just started to grapple with [PDF].

Can a landing location be identified that is optimal for both drilling into the sub-surface and for finding the right type of rocks you might want to bring back to Earth?

Also, when the two rovers drive off their pallet, do they go in the same direction or do they stick close together? Charles Whetsel:

"We're still talking about that. For us, getting those 30 cores is going to involve some hoping about on our part, whereas ExoMars's theme will be about getting below the surface and exploring Mars with vertical mobility instead of horizontal mobility. That means ExoMars will tend to go to a relatively small number of sites and camp out. The science community has started thinking about how you might reconcile those different modes of operation. One possibility is that you could use the rock-hopping approach of the American rover to scout out locations for ExoMars."

One question that comes into my mind: is there any possibility that ExoMars could pass some of the material it has drilled from two metres below the surface over to Max-C? After all, we know the ultraviolet conditions on the surface today would make it a tough environment for any Martian microbes. There's more chance of them existing deeper in the dirt.

Ascent stage of a Mars sample return concept Well, the engineers are apparently considering this one, too.

Max-C's backpack will need to be easily accessible to the later retrieval mission. One idea is that the rover simply dumps a canister on the ground that can be picked up and then blasted into orbit for capture and boosting back to Earth.

But we're getting a little bit ahead of ourselves here. First, ExoMars and Max-C have got to be made to work before we can start dreaming of what might be in the 2020s.

I tell you what I am looking forward to, though - seeing the pictures the rovers take of each other.

The static Mars Pathfinder lander imaged the little Sojourner rover on the Red Planet in 1997, but this would be something different altogether - an album of snaps from a fly-drive excursion on another planet.

Watch this space.

Esa chief launches his third term in Oxford

Jonathan Amos | 23:38 UK time, Friday, 18 June 2010

As chance would have it, Jean-Jacques Dordain's first engagement after being confirmed in his post for another term at the European Space Agency (Esa) was at Queen's College, Oxford.

The director general, who will now hold the reins at Esa until June 2015, had been booked to address the university's European Affairs Society on Friday.

Jean-Jacques DordainAbout 40 Oxford students (and one BBC journalist) came to hear him discuss the future of European space policy in one of those typically English lecture rooms where every piece of furniture was covered in a layer of chalk dust.

Once he'd had the opportunity to lament the World Cup defeat of his beloved France at the hands of Mexico the previous evening ("There is always some catastrophe on the day I am made DG; the first time it was the failure of Ariane 517"), Mr Dordain was able to set forth his goals.

The discussion naturally recalled the many achievements of Esa and, given the location, he dwelled on the role played within the organisation by the UK, one of its founding members.

In particular, he wanted to mention the more enthusiastic stance towards space initiated by the previous government, and the indication from the new Conservative-Lib Dem coalition that it wished to maintain that momentum. You might have seen that one of the Labour pre-election funding announcements reviewed and confirmed on Thursday by the coalition was the £12m investment in the Harwell International Space Innovation Centre.

But it was the elements which he said were missing from European space policy that I think will interest most here, and on which you may wish to comment below. There were three omissions, he told his audience:

(1) Europe was now in need of a political dimension to space policy, he argued. He contrasted the slow move to consensus required among a club of 18 equal partners (the Esa member states) with the sort of impetus a US President could give to policy. It was only the likes of a US president or a Chinese premier who could say "we go the Moon", and then direct the effort and the money to achieve that goal.

(2) There needed also to be a "defence dimension" to space policy at the European level, he said:

"In contrast to all the other space powers in the world, defence is not a motor for space in Europe. There are very few defence space programmes. Yes, in the UK, Germany and France; but they're individual programmes - while the biggest space agency in the world is not Nasa; in terms of budget, it is the US Department of Defense. They spend far more money than Nasa."

Defence is always a tricky subject for Esa because the idea that space should be used for "exclusively peaceful purposes" is written into its convention. And yet some of its activities - the Galileo satellite-navigation system, for example - clearly will have a dual-use capability. But adding the defence dimension to European space policy would be something he'd be working on in his third term, he confirmed to me after the meeting.

