Tag Archives: Digitalglobe

When China Attacks?


SpaceWar! screenshot courtesy of MIT through Wikipedia.

It must have been a slow news week last week, because this story gained traction: Space warfare with Russia and China? Pentagon urged to prepare for itIn the story, an unlikely scenario unfolds where China attacks U.S. navigation satellites, the U.S. suddenly becomes helpless, and is at the mercy of the “Red Menace.” My response: really??? Is it really that easy?

First, let’s just look at the numbers. The current number of operational GPS satellites the U.S. Air Force is operating is 31. They have an advertised requirement of 24 satellites in operations (Where are these numbers coming from? Why GPS.gov, of course.). This doesn’t include the number of older backup satellites. So, if China wanted to cripple GPS, they’d have to take the constellation below the 24 required. That’s a lot of anti-satellite missiles. This being space, though, it’s not that simple as the scenario suggests: GPS satellites move.

A GPS satellite orbits in what is known as a medium Earth orbit (MEO), which is about 12,500 miles in altitude. A GPS satellite circles the Earth every 12 hours, which means it is occasionally in view of China’s landmass or the contested ocean areas for perhaps 3 to 5 hours of one orbit. So if China were to take out 8 GPS satellites with missiles, they’d have to be ready to take out more a few hours later. Is this possible? Let’s say it is. The media is quick to talk about earlier anti-missile tests the Chinese military conducted, with the 2007 test creating A LOT of debris in space. Which gets to the next point.

China is launching its own GPS-type satellites into orbit, called BeiDou. At my last count, they have about 20 of their own, and aiming to eventually have over 30 in orbit as well. These BeiDou satellites are in different orbits, with a majority, I think, in MEO. This means there’s the possibility of China shooting themselves in the foot if they shot enemy satellites in orbits of similar altitudes, which might then litter debris in some of their BeiDou satellites orbits. But space is a big place, so maybe not.

Keep in mind this scenario is only for positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) satellites, like GPS. Adversaries would have to launch a lot more to blind the U.S., especially when you consider there are commercial companies like Planet Labs with over 50 Earth observation satellites in low Earth orbit (they launched over 100 in the past two years). Are they as capable or robust as a DigitalGlobe WorldView, or a government-operated imagery satellite? Probably not. But they would be good enough for government work in case those bigger, juicier, expensive targets were taken out.

Back to GPS. There are more players in the PNT market than GPS and BeiDou. Russia has their GLONASS constellation, with over 20 satellites in orbit. The Europeans have Galileo, which is now quickly building up. The Indians are putting up their own regional satellite navigation system and are expecting to complete it this year. Each one of these PNT operators might have something to say about China launching missiles against U.S. GPS satellites. And if you don’t think China isn’t worried about India, you haven’t been paying attention.

A simpler, cheaper, and possibly more effective way to accomplish this is jamming. I’m ignorant of the power requirements to do this, but I understand the power used in the GPS signal is low, which means a bigger jammer could make sure no GPS signals get through to a particular area. And jamming could theoretically cover a particular area for longer than 3-5 hours. It doesn’t have to be expensive. It doesn’t even need to have something shot into space.

The U.S. uses drones, and China does, too. An inexpensive, high-altitude drone, or a fleet of them, could deny GPS signals coming in. Imagine how frustrating it would be for the U.S. Navy to expend million-dollar missiles on drones costing thousands of dollars. Imagine how much more frustrating it would be to then see a new inexpensive drone take the place of the one shot down. If space must be involved, cubesats might be able to do the trick, although China would need to put quite a few in orbit to be effective. Oh yeah, wait–China can do that: http://www.nasaspaceflight.com/2015/09/china-debut-launch-long-march-6/.

So, this kind of wargaming is fun. But let’s get back to the point, which is, sure, the U.S. military relies on space assets to conduct missions. But its assets, while seemingly vulnerable, aren’t as easy to get to as the article paints them. And the act of destroying satellites in orbit, while spectacular, does not help ANY space faring nation in the long run (unless they’ve developed a way to clean up the mess). It’s almost as if an attack on one is an attack on all.

And I mean ALL. If you have a smartphone, especially one bought within the past few years, you have GPS AND GLONASS receivers built right in to the brains of the phone. Let’s see, what apps use GPS? Uber, Yelp, Waze, and Google Maps for starters. Do you think citizens in China, Russia, India, or Europe use similar apps and tech on their phones? They’d be crazy not to.

Is the article’s scenario possible? Sure. Just like nuclear Armageddon is possible. Conflicts are always possible, especially when you have nations like China showing off shiny new muscles like a misguided gym-bro during Spring Break in Daytona, and the U.S. acting like the retired old man yelling at China to stay off of his lawn. But how likely is a conflict? There are cheaper, maybe even more effective ways to cripple a military’s use of satellite services than shooting them down. It’s our politicians job not to let it get that far.


The Safe Way to Observe a Volcano

Image of Bardarbunga volcano from NASA’s Earth Observatory pages.

I suppose it isn’t ironic to anyone that Iceland is home to some hot attractions, such as volcanoes.  On August 28, 2014, their Bardarbunga (sounds like something out of Ninja Turtles) volcano erupted a bit.  All sorts of tools have been used to observe the angry mountain:  webcams, helicopters, cars, and planes.  Of course, most of these require a person to be there, operating the transportation vehicles for the photographers on board.  Even the webcam probably required a brave soul to get as close as possible to the volcano placing the webcamera right on the brink of bowel evacuation and certain death.

