Category Archives: Applications

Software applications

Deployment Diversity


The Orbital ATK Cygnus, just snatched up for docking with the ISS by the station’s Canadarm2. Image from NASA.

Sometime in the past few days, new objects showed up in the satellite tracking database published by This is nothing new. is supposed to do this every day. It’s their job: tracking and identifying objects orbiting the Earth, primarily for the United States Department of Defense, and as an ancillary service to the public and commercial organizations.

However, what was different about these objects was when and how they were deployed in orbit. Space-Track gave numbers to the objects associating them with the launch of a ULA rocket with an Orbital ATK Cygnus International Space Station (ISS) resupply capsule that occurred in March 2016. These objects showed up in late June, after the Cygnus capsule had departed from the ISS. Orbital ATK noted that five cubesats would be deployed before the Cygnus re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere. Space-Track identified the objects as cubesats belonging to Spire Global.

As near as I can tell, this is the first time this sort of satellite deployment has happened. What basically happened was the cubesats hitched a ride up on the Cygnus to dock with the ISS. Then stayed aboard the Cygnus while it was docked with the ISS for three months or so until the Cygnus left the ISS. Once Cygnus left, the cubesats were deployed in the desired orbit. Initially, this doesn’t sound much different from cubesats deploying from a deployer during a rocket’s ascent to orbit. That kind of rideshare has been occurring for some time now. And it might not sound much different from cubesats deploying from the ISS, which is on track this year to deploy even more cubesats than in 2015.

But there are some possible differences that makes this kind of post-ISS deployment desirable. What immediately comes to mind is deploying the cubesats that way gives the owners more flexibility in what low Earth orbit (LEO) the satellites can be placed in. Depending on whether the Cygnus has power left over after it’s ascent to the ISS, the orbital inclination (the angle of an orbit as it goes across the Earth’s equator) might be different than that of the ISS. There’s also the possibility of using a Cygnus-like dedicated cubesat deployer to deploy more than five cubesats. Imagine an entire constellation, maybe 50 or more cubesats belonging to one company, being deployed this way.

A bigger, dedicated deployment spacecraft is not too far from reality. SpaceX keeps pushing back the launch of Formosat 5, which unfortunately, is also tied with Sherpa. A Falcon 9 will be conducting a launch of the two spacecraft sometime during the third quarter of 2016…unless they postpone it again. Formosat 5 isn’t that interesting. It’s an optical Earth observation satellite, one of many orbiting the Earth. Sherpa, however, is more interesting.

Sherpa has been called a space tug. Sherpa is designed, by the folks at Spaceflight Services, to deploy cubesats. A LOT of cubesats. When it launches with Formosat 5, it will eventually deploy 87 cubesats. A Dnepr cluster mission launched in 2014, which deployed the most types of small satellites so far, 37 (don’t let their advertised number of 33 fool you–there was s a satellite that deployed more satellites on board the Dnepr), doesn’t even approach half of Sherpa’s projected deployments. Of course Sherpa needs to be launched first.

There seem to be many different ideas for how to place small satellites in orbit. The weight and size standards set for cubesats in particular, seem to be encouraging people to be creative. The post-ISS Cygnus deployments and Sherpa tug both seem to indicate that no matter which way is offered, there is someone willing to fund a cubesat.

Spire Global, in the case of the Cygnus deployments, has been busy populating low Earth orbits with their own imagery/Earth observation constellation, which might be called Lemur. They’ve also had a few cubesats deployed from the ISS Nanoracks CubeSat Deployment system this last May.


Search The Skies for Objects Out to get You

This is how science helps find asteroids, frame by frame. Now you can help them, too. Image from the European Space Agency.

One of my favorite sites,, covered this year’s SXSW (South By SouthWest) activities. They posted this article about an application NASA and Planetary Resources released during SXSW for public downloading. The application, called Asteroid Data Hunter (ADH-not the greatest name), will allow people to upload images of the stars. Then the application will sift through the images to see if there’s a possible asteroid within them.

That capability, the automated comparison of differences in each picture, seems to be the story about ADH. NASA says the program can identify more asteroids because of a new algorithm developed as part of a related competition.

Why use this application? It’s sort of like a celestial “Neighborhood Watch” program. Knowing what’s normally in your neighborhood allows you to recognize when something different and possibly bad is occurring. ADH will help NASA determine which asteroids might be on a trajectory that intersects with Earth one day. Those asteroids, called Near Earth Objects (NEOs), have gained some notoriety lately, thanks to events such as the asteroid impact near Chelyabinsk, Russia in 2013. It might be good to be able to identify NEOs, and maybe do something about it.