(3) And the final big omission was crew transportation. As you know, at the moment, Europe has no independent means of getting its astronauts into space. They must hitch a ride on a US or a Russian vehicle. Europe certainly has the technical means to build its own transportation system, but so far Esa member states have baulked at the cost.

Concept Advanced Re-Entry Vehicle

A key factor playing into all three of these missing elements now is the EU and Article 189 of the Lisbon Treaty, which gives Brussels "joint competency" with its member states on matters of space policy.

The EU and Esa already work closely together (remember, they are separate legal entities) but that relationship is set to grow much closer... to the point where the EU is going to start initiating many more space programmes of its own, using Esa as its agent or technical adviser.

And that very probably means extra money for space activity, too. If Europe is ever to have its own manned spaceship it may well be an EU-initiated programme that delivers it.

Anyway, I attach my brief chat with the director general on Friday to this posting. He explains his reasons for accepting a third term and the challenges he faces in taking Esa forwards:

"I have decided to stay for another term, first of all because the member states were asking me; because if the member states were not asking me, I would have done something else. But from the point that they were asking me, I have reflected. And I think that Esa will have to change; Esa will have to adapt itself. Esa is a fantastic organisation but it will have to change to be adapted to the new environment, the new [Lisbon] Treaty, but also the international environment and so on. And to change Esa, I think an old guy with some experience who will be in his last mandate anyway - maybe it's better. So, I have decided to stay basically to make sure Esa will be stronger, and will be the tool that Europe needs to be more influential on the international scene."

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

A perfect view of the asteroid capsule's Earth return

Jonathan Amos | 17:06 UK time, Friday, 11 June 2010

Nothing can prevent it now. Japan's Hayabusa spacecraft is heading home after its seven-year round-trip to the asteroid Itokawa.

A final trajectory correction has been performed and the spacecraft is on target to hit the atmosphere of Earth above Australia shortly before midnight (local time; about 1400 GMT).

I wrote earlier in the week about some of the woes Hayabusa experienced as it tried to grab dusty fragments from Itokawa's surface, and now it faces one last challenge. And it's a mighty one.

Artist's impression of the returning Hayabusa spacecraft

About three hours prior to re-entry, the main spacecraft will eject the sample capsule, pushing it out in front.

The capsule is equipped with a heat-shield and a parachute to get it safely to the ground in Australia's Woomera Prohibited Area.

The mothership has no such protection. Coming home means it will be destroyed.

DC-8 planeI've been speaking this week to Peter Jenniskens, a scientist affiliated to both Nasa's Ames Research Center and the Seti Institute. Peter has become the "top gun" in the business of chasing objects that fall to Earth.

Nasa put at his disposal a Douglas DC-8 airborne laboratory and he packs it full of cameras and spectrometers to study how things behave as they scream through the atmosphere.

The DC-8 flies up above the clouds, giving the instruments a prime position to record the shower of light as these objects heat up and start to break apart.

If you haven't yet seen the extraordinary footage Peter's team acquired of Europe's "Jules Verne" space freighter when it burnt up over the Pacific in 2008 - watch it now. It's at the bottom of this posting.

Instruments on DC-8Sunday's event won't be quite so awesome - the Jules Verne ship had a re-entry mass of some 13.5 tonnes; the Hayabusa mothership is just half-a-tonne, and the sample capsule is a tiddly 17kg.

Even so, the Japanese hardware will smack the top of the atmosphere at considerable speed. Peter told me:

"We will set ourselves up close to the end point of the approach trajectory so that we have a frontal view of the capsule. Our main interest is in studying how hot the capsule becomes, how much light is being produced in the shockwave and how much material comes off the heat-shield. And when the heat-shield is recovered on the ground, we can see how well the material performed. It's like a field test of a thermal protection system. This is only the second time we have been able to do this. We did it before with Nasa's Stardust capsule. The opportunities to study how well a heat-shield performs in really fast re-entries - Hayabusa's capsule is coming in at 12.2km/s - are extremely rare."

