Monthly Archives: September 2014

China Sends Up Another ‘Practice’ Satellite

Image hosted on Astrowatch. A Long March (Changzheng) rocket launches with the newest Shijian-11 satellite aboard.

On Sept 28, China, unsurprisingly, launched another satellite in their weird passive/aggressive way.  At least it seems passive/aggressive with China advertising it’s a practice satellite but then keeps its mission secret.  On the other hand, the US does the same thing with its military and intelligence satellites as well.

The newest Chinese satellite is called the Shijian-11.  According to Astrowatch, the Chinese word “Shijian” means practice.  The satellite was launched into an orbit that matches the typical orbit of imagery satellites.  Zarya. info, a website that monitors the activities of certain satellites closely, lists the Shijian-11’s orbit as having an inclination (the angle of the satellite’s orbital path relative to the Earth’s equator) of slightly over 98 degrees.  It also lists the time it takes the Shijian-11 to orbit the Earth as about 98 minutes.  The satellite’s altitude isn’t very high, 687 x 705 km (425 x 438 mi), so it’s definitely a low earth orbit satellite.

It seems to be too soon to tell exactly what the satellite is doing, but it may be to help China’s space corps practice more with taking pictures of places on the Earth.  China does have other practice satellites in orbit, so a new one shouldn’t be too shocking.  But older Shijian satellites have done some interesting things, especially in 2013, when Zarya  was observing the maneuvering capability of particular Shijian satellites and a possible robotic arm on one of them to grab other satellites.

This is just another in a series of steps in which China seems to be moving quickly forward in learning more about space operations.   This post from The Diplomat even somewhat hesitatingly states that China’s government is ordering the People’s Liberation Army to establish an actual space force.  Between the practice satellites and their establishment of a space force, China seems to seriously be working on their space operations skills.  Shijian makes perfect, I suppose.

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Deadly Bubbles of Plasma

Image on Business Insider’s website

Business Insider posted an interesting article last Friday about plasma bubbles and how they affect communications between satellites and devices on Earth.  The post suggests that ionospheric plasma bubbles seem to occur primarily around the Earth’s equator.  The article also gives a short description of what a plasma bubble is–the rising of a low-density plasma through the Earth’s upper atmosphere into the higher-density plasma residing there.

The bubble created impacts radio signals coming from and going to satellites if the signals and satellite are in the wrong place at the wrong time.  This means GPS signals are affected, as are general communications, which is a problem if you’re a military person whose life might be impacted by a critical communications update.  The impact of a plasma bubble could be as extreme as people just not able to receive or send any satellite communication.  Such a problem is exactly the scenario painted by Business Insider about a team of US troops sent into battle in Afghanistan.

Back in 2002, a Quick Reaction Force (QRF–a small group of military troops created to be deployed quickly) didn’t receive communications, possibly because of an ionospheric plasma bubble, relayed through satellite, about just how bad a particular landing zone they were flying to was.  Because they didn’t get that communication while flying in the helicopter, the helicopter crashed while trying to land as it took on a lot of enemy fire.  That crash landing resulted in three deaths of folks on-board the helicopter.

Could that crash landing have been avoided?  Perhaps.  It depends on what kind of information the QRF received, and how much about plasma bubbles a briefing officer knows.  But this kind of guesswork does get into Monday morning quarterbacking a bit, and I am trying avoid that.  However, I will go into what I know I haven’t seen in some Air Force space weather briefings, which is anything about ionospheric plasma bubbles.  This is the first time I’ve really heard about them–which may or may not be a good data point for you.  It could be because plasma bubbles aren’t considered “true” space weather and so are never mentioned.  Or maybe some folks in the USAF don’t know or understand the impact of these plasma bubbles on their equipment, or even worse, their people.

It’s odd, though, because in the Business Insider article, it seems that scientists know that plasma bubbles form EVERY NIGHT from Fall until the beginning of Spring.  The doomed 2002 Afghanistan mission occurred right towards the end of the annual plasma bubble formations, but those ionospheric plasma bubbles were still forming during that time.  If the QRF had known, they would have probably figured out a different way to communicate, or just beefed up communications somehow.

SpaceX: They’re Not the First Ones to Try This

Image hosted on Pat Dollard’s website. There are some videos of the Falcon 9 Reusable’s untimely demise on that site, too.

It seems I hear this refrain a lot in reference to SpaceX and its rocket reusability attempts, “They’re not the first ones to try this.”  It gets a little tiresome because it sounds like an informed opinion, but really isn’t.   It also seems that SpaceX itself is dealing with the same kind of sentimen–but I can only imagine it’s on a larger scale.  At least that’s what this Aviation Week article, which was posted in May 2014, hints at.

The post talks about the optimistic assessment SpaceX naturally has about its own engines and about how many times they can be used (SpaceX say about 40 in the article).  And it contrasts this optimism with the experience and cautions of people who worked with the space shuttle and the French-run attempts at building a reusable Ariane 5 rocket.  Sure, such people should be listened to, because there probably are very few people in the reusable rocket area with hands-on expertise.  But just because the way they attempted to make reusability a reality didn’t work, doesn’t mean that SpaceX will not be successful.  What it does mean is that making reusable rockets that can deliver payloads into space is very hard.

