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Russian space program in ‘crisis’ as David Saint-Jacques set to blast off

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As Russia prepares to blast Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques into orbit next week, back on Earth, its space program is confronting existential questions about its ability to find a niche in a rapidly evolving sector and stay relevant.

Saint-Jacques’ mission, his first trip into space, will also be the first manned trip to the International Space Station (ISS) since the failed Soyuz MS-10 launch on Oct. 11.

The Dec. 3 event will be a moment of reckoning for Roscosmos, Russia’s version of NASA.

Russia’s space agency is facing nothing short of an existential crisis, said Pavel Luzin, a space analyst and university professor in the Russian Ural city of Perm.

“I am afraid we are not a reliable partner for the U.S. and Europeans,” said Luzin, who wrote his Ph.D on Russian and American space policy. “I see decline [and] a long-term crisis that is based on our inability to adapt our economics and scientific policy to a contemporary world.”

Critics in Russia and abroad claim production and financial troubles, which have led to problems and launch failures in Roscosmos’ unmanned space program, are now starting to affect its manned missions.

Luzin said the space program is especially important for President Vladimir Putin, as it’s one of the few areas Russia can still make a case for being an equal of the United States.

‘Ballistic descent’

October’s Soyuz MS-10 mission ended in nail-biting fashion just two minutes into the flight, after the spacecraft’s booster rockets failed to separate properly.

Roscosmos cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, right, and Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques pose with the Soyuz booster rocket prior to the failed launch of the MS-10. (Yuri Kochetkov/Reuters)

That automatically triggered the crew capsule’s emergency escape system, sending the Russian and American astronauts on board plummeting back to earth at three times the usual velocity — a so-called “ballistic descent.”

Russian investigators concluded a bent sensor designed to detect the separation of the booster rockets failed. The two-centimetre-long piece of metal was apparently damaged by mechanics or engineers during assembly on the launch pad.

“Thankfully, the engineers around the world have been working very hard to get to the bottom of what happened,” Saint-Jacques told CBC in an interview in Moscow. “We are very confident now that we know what happened and we’ve found ways to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Hopefully so. But Russian engineers have also been trying to explain something they discovered in September: a hole drilled in the Russian orbiter section of the ISS.

At first, some Roscosmos leaders suggested it might have been a case of sabotage by U.S. astronauts on board the ISS. But it now appears to have been made on Earth, by someone at a Russian manufacturing plant who then tried to cover up their mistake.

Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques will be making his first trip to space in December. (Pascal Dumont/CBC )

Stolen money

A damning report released this week by the Kremlin’s own auditors demonstrate just how, well, astronomical the financial and production problems with Russia’s space program are.

The news agency RIA Novosti quoted Alexei Kudrin, the head of Russia’s Accounts Chamber, as saying, “We have big problems with Roscosmos.”

Kudrin suggested there has been mismanagement. “Several billions [of rubles] have been lost — that is, essentially stolen — and investigations are underway.”

He told a Russian TV station that “irrational spending” abounds, with the agency paying inflated prices to contractors, and that Roscosmos somehow loses track of money for unfinished or idle projects.

This statue is found in the city of Perm, in Russia’s Urals, where about 7,000 people work in the Russian space industry. (Pascal Dumont/CBC)

On Tuesday, Russian prosecutors revealed they had launched 16 criminal cases against Roscosmos employees, involving everything from improper procurement and fraud to the delivery of faulty or poor-quality products.

The agency said more than 200 officials were involved in the violations. Among the most egregious instances cited by prosecutors was a reported $152 million US embezzled during construction of Russia’s new space port in Vostochny, in the country’s far east.

Essential cooperation

For at least the next year or so, Russia and the U.S. have no choice but to work together.

Since the winding down of NASA’s Space Shuttle program, Russia’s Soyuz rockets have been the only way of getting NASA astronauts — as well as others from Canada, Europe and Japan — up to the ISS.

The roughly $500 million US that NASA pays to Roscosmos each year for seats on the Soyuz, as well as for parts for other rockets, is a critical top-up of the $1.8 billion US budget Roscosmos receives from Putin’s government.

But in late 2019, NASA plans to start shifting the job of transporting its astronauts to private U.S. companies that are developing cheaper, reusable rockets and eventually reusable crew capsules.

Pavel Luzin, the Perm space analyst, said firms such as Boeing, Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin are poised to take over tasks now performed by Roscosmos. And the Russian agency has been unable to demonstrate it can compete with emerging space technologies.

“Russia’s space industry still works like the Soviet space industry, and cannot work in a market environment.”

Space analyst Pavel Luzin believes Russia’s space agency is facing nothing short of an existential crisis. (Pascal Dumont/CBC)

In interviews with CBC, Roscosmos officials downplayed the challenges, and expressed optimism for the future.

“The more you fly,  the more risk you have,” said Sergei Krikalev, Roscosmos’ director of manned spaceflight, who is overseeing Saint-Jacques’ mission.