For Planetary Resources, a participant’s efforts might help them identify asteroids that could one day be mined. Yes, that’s “mined,” as in prospectors looking for and digging up gold, silver, and anything else useful and desirable to humans. No word on whether Planetary Resources would give a percentage of profit to any ADH participants who gave the company a profitable tip. That might actually encourage more participation, by the way.

While the application is free, the intended participants may be more narrow than either NASA or Planetary Resources anticipated. First, if you want to participate, it’s probably helpful if you have a telescope…probably one with a camera mounted to it. You might need special software to help make sure you’re aiming at the right part of the sky, consistently.

But, if you have all of that, then all you need to do is download the application (available right here), search the skies with your telescope, and help save the world AND get someone else rich. Aren’t you the generous hero?

In the meantime, if you don’t have all that equipment, but are interesting in NEOs and what people are doing to possibly keep them from hitting the Earth, then I recommend heading over to the Earth Shield Program website. It’s very interesting.

Follow Santa Around the World!


Image captured from NORAD’s Santa Tracker. Just go there and have some fun!

‘Tis the season for the tracking of Santa Claus with systems designed to track incoming weapons of war. Instead tracking a warhead that would end with a mushroom cloud exterminating a city full of children, good and bad, the NORAD Santa tracker follows the JOE (Jolly Old Elf) as he flies overhead and then drops off presents for good children. It will also show any curious child just where Santa is.

Not only is he tracked on the site, there are also some video cameras on duty to capture the JOE in action as he flies by. For the more curious children, there’s also a history of Santa, his sleigh, the NORAD Santa tracking “program,” and a few other things. For even more information, a click on the NORAD HQ link will offer up some NORAD mission tidbits and other extras.

The globe on the tracking homepaged can spin, and it theoretically shows the home cities of children who are browsing (at least it showed where I lived). Every year, NORAD seems to tweak and change the site to make it more interesting for those wishing to track Santa. This year’s might be the nicest of the bunch, yet. And, there seems to be an application for each major phone platform for download (even the iPhone ;-)), so kids can track Santa while at the mall, in the car, etc.

Keep in mind and remind your young ones that even though they’re tracking him, he knows when they’re sleeping or awake. Which would be why he won’t show up, even if he’s in their area, until they do the right thing and go to bed.

Merry Christmas everyone!!


Design a Solar System–Be a Space-God

You Spin Me Right Round--Haven't crashed my planets, yet.  Click on picture to go to the site.

You Spin Me Right Round–Haven’t crashed my planets, yet.

Or if you don’t want the title of Space-God then at least this shows off your attempts to build a solar system and eventually get over 150,000,000 points.  The game, Super Planet Crash, is free to play in your browser.  The game’s designer, Stefano Meschiari, states on his site that the game will even play on most tablets.

Stefano is challenging all visitors to his site to fit as many planetary bodies in the 2 AU circle, without crashing them for 500 years.  It’s harder than it sounds.  There are sure to be solar system building geniuses out there, though.  Go to this part of his site for the details.  Asteroids not included.  I will be adding this to the “Fun Ways to Learn Space Operations” links, too.

Stefano is an astronomer at the University of Texas at Austin.  He apparently has programming chops as evidenced by his Super Planet Crash game.  But his bio says he’s also interested “in simulating the evolution of protoplanetary disks, the characterization of extrasolar planets, citizen science-driven projects and hydrodynamical and N-body codes.”

Did you get that?  Hello?

Okay, now that you’re back, here’s a Make DIY Space project for you–Constellation Flashlight discs!!!  Go here for details:

See the world as a space operator sees it–FREE!

Microsoft Research released an updated version of the WorldWide Telescope software a few days ago.  It’s a Google Sky-type application that’s downloadable to your Windows machine.  And it’s free.

If you want to see the Earth and space as a space operator sees it, then spend lots of time with this application.  I will admit the controls aren’t quite as intuitive as Google’s, but once you learn to focus on a planet or other areas of space, it’s fun.  I hope they eventually make a Windows Phone application with this.  Then the universe would be in my pocket.

Anyway, here’s the link.  I’m also adding it to the “Fun Ways to Learn Space Operations” column on the right.  If you’re an Apple fan, it appears you’re out of luck.