The capsule will be little more than 2,000m ahead of the mothership when the pair hit the atmosphere. It's certain the main spacecraft will steal the show.

First, its solar panels will be ripped off as it gets down to about 91km, and then the main bus will be torn to shreds. Pretty much everything will be vaporised.

Artist's impression of the parachute deploymentOut in front, the capsule's heat-shield will be glowing for the cameras as it bakes at 3,000C, but everyone will be keeping their fingers crossed that its integrity holds.

The shield is made from a carbon phenolic resin. It's an ablator, meaning it's designed to lose material. As that material comes away, it carries some of the heat with it and that helps to cool the main structure.

Peter expects his team to be able to follow the capsule's light trail down to about 45km altitude, perhaps even deeper. As it continues to fall and cool, it will go dark to the instruments.

A parachute should open at about 10km altitude for the final moments of the descent.

All the data from the DC-8 instruments will eventually be used to improve the models that engineers employ to design heat-shield systems. And were a spacecraft ever to return to Earth in an uncontrolled manner, these tools could also be used to work out how much of a threat falling debris might pose to populated areas. Peter explains:

"We can verify whether the models predict the correct amount of shock radiation which adds to heating the surface. We can verify whether they predict correctly the surface temperature, whether they predict correctly the amount of material that is lost from the heat-shield during re-entry. And that determines the thermal protection design. You want to make your heat-shield as thin as you can because you want to take as little mass into space as possible at the start of a mission. And so the better you understand the behaviour of these systems, the more efficient you can make them."

You can follow the Hayabusa Re-Entry Airborne Observing Campaign by clicking here. The Eindhoven University of Technology, which has members on the DC-8, is also running a blog here.

Ambitiously, Peter's team is going to try to stream live video of the re-entry by bouncing video off an Inmarsat spacecraft. Go here to watch that. It should start running just after 1345 GMT.

As I said on Tuesday, Hayabusa represents an extraordinary achievement, whatever the outcome on Sunday. And if the Japanese manage to get the capsule down safely and find fragments of Itokawa inside, it will be quite a coup.

No-one has ever returned samples from an asteroid before.

Don't expect any immediate Eureka announcements. It could take several months of painstaking work back in the Sagamihara laboratory in Japan before scientists are able to confirm they have pieces of Itokawa dust.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

Who thought asteroids were dull, dumb rocks?

Jonathan Amos | 08:27 UK time, Tuesday, 8 June 2010

There's no doubting the big space story of the coming days - it is the return to Earth of Japan's Hayabusa spacecraft.

Asteroid ItokawaThe mission visited the asteroid Itokawa in 2005 and acquired some stunning up-close imagery and remote-sensing data. It also made an attempt to grab samples off the potato-shaped object's surface.

The capsule containing those rocky fragments is now hurtling home. The 40cm-wide disc should slam into our atmosphere on Sunday, slowing sufficiently in its fiery descent for a parachute to give it a reasonably soft landing in the Australian Outback at about 1400 GMT.

Hayabusa's seven-year round trip has been quite an adventure. Communications with Earth have been patchy, it lost a small deployable probe, its sample-grab mechanism malfunctioned, and - to cap it all - it's had to limp home because of a severely compromised propulsion system.

No-one really knows if the capsule carries some Itokawa dust or is completely sterile, but most people I think will cheer this mission home. It strikes me Japanese scientists and engineers have already demonstrated remarkable skill in recovering what seemed on many occasions to be an utterly lost cause.

I'll speak more of Hayabusa's return later in the week but I really just wanted to mark your card for the future because we have an exciting year ahead as far as asteroid studies go.

These objects fascinate because they represent the leftovers - the rubble - that were never incorporated into the big planets that now dominate the Solar System. In other words, they're an eye into our past some 4.5 billion years ago.

