Monthly Archives: March 2014

Sorry been a little busy…

…more to the point–I was at a funeral in Nebraska.  So no posts the past few days.  I will post again tomorrow.  Sorry to the one person following me.


Why Space Matters: Malaysian Malaise Mit Man-Made Moons

The Epoch Times posted this article explaining a bit more about the limitations of satellites in finding Malaysian Airlines MH370.  This finding in spite of DigitalGlobe’s initiative with Tomnod to get many eyes looking for something unusual in the search areas.

In previous posts, I’ve talked about the odds and limitations of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and Geosynchronous (GEO) imagery satellites viewing the actual flight of the airplane in their Field of View.  But now there are satellites looking for the sad traces of the airplane.  This time, at least according to the Epoch Times post, the limitations are training and imagery resolution.  The training is in regard to imagery analysts, who can find differences in pictures that perhaps Tomnod volunteers miss.  Imagery analysts have the training and experience to do that.

The resolution issue comes from the fact that most commercial imagery satellites are allowed to release imagery in resolutions of a half a meter or more, even if the satellites’ payloads are more capable (like DigitalGlobe 3, with a 31 centimeter resolution).  So even with all those eager Tomnod volunteers, the search for MH370 debris is being hobbled through federal government regulations that won’t allow them to see the “good stuff.”  Using higher resolution imagery is no guarantee for finding the airplane’s pieces, but it couldn’t hurt.  Of course, maybe it’s moot, and there’s just not much to find.

Only Vote Important: Pick Your Favorite NASA Spacesuit Design Element

This is just one of the three spacesuits from NASA. The picture is linked to their “Spacesuit Design Vote” site. Go there. Vote.

Of all the places–I never expected to see information about a NASA spacesuit voting initiative on “@midnight,” a comedy game show, last night.  But there it is.

And here it is, the suits and voting buttons on this site.  NASA is asking the public to vote on their favorite spacesuit design.  They are calling this effort the “Spacesuit Design Vote.”  There are three choices for the Z-2 spacesuit and all you need to do is figure out which one you like the best–then vote.  My least favorite is the one dubbed “Fat Tron” by Chris Hardwick, the host of “@midnight.”  You’ll know it when you see it.  And the human model NASA’s using to pose in it looks just plain creepy.  Give me Milla Jovovich any day.

Voting will close on Tax Day, 15 April 2014 at 2359 EDT.  So, like paying your taxes, you can take your time with this one if you want.  This means “time is not important: only vote important” to paraphrase a certain movie.  Once the tally is taken, the most popular one will then be completed sometime in November 2014.  As near as I can tell, there are no country limitations for this vote, so this could potentially be another way the Russians mess with the US.  At any rate, your vote could be the one that determines the ultimate look of a future spacesuit.  Isn’t that nice?

It could be NASA is doing this to make space exciting for aspiring fashion designers.  Maybe it’s trying to show the fashion design world that fashion is badly needed in NASA (honestly, none of the suits are that exciting or interesting to me, but I’m not a designer).  Or maybe it will just pin the blame for horrible design tastes on the public when the time comes.

Is it my imagination, or do all the spacesuits look a little bit like the Mondoshawan in “The Fifth Element?”

Image of Mondoshawan linked to


The Slowness of Being Government and Its Space Technology

Image from Wikimedia. Click to Embiggen.

From a Softpedia news post, a writer conjectures mainly about the United States Air Force’s (USAF) X-37B space drone and what it might mean to space warfare.  It’s a decent, thought-provoking article, so you may wish to read it.  But there’s an assumption made within the article:  the government has the best, most sophisticated space toys.

As stated in the post, one agency giving away optical satellites to another agency is something to ponder.  But it might be more of one agency’s admission there’s a lack of money issue rather than, as the author implies, the existence of better technology ready to be used by the suddenly generous agency.  The giveaway might be prompted by other issues.  Maybe the program the satellites fall under is going away.  It could be the ground infrastructure can’t handle more satellites.  Maybe launching more satellites is just too costly.  But one shouldn’t just assume the newer optical satellites we don’t know about are better than the ones given away (although it can be fun to think about).  After all, the optics of those old satellites could still have been reused with a newer image processing chip.  But that can get expensive, and will take time.

Anyone who has been involved in government agencies, whether the NRO, NGA, NSA, or the MDA, knows how many things go slowly.  And slowly in this instance applies to the process of acquiring and building the satellite payloads, which takes so long that things just get outdated.  It’s why SpaceX chafes at government plodding at every turn.  The slow pace doesn’t mean the tech isn’t useful, but the tech on government satellites is typically a decade behind the tech a US citizen walks around with today–even if the government satellite payload tech was ahead of its time at launch time.  I won’t say this happens all the time, but it happens more often than people like to think.

Part of the mystique of government space technology has to do with NASA’s achievements back in history.  Part of it is likely the sense that with all that money being spent, surely something “cool” will come out of a particular program.  But history is not today.  And, while maybe some of the money goes to technology development, a fair bit of it goes elsewhere.  A lot of money spent in these programs is on people’s expertise in older or arcane technologies.  Some money is spent enhancing the robustness of the technology, and “buying down” risks with constant reviews and inspections, making sure there’s as little opportunity for something to go wrong as possible.  The government also tries to ensure there’s a way to retain the expertise of old and arcane technology (spending more money on the expert so he/she is available).

