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Next-generation GPS satellites start blasting off into space

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After months of delays, the U.S. Air Force is about to launch the first of a new generation of GPS satellites, designed to be more accurate, secure and versatile.

But some of their most highly touted features will not be fully available until 2022 or later because of problems in a companion program to develop a new ground control system for the satellites, government auditors said.

The satellite was scheduled to lift off Tuesday from Cape Canaveral, Florida, aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at 9:11 a.m. ET, but the launch has now been pushed back to 9:34 a.m. due to high winds. The event will be streamed live.

It’s the first of 32 planned GPS III satellites that will replace older ones now in orbit. Lockheed Martin is building the new satellites outside Denver.

GPS is best-known for its widespread civilian applications, from navigation to time-stamping bank transactions. The Air Force estimates that 4 billion people worldwide use the system.

But it was developed by the U.S. military, which still designs, launches and operates the system. The Air Force controls a constellation of 31 GPS satellites from a high-security complex at Schriever Air Force Base outside Colorado Springs.

Harder to jam

Compared with their predecessors, GPS III satellites will have a stronger military signal that’s harder to jam — an improvement that became more urgent after Norway accused Russia of disrupting GPS signals during a NATO military exercise this fall.

This March 22, 2016, photo provided by Lockheed Martin shows the first GPS III satellite inside the anechoic test facility at Lockheed Martin’s complex south of Denver. In all, there will be 32 of the new satellites. (Pat Corkery/Lockheed Martin via Associated Press)

GPS III also will provide a new civilian signal compatible with other countries’ navigation satellites, such as the European Union’s Galileo system. That means civilian receivers capable of receiving the new signal will have more satellites to lock in on, improving accuracy.

“If your phone is looking for satellites, the more it can see, the more it can know where it is,” said Chip Eschenfelder, a Lockheed Martin spokesman.

3 times more accurate

The new satellites are expected to provide location information that’s three times more accurate than the current satellites.

Current civilian GPS receivers are accurate to within 3 to 10 metres (10 to 33 feet), depending on conditions, said Glen Gibbons, the founder and former editor of Inside GNSS, a website and magazine that tracks global navigation satellite systems.

With the new satellites, civilian receivers could be accurate to within 1 to 3 metres (3 to 10 feet) under good conditions, and military receivers could be a little closer, he said.

Only some aspects of the stronger, jamming-resistant military signal will be available until a new and complex ground control system is available, and that is not expected until 2022 or 2023, said Cristina Chaplain, who tracks GPS and other programs for the Government Accountability Office.

GPS is best-known for its widespread civilian applications, from navigation to time-stamping bank transactions. The Air Force estimates that 4 billion people worldwide use the system. (Nir Elias/Reuters)

Chaplain said the new civilian frequency won’t be available at all until the new control system is ready.

The price of the first 10 satellites is estimated at $577 million US ($773 million Cdn) each, up about 6 per cent from the original 2008 estimate when adjusted for inflation, Chaplain said.

The Air Force said in September it expects the remaining 22 satellites to cost $7.2 billion US ($9.2 billion), but the GAO estimated the cost at $12 billion US ($16 billion).

Spate of delays

The first GPS III satellite was declared ready nearly 2½ years behind schedule. The problems included delays in the delivery of key components, retesting of other components and a decision by the Air Force to use a Falcon 9 rocket for the first time for a GPS launch, Chaplain said. That required extra time to certify the Falcon 9 for a GPS mission.

The new ground control system, called OCX, is in worse shape. OCX, which is being developed by Raytheon, is at least four years behind schedule and is expected to cost $2.5 billion US ($3.4 billion) more than the original $3.7 billion US ($5 billion), Chaplain said.

The Defence Department has struggled with making sure OCX meets cybersecurity standards, she said. A Pentagon review said both the government and Raytheon performed poorly on the program.

Raytheon has overcome the cybersecurity problems, and the program has been on budget and on schedule for more than a year, said Bill Sullivan, a Raytheon vice-president in the OCX system.

Sullivan said the company is on track to deliver the system to the Air Force in June 2021, ahead of GAO’s estimates.

The Air Force has developed work-arounds so it can launch and use GPS III satellites until OCX is ready to go.

While the first GPS III waits for liftoff in Florida, the second is complete and ready to be transported to Cape Canaveral. It sits in a cavernous “clean room” at a Lockheed Martin complex in the Rocky Mountain foothills south of Denver.

It’s expected to launch next summer, although the exact date hasn’t been announced, said Jonathon Caldwell, vice-president of Lockheed Martin’s GPS program.

This Sept. 2, 2016 photo provided by Lockheed Martin shows GPS III satellites being built in a clean room at Lockheed Martin’s complex south of Denver. (Pat Corkery/Lockheed Martin vi aAssociated Press)

Six other GPS satellites are under construction in the clean room, which is carefully protected against dust and other foreign particles.

“It’s the highest-volume production line in space,” Caldwell said.

For the first time, the Air Force is assigning nicknames to the GPS III satellites. The first one is Vespucci, after Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian navigator whose name was adopted by early mapmakers for the continents of the Western Hemisphere.

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The ‘Maple Majestic’ wants to be Canada’s homegrown Tesla

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Look out Tesla, Canada has a homegrown electric sedan on the way. Well, that’s if AK International Motor Corporation can drum up enough investment to make its EV a reality. Dubbed the “Maple Majestic,” the vehicle is a battery-electric designed to “excel in extreme climate performance without adversely affecting the climate, as befits a vehicle from Canada,” according to its website.