RosettaBoth Europe and the US are also planning major encounters.

First up will be the European Space Agency's (Esa) Rosetta probe, which is due to pass just 3,160km from Asteroid Lutetia on 10 July. The 100km-plus-wide Lutetia is a bit of a strange beast.

Earth-based observations had at first classified it as a primitive object, little changed since its formation (a so-called C-type asteroid). Further measurements then spied an unexpectedly high metal composition on its surface, suggesting it might have undergone a greater degree of evolution than previously thought.

Rosetta will just race by. Its main quarry is an unpronounceable comet (67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko) which it will meet out near Jupiter in 2014, but the opportunity to test its instruments on this fascinating lump of space rock is too good an opportunity to pass up.

Dr Rita Schulz, Esa's Rosetta project scientist told me:

"Asteroids are all different; you can't just visit one or two and say 'now we know all about the asteroids'. There's such a large variety. We cannot identify, or define, them all from ground-based observations and so we need to visit a whole bunch of asteroids. And they're rather easy to reach because they are in a belt between Mars and Jupiter. It is much more difficult reach objects that are further away or out of the ecliptic - out of the plane where all the planets lie in."

Rosetta will have all of its remote-sensing instruments switched on - cameras, plasma experiments, magnetometers, dust instruments, radio science experiment, etc. It will nail Lutetia's true state.

It will be fascinating to see if the probe catches any dust as it whizzes by, as the spacecraft carries an atomic force microscope. An AFM was used on Mars by the Phoenix lander, but Rosetta's high-resolution instrument must be the most distant such microscope yet deployed.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

Rosetta-Lutetia is just the appetiser, though.

Ceres and VestaNasa's Dawn spacecraft will be bearing down on the 530km-wide Vesta asteroid this time next year.

The probe will be spending about 12 months at this rock before moving on to Ceres which, at 950km in diameter, is by far the largest and most massive body in the asteroid belt.

It is what they call a "dwarf planet" these days - the same classification we're supposed to use now to describe Pluto.

Their sheer size means gravity has pulled these bodies into a spherical form, Ceres more so than Vesta.

The latter unfortunately has the look of a punctured football, the result of a colossal collision sometime its past that ripped a big chunk out of its south polar region.

The debris from that smash-up was sent far and wide. About one in 20 of the meteorites that falls to Earth is probably a bit of Vesta.

Ceres and Vesta will make for interesting subjects. These really are evolved bodies - objects that have heated up and started to separate into distinct layers.

In the case of Vesta this probably means it has an iron core. For Ceres, scientists don't think it got quite so hot, and it probably retains a lot of water, perhaps in a band of ice deep below the surface.

Like Rosetta, Dawn has a suite of instruments to investigate these rocks' present state and their history. Lead scientist Professor Christopher Russell summed up the mission for me thus:

"The name is a suggestion of what we're trying to do. We're trying to go to the dawn of the Solar System. We're looking at two bodies that were formed right at the beginning, in the first five million years, and that have remained intact. They weren't destroyed; they weren't knocked apart and reassembled. We think when we go there, we'll understand how the building blocks of the Solar System were put together. You could say we'll learn about the childhood of the Solar System."

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

Asteroids rock!

A 'great day' for the future of commercial space

Jonathan Amos | 22:45 UK time, Friday, 4 June 2010

It's a difficult business developing a rocket. If it were that easy, everyone would have one (even the UK!).

But the stats are clear - some two-thirds of the new vehicles introduced in the past 20 years experienced a failure on their first outing. And of that number, more than one-third tripped up on their second flight too.

So SpaceX must be cock-a-hoop that its Falcon 9 rocket worked straight out of the box on Friday.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

The company, whose goal is to reduce the cost of access to space, had naturally tried to dampen expectations before lift-off.

CEO and chief designer Elon Musk had suggested it would be a "good day" if only the first-stage of the two-stage Falcon worked properly. Making orbit would be a "great day", he said. Friday turned out to be a "great day".

