Category Archives: Technology

Opposing views on Ariane rocket future

As the American space upstart SpaceX gets ready to resupply the International Space Station under a commercial agreement with NASA later on today, the established players in the international space launch market are starting to take notice of SpaceX’s low-cost strategy and what it will mean to the future satellite launching business. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket will start to compete for commercial business in the coming years and will probably seek to undercut current players on price.

The current commercial space-launch leader, Arianespace with over 50% of the satellite launch market, is currently working on an upgrade to its Ariane 5 rocket which would give the vehicle a 20 percent boost in payload-carrying power and a re-ignitable upper stage. There are, however, different views of the rocket’s future from its two major owners i.e. the French and German governments. The French government is conscious of the future competition from SpaceX and other upstarts and wants to skip the current Ariane 5 upgrade altogether and concentrate on a new more cost effective version to be called Ariane 6. The German Aerospace Center wants to continue the Ariane 5 upgrade instead, which has already commenced, and potentially team up with NASA to work on the Orion deep-space crew transport spacecraft. The French and Italians are sceptical to Orion and want to work on a European low-earth orbit spacecraft instead. There could also be an option to work on the Ariane 5 upgrade and development of Ariane 6 concurrently, but that would require an increased budget.

Arianespace currently needs 120 million Euros in government support annually in order to be commercially viable. Final policies and budgets will be agreed on during a November conference of European Space Agency members.

Arianespace’s Ariane5 rocket takes off



German company to test laser weapon

The German subsidiary of European missile systems company MBDA has developed a solid-state laser weapon with an output of 40 kW. The purpose of the weapon is to take down airborne mortar shells and is claimed to have cut through 40 mm-thick steel plates “in a few seconds”.

Germany’s new laser gun

MBDA is owned by European aerospace and defense giants BAE Systems, EADS and Finmeccanica. BAE Systems and EADS have proposed a merger recently.

MBDA’s laser gun is said to be ahead of its US competitors who have only managed a 25 kW laser zap-gun so far.

Human spaceflight in decline

With the sad passing of Neil Armstrong – the first man on the moon – in mind, it’s worth noting that currently the number of living people who have stepped on an extraterrestrial body is in steep decline.

Will Germany with its increasing industrial and technological might step up and increase spending on manned spaceflight so that this negative trend can be reversed? Or will we simply have to wait for American budget deficits to disappear or maybe even the first Chinese taikonauts to take charge?


R&D Spending in Major Economies

Research & development spending as percentage of GDP is going up in Germany and might soon catch up with the US, according to this article in the Economist. Spending in Japan is going down while the UK is still lagging behind.

This link to Booz & Co annual report on corporate R&D provides some interesting reading on R&D strategic advantage.

European Space Agency pondering the future for its ATV spacecraft

The European Space Agency (ESA) is currently undertaking two studies in order to find use for its space truck, the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), when it has completed all its missions to the International Space Station in 2014. The ATV is an expendable, unmanned resupply spacecraft developed by the ESA and manufactured by Astrium Space Transportation in Germany. Five ATVs are designed to supply the International Space Station with propellant, water, air, payloads and experiments.

ESA’s ATV in orbit

One of the studies will investigate whether the ATV’s service module section could provide propulsion for NASA’s Orion spacecraft, which is designed to carry astronauts to deep space destinations such as asteroids, the moon and Mars. This would give the European space manufacturer a major role in future space exploration.

The other study envisages a future for the spacecraft in providing services in low-earth orbit such as pushing infrastructure around in space or serving as a vehicle for robots that fix or decommission old satellites.

The ATV taking shape at the Astrium factory in Bremen, Germany

Three ATVs have already been launched with the latest one still orbiting with the ISS. The next ATV, named “Albert Einstein”, will be launched in Spring 2013.

Where to now for Nokia?

The Finnish mobile handset and network manufacturer has had a hard time since the release of Apple’s iPhone and the various Android phones. The company, which was once the most valuable in Europe, is continuing to lose money and has now shed an additional 10,000 jobs leaving it to concentrate on the Windows Phone platform in the smartphone market. The Espoo, Finland based company is still big in the market for traditional basic phones, but the margins in that sector are increasingly thin.

With its share price now lower even than it was in 1995 valuing the company at around $8 Billion – but with more than 10,000 patents and strong brand value – the company is seen as an attractive takeover target. An obvious buyer would be Microsoft, who would want to keep the phone afloat in order to build its Windows Phone platform.

Nokia could also be a great fit for an Asian manufacturer looking to buy into an established brand. China’s telecommunications manufacturer Huawei or the handset maker ZTE Corp would fit that bill, as would Taiwan’s handset maker HTC, which already has a successful phone range on the Android platform. South Korea’s Samsung is probably less likely to be in the market for Nokia given its own strong brand name, but it can’t be ruled out.

There are similarities with Chinese automaker Geely’s 2o10 takeover of Swedish car manufacturer Volvo. The company has since injected billions into Volvo and sales are improving.  It remains to be seen whether cultural differences can be overcome and a combined entity can go forward to create successful Scandinavian-Chinese technology champions.

Chinese manned spacecraft docks with space station module

Picture credit: Xinhua

China’s manned spacecraft Shenzhou 9 docked successfully with the Chinese space station Tianggong-1 module on Monday. The spacecraft took off with a crew of 3 taikonauts, including one woman, on a Long March 2F rocket from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China on Saturday.

The Swedish space and satellite company Swedish Space Corporation (SSC) is playing a part in the Chinese space program by leasing satellite tracking antennae at one of its facilities to China’s satellite launch company. The tracking facility situated in Dongara East in western Australia has provided services to the Chinese company since 2009. The Chinese claim that the facility is only used for civilian purposes and not by the military.

The Swedish Space Corporation is based in Solna outside of Stockholm and has around 700 employees worldwide including a representative office in Beijing.