Krikalev expressed confidence in the investigation that followed the unsuccessful launch, and in the measures Roscosmos has implemented since.   

“A lot of people are working to provide safety and reliability of the hardware,”  he said.

Krikalev said Roscosmos launched an unmanned cargo-carrying Soyuz rocket on Nov. 16 without incident, indicating the booster problem has been resolved.

Though relying on technology developed over 60 years ago, multiple variants of Soyuz rockets have been remarkably durable. Roscosmos had executed 53 straight successful manned launches before the October incident.

Important meeting ahead

Publicly, NASA officials have been supportive of Russia’s efforts to deal with the Soyuz mishap, and expressed confidence in the Roscosmos management team.

But in an unusual step, NASA has asked the head of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, to come to the U.S. in early 2019 for a series of discussions about the future of cooperation in space.

Roscosmos head Dmitry Rogozin, centre, posed for this photo with cosmonaut Alexei Ovchinin, left, and U.S. astronaut Nick Hague after the aborted Soyuz launch in October. (Roscosmos via Associated Press)

A former Russian deputy prime minister who’s closely connected to Putin, Rogozin is on the U.S. sanctions list and banned from travelling to the United States. His trip requires a special waiver from the U.S. State Department, which speaks to the importance NASA attaches to such face-to-face talks.

Rogozin has outlined ambitious plans for Russia’s space program in the decades ahead. They include participating in the U.S. lunar space station proposal, developing new Angara heavy launch rockets and a reusable crew capsule called Federation that could one day take astronauts to Mars.   

Despite a decade in development, the new heavy rocket program has had just one successful launch. There’s no timetable for completion of the Federation. And a new spaceport in Russia’s Far East that was meant to replace the Soviet-era Baikonur Cosmodrome (which Russia leases from Kazakhstan) is not able to handle manned launches.

David Saint-Jacques, who has spent the past two years learning Russian and training at Russia’s Star City complex outside of Moscow, downplayed concerns about how Russia will fare in the years ahead.

“Russians are extremely proud of their accomplishments in space, and they have all good reasons to be proud,” he said.

“There are so many new ways of getting into orbit that are coming up. And with all these players, I think we have a bright future.”

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Top 5 Analytics Trends That Are Shaping The Future

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Digital transformation is increasingly becoming the focus for many CIOs around the world today—with analytics playing a fundamental role in driving the future of the digital economy.

While data is important to every business, it is necessary for businesses to have a firm grip on data analytics to allow them transform raw pieces of data into important insights. However, unlike the current trends in business intelligence—which is centred around data visualization—the future of data analytics would encompass a more contextual experience.

“The known data analytics development cycle is described in stages: from descriptive (what happened) to diagnostic (why did it happen), to discovery (what can we learn from it), to predictive (what is likely to happen), and, finally, to prescriptive analytics (what action is the best to take),” said Maurice op het Veld is a partner at KPMG Advisory in a report.

“Another way of looking at this is that data analytics initially “supported” the decision-making process but is now enabling “better” decisions than we can make on our own.”

Here are some of the current trends that arealready shaping the future of data analytics in individuals and businesses.

  1. Growth in mobile devices

With the number of mobile devices expanding to include watches, digital personal assistants, smartphones, smart glasses, in-car displays, to even video gaming systems, the final consumption plays a key role on the level of impact analytics can deliver.

Previously, most information consumers accessed were on a computer with sufficient room to view tables, charts and graphs filled with data, now, most consumers require information delivered in a format well optimized for whatever device they are currently viewing it on.

Therefore, the content must be personalized to fit the features of the user’s device and not just the user alone.

  1. Continuous Analytics

More and more businesses are relying on the Internet of Things (IoT) and their respective streaming data—which in turn shortens the time it takes to capture, analyze and react to the information gathered. Therefore, while analytics programspreviously were termed successful when results were delivered within days or weeks of processing, the future of analytics is bound to drastically reduce this benchmark to hours, minutes, seconds—and even milliseconds.

“All devices will be connected and exchange data within the “Internet of Things” and deliver enormous sets of data. Sensor data like location, weather, health, error messages, machine data, etc. will enable diagnostic and predictive analytics capabilities,” noted Maurice.

“We will be able to predict when machines will break down and plan maintenance repairs before it happens. Not only will this be cheaper, as you do not have to exchange supplies when it is not yet needed, but you can also increase uptime.”

  1. Augmented Data Preparation

During the process of data preparation, machine learning automation will begin to augment data profiling and data quality, enrichment, modelling, cataloguing and metadata development.

Newer techniques would include supervised, unsupervised and reinforcement learning which is bound to enhance the entire data preparation process. In contrast to previous processes—which depended on rule-based approach to data transformation—this current trend would involve advanced machine learning processes that would evolve based on recent data to become more precise at responding to changes in data.

  1. Augmented Data Discovery

Combined with the advancement in data preparation, a lot of these newer algorithms now allow information consumers to visualize and obtain relevant information within the data with more ease. Enhancements such as automatically revealing clusters, links, exceptions, correlation and predictions with pieces of data, eliminate the need for end users to build data models or write algorithms themselves.

