Monthly Archives: December 2013

Leaving Military Space Operations

Of course, I did leave the military some time ago.  And I haven’t looked back.  Mistakes were made during my transition from military space operations to contractor.  Some of those mistakes are what this post is all about.  Just click on the following link to read the post:  “Lost in Military Transition:  Considerations Before “Getting Out.””

Why Space Matters: GEO Satellite operations, Part 3–Revolution Earth

“Endless Distance, Wildlife and Stars, Blanket the Night…”

The last lesson was about Field of View (FOV) and Field of Regard (FOR).  It was intended to help with understanding the next few lessons regarding satellites in geosynchronous orbit (GEO).  All mentions of GEO on this blog, unless otherwise stated, refer to a particular type of orbit:  it is an orbit above the Earth’s equator matching the revolution, or rotation, of the Earth.

Just in case there are people reading this blog poised with a “well, actually”—yes, yes—there are other orbits associated with GEO.  You can go here to read all about those—the article is mercifully short, so if you’re curious, go ahead and read it.  But we’re not going to cover those other geosynchronous orbit types in these particular lessons.  The geosynchronous orbit type we will be focusing on is the geostationary orbit.  As stated before, we will use GEO as the term for that orbit type.

“…You lying beside me darling, Eyes open wide…”

Hopefully the concept of a GEO weather satellite being able to see more with its “eyes” in its FOR than a Low Earth Orbiting (LEO) satellite is an easy concept to grasp.  This main FOR distinction means a few things:  with GEO satellites, you can see the patterns of the clouds, instead of just cloud cover, which LEO satellites will give you.  With GEO weather satellites, you can see where a weather pattern is trending towards—so they are important for hurricane warnings and such.  The GEO satellite’s “eyes” cover a wider area.  The resulting images from such a vantage point are like the next image:

Image from “” but they got it from NASA.

But one of the most important advantages is associated with the GEO’s orbital period (how fast it goes around the Earth).

While the wide arc of the globe is turning, We feel it moving through the dark…”

In the LEO satellite lessons, you found there were some variations in the orbital period of LEO satellites.  This has to do with the variations in altitude of the different satellites and you can just go to these posts to read more about them.  A GEO satellite is, obviously, at a much higher altitude and directly “above” the Earth’s equator:  35,786 km (22,236 mi) from Earth’s surface—or 26,199 miles if you go to the Earth’s core.  This altitude, and its position above the Earth’s equator, means the GEO satellite’s orbital period will match the Earth’s rotation.  Below is a decent animation of what’s happening:

GEO animation from Wikimedia

The satellite will arc through the sky, matching the globe as it turns.  So, what is the benefit of this orbital characteristic?

It means a weather satellite (or any kind of satellite, really) in a GEO position will observe the part of the Earth the satellite is orbiting above 24 hours a day.  This one aspect describes the concept of “persistence” in satellite operations.  Persistence is how weather satellites in GEO can “track” a weather system.  Instead of seeing small, swiftly passing “weather trees” that a LEO weather satellite can see, a GEO satellite sees the entire “weather forest.”

“…On a voyage between dusk and dawn, Space and time…”

And the GEO satellite can observe that “forest” for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, etc.  A LEO satellite, because it’s moving so quickly, and the Earth is rotating as much as 2,200 km (1,367 miles) per 90-minute low earth orbit, doesn’t have this kind of persistence.  Is it possible for a LEO satellite to have persistent observation of a single point of the Earth?  Well, kind of—you have to have more than one LEO satellite to accomplish persistence.  But, as discussed in previous lessons, this kind of LEO satellite constellation introduces complicated ground system requirements, communications interlinks, etc., which is why using only one GEO satellite is the option selected by many organizations to do the job.

There is another advantage regarding this orbit, though, and we’ll get into that next week.

The interspersed lyrics are from the B-52’s song, “Revolution Earth.”  Disappointing video, but great song from their album “Good Stuff.”

Skybox: Youtube videos from space?

Skybox launched their satellite (with a few others) November 22.  But they are beginning to get sample videos in from their SkySat-1 satellite out to the public.  SkySat-1 is a sun-synchronous Low Earth Orbiting (LEO) polar satellite going around the Earth around 450 Km (280 miles) from Earth’s surface.  Skybox notes this satellite’s expected orbital lifetime is 2.5 years.  Whether that’s just a limit they’ve figured out because of components or atmospheric drag, is unknown.

Here’s the video of what they’ve done so far:

I don’t know if they’ve slowed down the videos, but they certainly do look pretty good.  There doesn’t seem to be any sort of stabilization problem–in other words, the videos look rock-steady.  Considering how fast the satellite is flying (a little over 4 miles per SECOND) over those areas, it’s a pretty damn good feat.

The satellite’s imaging payload is reportedly able to record full High Definition (HD) video at a 1080p resolution for 30 frames per second.  The satellite’s payload can record a a single video clip for 90 seconds.  The actual resolution to the ground (don’t confuse this with the image screen resolution) is supposed to be less than a meter.  Skybox say the satellite can generate up to one terabyte of data in a single day, so this video information has to be stored on board a huge hard drive (for satellites)–768 Gigabytes, according to this FCC license application.