This happens naturally.  Government employees, whether they’re civilian or military, rely on this ever-present expertise.  It’s the nature of the job that forces this to happen.  The expert will always be there, until retirement or death.  The government employee, on the other hand, might work three years on a program, then move on to something else.  So money is spent to keep that expertise close by, a crutch for the government to lean on, because it bought obscure tech to begin with.  Maybe more often than is admitted, a lot of the older programs become non-viable because the expertise goes away.  It falls further behind.

And government satellite technology will likely fall even further behind, given the explosion of small satellite building going on (in spite of high expenditures in government satellites) around the world.  The small satellites are so inexpensive, they are almost disposable.  But because the investment is so small, there will be quicker and more iterations of satellite payloads.  Each iteration will lead to smaller and better payloads.  Different payloads will be built–ones the government and bigger companies will never have thought of because of risk and cost.  And unlike the government process, these small satellites are built in a nearly unmanaged environment, coming from the wackiest ideas of an eccentric millionaire or  students who just don’t know better.  It will be those people and their satellites that will have the greatest impact on space and space warfare (should it occur).  There’s something similar happening to space planes, too.  More players entering, more interesting space planes designed and flown (eventually).  All the while, the X-37B will still be costly to launch, require range time, and need a rocket core to launch it.  All of this my conjecture??  Sure, but maybe a more realistic one than the Softpedia post about the X-37B.

The X-37B, while interesting, is already halfway to the Smithsonian.



Photos of An Old Nuclear Missile Target

This was where the Soviets planned to release the nuclear hounds. Picture from Mental Floss. Click on it to go there.

Mental Floss is always a fun read.  But imagine my surprise when my spouse tells me there are pictures of old and rotting nuclear missiles and an old Soviet launch control center (or capsule) on their site.  The Soviet capsule is shaped differently from the capsules I worked in while watching my Minuteman missiles.  Current US cement enclosures for the launch control center are shaped like aspirin capsules.  Whether Soviet or US, each one is meant to be buried underground, deep enough to protect the launch crews from a nuclear blast.

The Soviet capsule looks more like the old US Titan or Atlas launch centers–except the Soviets built them little bit taller with several more floors.  The Titan launch centers were huge, and made up of several parts, but the Soviet launch centers were bigger.  If you look at the picture below, you can see the launch centers were also physically connected to the Titan nuclear missile launch tube by a tunnel, with an equipment support building in-between.  The Soviet one doesn’t appear to have a tunnel linking the missile to the launch center.  But the Titan launch center, while big, was only about three to four stories tall.  The Soviet launch center was twelve stories tall.  This might be considered a good thing if your crew partner ate beans and eggs for lunch.

Some people actually have made homes out of the Titan complexes (you can see some of the homes, for sale, here).  The Russians don’t seem to be as interested in converting them.

Yup–all underground. Gives everyone a fighting chance to survive a nuclear strike. Picture on

The six-hour shifts the Soviet nuclear launch crews pulled sound luxurious compared to the 24-hour “alert” a US Minuteman Missile Combat Crew pulls.  The equipment in Mental Floss’ pictures looks positively disco–era that is (the 70’s).  Be assured that US equipment is at least as old in some instances–but some of it, such as the computers, have been upgraded.

InterContinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMS) have origins with the space age and space race.  The Soviets initially used an ICBM, one they called an R-7, to launch Sputnik 1 into the Earth’s orbit.  That was the very first man-made satellite to orbit the Earth.  But what isn’t as well-known is the Soviets had successfully launched an R-7 as an ICBM first.  They even announced its success.

But the Americans didn’t seem to care–hence the Soviet launch of Sputnik, which scared the bejeezus out of the Americans.  It didn’t help that the current president during Sputnik’s launch, Eisenhower, downplayed the meaning of the space launch.  Some, like Lyndon Johnson, used the perceived Soviet advancement in space tech to help him in his bid for the presidency.  The United States Naval Research Laboratory certainly didn’t help when their Vanguard rocket, ripe with cost overruns and unproven technology, fell and exploded after attaining just four feet of altitude.  Americans felt a reason to be panicked:  if the Soviets could launch a rocket and put a satellite in space, but the Americans couldn’t, well suddenly the Soviets had an advantage when they placed nuclear weapons on top of the R-7.

The thing is, the R-7 was never destined to be the ICBM to hold the US hostage.  It was too slow to fuel and had a very finicky launch sequence–things a Soviet army general considered as definite “cons” to use the R-7 as a weapon.  The command capsules shown in the Mental Floss pictures were meant to launch a different kind of missile:  the SS-18 SATAN.  The SS-18 had as many as 10 thermonuclear warheads on its tip.

As hardened as US or Soviet command centers were, it definitely would’ve been a very bad day for the crews of either if a couple of enemy warheads detonated close by.  If interested in what the other side operated, give the Mental Floss post a read.