This new form of augmented data discovery will lead to an increase in the number of citizen data scientist—which include information users who, with the aid of augmented assistance can now identify and respond to various patterns in data faster and a more distributed model.

  1. AugmentedData Science

It is important to note that the rise of citizen data scientist will not in any way eliminate the need for a data scientist who gathers and analyze data to discover profitable opportunities for the growth of a business. However, as these data scientists give room for citizen data scientists to perform the easier tasks, their overall analysis becomes more challenging and equally valuable to the business.

As time goes by, machine learning would be applied in other areas such as feature and model selection. This would free up some of the tasks performed by data scientist and allow them focus on the most important part of their job, which is to identify specific patterns in the data that can potentially transform business operations and ultimately increase revenue.

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Waterloo drone-maker Aeryon Labs bought by U.S. company for $265M

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Waterloo’s Aeryon Labs has been bought by Oregon-based FLIR Systems Inc. for $256 million, or $200 million US.

The acquisition was announced Monday. 

Dave Kroetsch, co-founder and chief technology officer of Aeryon Labs, says not much will change in the foreseeable future.

“The Waterloo operations of Aeryon Labs will actually continue as they did yesterday with manufacturing, engineering and all the functions staying intact in Waterloo and ultimately, we see growing,” he said.

“The business here is very valuable to FLIR and our ability to sell internationally is a key piece of keeping these components of the business here in Canada.”

Aeroyn Labs builds high-performance drones that are sold to a variety of customers including military, police services and commercial businesses. The drones can provide high-resolution images for surveillance and reconnaissance.

The drones already include cameras and thermal technology from FLIR. Jim Cannon, president and CEO of FLIR Systems, said acquiring Aeryon Labs is part of the company’s strategy to move beyond sensors “to the development of complete solutions that save lives and livelihoods.”

‘A piece of a bigger solution’

Kroetsch said this is a good way for the company to grow into something bigger.

“We see the business evolving in much the direction our business has been headed over the last couple of years. And that’s moving beyond the drone as a product in and of itself as a drone as a piece of a bigger solution,” he said.

For example, FLIR bought a drone company that builds smaller drones that look like little helicopters.

“We can imagine integrating those with our drones, perhaps having ours carry their drones and drop them off,” he said.

FLIR also does border security systems, which Kroetsch says could use the drones to allow border agents to look over a hill where there have been issues.

“We see the opportunity there as something that we never could have done on our own but being involved with and part of a larger company that’s already providing these solutions today gives us access not only to these great applications, but also to some fantastic technologies,” he said.

Aeryon Labs has done a lot of work during emergency disasters, including in Philippines after Typhoon Hagupit in 2014, Ecuador after an earthquake in 2016 and the Fort McMurray wildfire in 2016.

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Inuvik infrastructure may not be ready for climate change, says study

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The Arctic is expected to get warmer and wetter by the end of this century and new research says that could mean trouble for infrastructure in Inuvik.

The study from Global Water Futures looked at how climate change could impact Havipak Creek — which crosses the Dempster Highway in Inuvik, N.W.T. — and it predicts some major water changes.

“They were quite distressing,” John Pomeroy, director of Global Water Futures and the study’s lead author, said of the findings.

Researchers used a climate model and a hydrological model to predict future weather and climate patterns in the region. They also looked at data gathered from 1960 to the present. 

If greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate — which Pomeroy said they are on track to do — the study projects the region will be 6.1 C warmer by 2099 and precipitation, particularly rain, will increase by almost 40 per cent.

The study also found that the spring flood will be earlier and twice as large, and the permafrost will thaw an additional 25 centimetres. While the soil is expected to be wetter early in the summer, the study said it will be drier in late summer, meaning a higher risk of wildfires.

John Pomeroy is the director of Global Water Futures. (Erin Collins/CBC)

“The model’s painting kind of a different world than we’re living in right now for the Mackenzie Delta region,” Pomeroy said.

He noted these changes are not only expected for Havipak Creek, but also for “many, many creeks along the northern part of the Dempster [Highway].”

Pomeroy said the deeper permafrost thaw and a bigger spring flood could pose challenges for buildings, roads, culverts and crossings in the area that were designed with the 20th century climate in mind.

He said the projected growth of the snowpack and the spring flood are “of grave concern because that’s what washes out the Dempster [Highway] and damages infrastructure in the area.”

Culverts and bridges may have to be adjusted to allow room for greater stream flows, Pomeroy said. And building foundations that are dependent upon the ground staying frozen will have to be reinforced or redesigned.

Pomeroy said the ultimate solution is for humans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“This study is the future we’re heading for, but it’s not the future we necessarily have if we can find a way to reduce those gases,” he said.  

“It’d be far smarter to get those emissions under control than to pay the terrible expenses for infrastructure and endangered safety of humans and destroyed ecosystems.”

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