What’s in a name? — The company says the maple leaf is a “symbol of Canada’s warmth and friendliness towards all cultures,” while “majestic” refers to the country’s “status as a Constitutional Monarchy.”

That patriotism carries over into Maple Majestic’s parent company’s lofty goals. AK Motor founder Arkadiusz Kaminski says he wants the company, which he founded in 2012, to become “Canada’s first multi-brand automotive OEM,” and that the “Maple Majestic is intended to be Canada’s flagship brand of automobiles on the world stage.”

Partnerships are key — “We acknowledge that the best chance for the Maple Majestic brand to succeed, lies in continuing to build the relationship with Canada’s parts suppliers and technological innovators, whether they be academic institutions, corporations, or individual inventors,” the company explains. “We are currently seeking partners in automotive engineering, parts manufacturing, automotive assembly, electric propulsion technology, battery technology, autonomous technology, and hybrid power generation technology.”

In other words, don’t expect to be able to buy a Maple Majestic any time soon… and don’t expect to pour over 0-60 mph times, power output, range, or other key stats, because those don’t currently exist. For now, all we have are pictures and a short video clip. But at least those are arresting.

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PE-backed Quorum Software to merge with Canadian energy tech firm

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Houston-based energy technology company Quorum Software will merge with a Canadian tech firm to bolster its presence in oil and gas services.

Quorum announced Feb. 15 it plans to merge with Calgary, Alberta-based Aucerna, a global provider of planning, execution and reserves software for the energy sector. The combined firm will operate under the Quorum Software brand.

Gene Austin, CEO of Quorum Software, will continue in his capacity as chief executive of the combined firm. Austin, former CEO of Austin-based marketing tech firm Bazaarvoice Inc., became CEO of Quorum in December 2018.

Aucerna co-founder and CEO Wayne Sim will be appointed to the Quorum Software board of directors. Both companies are backed by San Francisco- and Chicago-based private equity firm Thoma Bravo.

“Over the last 20 years, Quorum has become the leading innovator of software deployed by North American energy companies,” said Austin. “Today, Quorum is expanding the scope of our technology and expertise to all energy-producing regions of the globe. Customers everywhere will have access to a cloud technology ecosystem that connects decision-ready data from operations to the boardroom.”

In addition to the merger announcement, Quorum Software announced it had entered into an agreement with Finnish IT firm TietoEvry to purchase TietoEvry’s entire oil and gas business. The agreement, which includes hydrocarbon management, personnel and material logistics software and related services, is valued at 155 million euros, or $188 million, according to a statement from TietoEvry.

“Our three organizations complement each other — from the software that our great people design to the energy markets where we operate,” said Sim. “Our new company will be able to deliver value to our stakeholders, while accelerating the growth of our combined business and the energy industry’s software transformation.”

The combined company will serve over 1,800 energy companies in 55 countries, according to the announcement. With its headquarters in Houston, Quorum will continue to have a significant presence in Calgary and in Norway, the headquarters for TietoEvry’s oil and gas software business. Quorum will have other offices throughout North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

As of Sept. 30, 2020, private equity firm Thoma Bravo had more than $73 billion in assets under management. In late December 2020, Thoma Bravo agreed to acquire Richardson, Texas-based tech firm RealPage in a roughly $10 billion acquisition.

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Piece of Kitchener technology lands on Mars on Perseverance rover

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KITCHENER — A piece of Kitchener technology has landed on Mars, thanks to NASA’s Perseverance rover.

The rover settled on the planet’s surface on Thursday afternoon. It’s been travelling through space since it was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. in July.

“The whole idea of being on a device that we’re sending to another plant with the express mission of looking for traces of past life, it’s pretty mind boggling actually,” said Rafal Pawluczyk, chief technical officer for FiberTech Optica.

The Kitchener-based company made fibre optic cables for the rover’s SuperCam that will examine samples with a camera, laser and spectrometers.

“The cables that we built take the light from that multiplexer and deliver it to each spectrograph,” Pawluczyk said.

The cables connect a device on the rover to the SuperCam, which will be used to examine rock and soil samples, to spectrometers. They’ll relay information from one device to another.

The project started four years ago with a connection to Los Alamos National Lab, where the instruments connected to the cables were developed.

“We could actually demonstrate we can design something that will meet their really hard engineering requirements,” Pawluczyk said.

The Jezero Crater is where the Perseverance rover, with FiberTech Optica’s technology onboard, landed Thursday. Scientists believe it was once flooded with water and is the best bet for finding any evidence of life. FiberTech’s cables will help that in that search.

Ioannis Haranas, an astrophysicist and professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said the rover isn’t looking for “green men.”

“They’re looking for microbial, single-cell life, any type of fossils and stuff like that,” Haranas said. “That’s why they chose a special landing site. This could be very fertile land for that.”

“It’s very ambitious,” said Ralf Gellert, a physics professor at the University of Guelph.

Gellert helped with previous rover missions and said it’s the first time a Mars rover has landed without a piece of Guelph technology on it. While he’s not part of Perseverance’s mission, he said the possibilities are exciting.

“Every new landing site is a new piece of the puzzle that you can put together with the new results that we have from the other landing sites,” he said.

“It’s scientifically very interesting because, even though we don’t have an instrument on that rover, we can compare what the new rover Perseverance finds at this new landing site,” he said.

Now that Perseverance has landed on Mars, FiberTech is looking ahead to its next possible mission into space.

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