We got clear onboard video of the ascent over the Atlantic, almost to the point of the second stage shut-down, just under nine minutes after the Falcon left the Cape.

The last altitude call I heard was for 256km - a little more than the target injection orbit. The Falcon was equipped with over 100 sensors. We'll hear more about the key performance data in the days and weeks ahead.

But the evident success of the launch will reverberate around Capitol Hill in Washington DC.

US President Barack Obama's insistence on cancelling Nasa's Ares rockets and the rest of its Moon-bound Constellation programme has ignited a furious row with Congress.

Politicians whose states will miss out on Constellation's multi-billion-dollar contracts are up in arms, and they haven't exactly been saying nice things about SpaceX - the upstart that has suggested the commercial sector might be able to launch astronauts into space for a fraction of the cost of traditional government-run programmes.

When I spoke to Elon Musk on Thursday, I put it to him that he and his company had become something of a political football in recent months, kicked back and forth in the war of words between Congress and the White House.

SpaceX was a "punching bag, a whipping boy," he said:

"Our launch should not be a verdict on the viability of commercial space. Commercial space is the only way forward. If we go with super-expensive government developments, in the absence of some massive increase in the space budget we will never do anything interesting in space. And given the enormous federal deficits both in the US and obviously in Europe, that means there will not be an interesting future in space. It's not a path forward; it is the only path forward.

There is a long way to go before SpaceX will be allowed to launch astronauts to the space station on a Falcon 9.

Just because the first launch met its prime objectives doesn't mean everything is guaranteed to go swimmingly in future.

But the company will now push forward with its development programme.

It has a second Falcon 9 already assembled and sitting in Texas awaiting shipment to Cape Canaveral. The next flight will not have a dummy capsule atop its length like Friday's rocket; it will have a fully functional Dragon freighter.

Second-stage video grabDragon is the centrepiece of SpaceX's plan to deliver cargo to the International Space Station (ISS).

The second flight will be the first of the so-called Cots test flights. Cots stands for Commercial Orbital Transportation Services. It is the seed programme Nasa established to bring the commercial sector into the business of restocking the ISS.

Whereas Friday's dummy capsule was thrown into a 250km-high orbit and abandoned, on the Cots test the Dragon capsule will be asked to perform a series of manoeuvres to demonstrate its capability.

It will then have to show it can return safely to Earth by passing intact through the heat of re-entry and landing softly in the ocean via parachute.

These are tall tasks, but SpaceX is confident that on the second Cots mission, perhaps by this time next year, it can actually take its unmanned Dragon all the way into the ISS and deliver supplies.

Falcon9 graphicThis is one flight ahead of the Cots schedule agreed with Nasa and the agency has yet to sanction the accelerated timetable. Nasa is mulling it over, but may just decide to go with it.

The retirement of the shuttle leaves a 60-tonne shortfall in the cargo manifest through to 2016 that must be filled by robotic freighters. Even if they all work, the margin will be tight.

So providing SpaceX can meet its milestones, Nasa could accede to the request to go to the station early because the platform really does need all the supplies it can get.

I'm interested to see if SpaceX manages to find and recover the first-stage from Friday's launch.

The plan eventually is to try to make the Falcon 9 totally reusable. That is, to get back everything that went up, reassemble it and put it back on the launch pad to go again.

This is all part of the drive to dramatically reduce the costs of spaceflight. Is it really feasible? I don't know.

But Friday's first-stage was equipped with a heat-resistant covering and a parachute. SpaceX will certainly go and look for it.

Elon Musk told me this week:

"Long term, it's critical that true reusability is achieved for orbital transport. In the absence of that I don't think we will ever extend life beyond Earth because the capital costs will be far too high. The shuttle of course is a partially reusable launch vehicle - the main tank is thrown away each time. But the bits that are reusable are so difficult to reuse that the shuttle actually costs more than an expendable rocket."