There isn’t much information about the ground stations aside from what’s in the FCC application.  But they do have an operations center in Mountain View, California, and control the satellite and payload with commands from there.  It sounds like at least one of the remote ground terminals for sending and receiving information from the satellite is located in Fairbanks, Alaska.

The interesting thing to note is Note 6 in the FCC application, which comes down to this:  other ground stations outside the US will be able to send imagery commands to the satellites to tell them where to look.  But those commands will always originate in Mountain View’s mission operations center.  So there will be some sort of sharing agreements with other ground stations to get the video taken (and perhaps eventually, downlinked).



Reserved Perceptions in Military Space operations–Part 2

That’s illegal!  Call the IG!

Last week’s post was about the possible perception of reservist contractors having a vested interest in the success of the company they work with as reservists.  The responses to the post were a few comments about calling a spade a spade and to sic the Inspector General (IG) on those involved in this kind of situation.

There are laws, specifically the Joint Ethics Regulations, regarding conflict of interests involving reservists, after all.  However, I don’t think the laws were created with the kind of situations evolving in the “space operations” realm.  Nor were they created when a few monolithic prime contracting companies were integrated into research activities the Air Force does for future space systems.  I do think the laws were created with more common problems in mind, for military reservists with broader skillsets.  What is the difference, if there is one, for space operations reservists, and why does one exist?

Active duty and Reserves

First, a little explanation to describe how reservists are employed in the Air Force Reserve as space operators.  I think this description can be applied to other Air Force units and job categories as well.

Each Air Force space system has a “unit” or two dedicated to them.  These units consist of space operators, instructors, evaluators, management, administration, etc.  All are dedicated to make sure the space system’s mission runs without missing a beat.  Typically, active duty personnel belong to these units and run these missions day-to-day.  But sometimes reservists will come in to stay proficient on these space systems, too.

Air Force Reserve units have the same missions as their active duty counterparts, but they don’t work on these systems (unless there are special orders) for the same amount of time.  And yes, there are reserve units dedicated to each space system, as you can see here (

For example, the 8th SWS reserve unit operates the current Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS).  They have evaluators, operators, instructors, etc.—all doing what their active duty counterpart, the 2nd SWS, are doing.  The catch:  there’s only so many hours the Air Force Reserve will allow the squadron’s space operators to work, so the 8th SWS space operators have to find a “real” job.  Reservists in other Air Force job categories also deal with this issue, and must also find “real” work.

So many operators, so little jobs…

Now, job opportunities for space operators might be a little different than the circumstances and opportunities that exist for reservist pilots or finance officers (as examples).  Pilots can work for United, Frontier, Boeing, Airbus, etc.  Finance officers:  Coldwell Banker, or some other firm.  Both have options related to what they do as a reservist, but the jobs themselves can be very much separated from their reservist duties.  Therefore, there isn’t even a perceived conflict of interest.

There aren’t as many jobs out there using space operator-specific skills (believe me—I’ve looked).  At least not jobs that don’t require working for specific big companies who have the Air Force as a customer.  Space operations is specialized and not very well-defined in the United States Air Force (for an understanding of that problem, you can read my post, here).  This can cause some issues for space operations reservists looking for work as a contractor, especially when dealing with REALLY specialized missions.

As an example:  in SBIRS alone, you have your crew commander (and a deputy), you have the actual instrumentation operators, the payload operators, the bus monitors, the analysts, the intelligence Airmen, etc.  All crew positions are dedicated to a particular kind of space operation they call Overhead Persistent Infrared (OPIR).  How many other OPIR missions are out there run by private companies?  And how many contracting companies specialize in OPIR (more than you think, but not as many as there should be)?  The United States Air Force, then, expects its space reservists to come to work a couple of days a month and operate SBIRS without much difficulty.  What can an OPIR space operator do in the meantime?  They get a job.

Living with self-sacrifice

But what kind?  To be very clear on my end, I am not an apologist for the decisions these reservists make.  I personally believe ANY link between a reserve job and a “real job” is ethically wrong.  Because of this stance (having ethics), I am naturally not a lawyer, then.  

Can reservists choose another job–one that won’t use their “space skills?”  Well, yes–but I think there’s a real possibility that kind of job doesn’t pay very well.  Perhaps the difference for space operations reservists from pilots or finance officers is it’s a very clear case of sacrificing a private/personal good for the country’s?  Or is that a case of the “grass is always greener?”  Self-sacrifice is always the rationale given for joining the military to begin with.

Can reservists choose a space job as their “real job” and maintain that kind of ethical separation?  Of course they can–there just aren’t many of those kind of jobs out there that don’t involve a big contracting company already working with the Air Force.  Is it breaking the law or regulation if they do choose to go that route?  It turns out the answer is “That depends…”

NASA Earth Image pictures

Wired just posted these pictures to their site.  These are apparently from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) satellites and International Space Station astronauts.  So you can see images like the one below:

Volcano from ISS astronaut camera–click to go to embiggen

Unlike the DigitalGlobe ones, you can only look at these pictures, not vote on which one you like.  But they’re interesting to look at if you have the time.