So, okay–it’s been attempted before.  But it was attempted by different people in a different time in different programs with older technology.  As humans, some of us tend to learn from all of those variables.  SpaceX tends to hire some smart humans who are definitely capable of learning lessons from those.  They might even recognize certain lessons might not apply.  Does it matter if they aren’t the first ones to do it?  Probably not.  Just look at Microsoft and smartphones, or Microsoft and tablet computers.  That company tried very hard to push either computing platform into the mainstream–with very little success.  Then along comes Apple…

I’m not saying SpaceX is Apple.  But they might just be the rocket company that pushes cheap launch services, because of reusability, towards the mainstream more than any other company.  It just depends on how they do it, and not who attempted to do it before.  If they don’t initially succeed, there’s always the people who come out of the woodwork and, with a perverse glee, talk about how wrong it was for SpaceX to try their hand at this sort of thing.  But SpaceX will probably ignore those comments, thankfully, and try again.  And if they succeed, is that really such a terrible thing?  As for the post, it might be worth reading, if only to understand some of the arguments and history for the “It’s been tried before sentiment.”

The Indian Mechanical Martian

Image from Universe Today.

The above image is a great reminder of the playful part of conducting serious missions.  The latest mission to Mars in this case just arrived Tuesday and was placed into Mars’ orbit.  The country responsible for the mission?  India.

11 months ago, in November 2013, the Indians launched the Mangalyaan, or Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) with the goal of getting the spacecraft to Mars.  MOM is now in orbit around Mars, and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is happily posting Martian snapshots (below) taken from the Mars Colour Camera payload on Mangalyaan. You can follow the ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Twitter feed here.

Mars from MOM. Image from the ISRO’s Twitter feed. Posted 1121PM on 24 Sept 2014.

Side shot of Mars from MOM. Image from ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Twitter feed, 737AM 25 Sept 14.

A lot has been written about this mission’s low price tag of about $74 million, which is significantly lower than just ULA/DoD launch pricing of $450 million.  But I’ve already written about that part earlier in the year.

Why did India send out a probe to orbit Mars?  The ISRO is extremely interested in the processes that allowed for the loss of water on Mars (at least the Delhi Daily News says so–I didn’t see it as part of the ISRO’s written mission objectives).  They also want a map of Mars’ surface.  There are a few other parts to the ISRO’s scientific objectives for MOM involving the measuring of methane levels, and discovering what minerals the red planet is also composed of.

The ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission website has a decent amount of information, as well as a few videos and images, that are all about the mission, the spacecraft, and the new data they’re collecting now.  If you’re interested in this Indian spacecraft and its mission, then you should perhaps go there to read all about it.

Is it cool that India did this on a shoestring?  Yes.  Is it awesome they even did it at all?  Definitely.  Welcome to the Mars High Club, India!!

Find that Airplane–FREE!!

GPS Satellites

Earlier this year, I wrote a little post about how Harris Corporation and Aireon were working together to make accurate global aircraft tracking a reality.  They’re doing this by placing GPS signal receivers and transmitters as an extra payload on board Iridium NEXT satellites.  This allows GPS equipment to send  a message through a special radio transmitter from an aircraft to the signal receivers and transmitters on the Iridium NEXT satellites, which would then relay to an air traffic control site, showing, in relative real-time, where the aircraft is. The message would contain very accurate information about where the aircraft is (speed, altitude, latitude, longitude, etc.).  And what if you needed that data in an emergency, and you were able to get that for free?  That’d be awesome, right?

At least that’s one of the things Aireon will do, according to their brochure.  But they also emphasized in a press release from this Monday, that they will make the tracking data freely available in case of emergency.  The data will be provided from a program they call the Aircraft Locating and Emergency Response Tracking (ALERT) service, which will provide the aircraft location data free of charge to those who have a need to know where their aircraft went.

How can Aireon make this free?  While they don’t really say, they do expect airlines to adopt this technology which will enable some high fidelity air traffic control.  The ALERT service is just one of their core aircraft surveillance services, so if airlines find the day-to-day tracking data useful for air traffic control, they just might pay for a subscription for the service for all of their aircraft.  Of course, another way to make money is if there’s some sort of contract with particular governments for tracking aircraft and receiving data, too.  It might be useful for certain shady agencies.

Overall, this service might address some of the issues surrounding a future missing aircraft scenario, similar to the Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 mystery.  But if an aircraft is hijacked, and the circuit breaker or power switch of this Aireon system is shut off on board the airplane (and there likely will be a switch or a breaker, if only for safety and system isolation purposes), then the ALERT service will not be that effective.  If you think that’s too far fetched, that a hijacker wouldn’t bother with learning how to do that, remember there were similar shenanigans with MH370.

Just don’t get too excited about your airplane being tracked just yet.  First, you have to have the proper equipment on the plane.  Second, you need a satellite (and really, more than one is required for this service to work) with the receiver/transmitter payload.  Which means some time will be needed for all the pieces to be in place for this service.  Aireon say they expect the service to be fully operational in 2017.