It's all interesting stuff. The second Falcon 9 launch should take place before the summer is out.

Watch this space.

The magic touch of French satellite finance

Jonathan Amos | 08:30 UK time, Thursday, 3 June 2010

It was a stunning announcement. Eighty-one satellites are to be built by the Franco-Italian company Thales Alenia Space (TAS) for Iridium's next-generation network.

The European manufacturer had beaten Lockheed Martin of the US to one of the great industry prizes of recent years. TAS will get some $2.1bn for their part in the $2.9bn project which probably counts as the world's biggest commercial space venture right now.

Artist's impression of an Iridium satelliteThe American Iridium company currently operates 66 spacecraft in a low-Earth orbit, linking sat phones across the entire globe. The system also provides data links as well.

Not everyone has reason to use a satellite phone but Iridium's 360,000 subscribers clearly appreciate the service and their calls deliver very healthy revenues to Iridium.

The announcement was all the more remarkable considering Iridium's history. The original company you will remember went belly-up soon after going live, filing for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy in 1999.

It was then bought out of that predicament the following year by investors who paid a fraction of the cost of setting up the present constellation of satellites.

It's been a big turnaround.

Thales promises the satellites it provides for Iridium's Next network will offer an enhanced service while being fully compatible with the old system.

TAS says the first of the 800kg spacecraft should be ready for launch from 2015.

What was really striking, however, was the role played yet again by the French export credit guarantee organisation, Coface, in cementing Wednesday's big deal.

The Compagnie Francaise d'Assurance pour le Commerce Exterieur underwrites risk and has been particularly active in supporting the French satellite manufacturing sector.

Its commitment to projects like Iridium Next allows those projects to secure loans at very favourable rates. In what are tough economic times, Coface support has facilitated ventures that might otherwise not have been able to get financing.

TAS itself won a Coface-supported deal to build 24 satellites for another US sat-phone service provider, Globalstar. Coface backing was also important in Thales winning the contract to build 16 broadband satellites for start-up O3b which has its headquarters in the Channel Islands.

How Lockheed Martin, the losing bidder in the Iridium Next project, must be feeling is anyone's guess.

As a US manufacturer seeking work from an American company, Lockheed Martin would not have been able to bring export credit guarantees to the party. Obviously. It would not have been exporting.

So did Lockheed really stand a chance in its run-off with Thales? Is Coface's support for French exporters acting to distort the market? Questions I put to Matt Desch, CEO of Iridium. His response:

"This is a global market space. There is a lot of work here in this contract that American companies will be doing because Thales has, I think, selected a fantastic team of potential subcontractors which includes almost 40% of the business from North America. So I don't think this is anything but really good news for the space industry as a whole and, frankly, really good news for all those people who're going to be involved in this [project]."

Thales has certainly won friends in making sure a US workforce is heavily involved. Key partners will be Ball Aerospace and Boeing. Indeed, Ball will probably be involved in the final assembly of the spacecraft.

But there ought to be some wide eyes in other countries that want to support their space industries. It is clear they need to make sure their national manufacturers also have full access to all the modern financial tools being deployed so productively right now by the French.

The British space industry is jumping up and down on this issue, too. Thumb through the recent Space Innovation and Growth Strategy document, which sets out a 20-year vision for UK industry. Go to Recommendation four. It reads:

"The UK government should provide more capital guarantees and/or anchor tenancy agreements to allow UK-based operators to raise the necessary finance to buy satellites and fund launches so that they can enter new space-enabled service markets and grow their businesses. Although this need is not unique to the space sector, we ask government to note the high capital costs involved in the procurement and launch of individual satellites and the need for the UK to be first to market to exploit a growing export market."

We discussed in my last post the new UK Coalition's desire to back UK space, and the problems it might encounter as a result of the public deficit.

But the point about all of this is that support is not limited just to spending money. It is also about creating the right financial environment in which industry can thrive; and right now Coface is giving the French satellite manufacturers a huge leg up.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.