But, there is a safer and saner way to take pictures of a volcano:  satellites.  Satellites are great for this sort of work, taking photos of volcanoes at decent resolutions, allowing you and I to look at those images from the comfort of our sofas and chairs.  No worries about bowel evacuation (unless you have a severe case of food-poisoning–then why are you even up?).  Certain death isn’t even on the horizon.

The satellites used to image the Bardarbunga volcano were, according to this Livescience.com post, both from the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA).  The second satellite to get an image of the active volcano (the first image in this post) was the Earth Observing-1 satellite in a sun-synchronous low earth orbit.  It used the Advanced Land Imager payload to take the volcano’s image.  The resolution of that image isn’t that great–every pixel in the image represents 98 feet if taken in color.  In black and white the resolution gets better, with each pixel in the image representing 33 feet.  The latest DIgitalglobe WorldView-3 satellite imager will take pictures in which one pixel represents less than 12 inches.

EO-1 poster from NASA’s Earth Observatory site.

The first NASA satellite to get a look at and send data back about the volcano was the Aqua satellite, using the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) payload.  Aqua is in a near-polar LEO.  The MODIS payload was used to create a false-color image by combining infrared and visible light bands to highlight certain features in the picture.  You can go to this site to see the differences between some of MODIS’ images using this method.

Either satellite is definitely preferable to flying, driving, and hiking anywhere near an active volcano.  And the pictures each satellite has produced give information that those closer to the ground might miss.  Safety first, folks.  Safety first.

I Always Feel Like Somebody’s Watching Me

Image from DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-3–at 40 cm resolution. Not so bad, eh? Image hosted on DigitalGlobe’s site.

Well, maybe not me specifically, and certainly not right now. However, if someone really wanted to watch me closely, then DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-3 satellite looks like it might be a decent tool to use for that.

DigitalGlobe just released an announcement and a few images produced from their latest satellite, WorldView-3.  The satellite has a more capable image sensor on board than previous DigitalGlobe satellites, and the pictures released on August 26, 2014, speak volumes about just how capable it might be.

The satellite was launched only a few weeks ago, on August 13, 2014.  It seems DigitalGlobe is wasting no time trying to bring the satellite on-line and are sharing these images to prove it.  A big “but” (everyone has one, according to Pee-Wee) is that the pictures aren’t the best resolution the satellite’s sensor can produce.  Every single image has been “resampled” to 40 cm, or a little less than 16 in, because the company is complying with regulatory restrictions.  The company will continue to comply with those restrictions until February 21, 2015, when the regulatory leash comes off and DigitalGlobe can release 30 cm (less than 12 in) resolution photos.

But, you, and many other interested people, can get a taste of the 40 cm re-sampled pictures just by viewing their slideshow of images of Madrid, Spain.  Their analysts are already identifying open car doors, freight cars, numbers on the runway, wear and tear of runways and roads, and a lot more.  Sure enough, when you look at the pictures, it looks like those are fairly identifiable.

Pretty neat, and there will be all sorts of applications arising to use the data in these images.  Unfortunately, there might be a downside.  I already wrote a short bit about China and its search for lawbreakers using images produced from their Gaofen-1 satellite.  But what if someone with a monetary interest, and a “use a hammer to resolve every problem” approach to customers starts using this data?  Say, like the US IRS?

Think this is unlikely?  Just think about the path our government agencies have been going down lately.  Still not convinced?  Well, there’s this story about the Lithuanian taxman using Google satellite imagery to find monetary miscreants.  Greece uses satellite imagery to find out if undeclared swimming pools have been built in backyards.  And while no one has said anything about our IRS using the internet satellite images for enforcement, they are already apparently using Facebook and Twitter to cross-reference taxpayer information.

Don’t misunderstand me.  It’s great to get better pictures from space of the things happening on the Earth.  But remember–there are a lot of consumers of this kind of imagery data.  Maybe we should start considering rules and regulations regarding which US government agency will be able to use them when US citizens are involved.  Some agencies don’t necessarily have your best interests at heart, and they are out to get you.  “I wonder who’s watching me now? [WHO?] The IRS?”

Uncovering Secret Sativa Farms From Space

Image from Xinhua, hosted on South China Morning Post Site.

Looks like some regional Chinese officials on the take have been found out, thanks to Chinese imagery satellites.  According to this South China Morning Post article, the first of the latest generation of Chinese imagery satellites, Gaofen-1, has been imaging an area in China that contained a very big marijuana farm.  The whacky weed farm is the biggest ever discovered since 1949.  Such a time span seems to indicate the pot farmers were very good at hiding their crops (possible), but maybe, in exchange for a small, unreported fee, local authorities weren’t trying very hard to disclose this newest discovery to their bigger brothers in the Chinese big-government sector.

Either way, the satellite’s images of the marijuana fields show a steady progression in Chinese imagery technology and Earth observation capabilities.  So perhaps their satellite imagery sensors are close to where US satellite technology was over 10 years ago.  This upgrade in imagery resolution might have caught someone off-guard, because there are certain ways to obscure these green ganjas, learned from US satellite plant detection attempts.  A simple search query “US Satellites marijuana detection” on DuckDuckGo immediately yielded a 420 Caribbean site with suggestions for how and where to plant marijuana crops to avoid overhead surveillance detection.

Those avoidance methods may or may not work.  Remember, some satellites, like DigitalGlobe’s Worldview-3, have different energy/color bands to detect particular wavelengths.  I’ve written about this sort of thing, here–start with Part 15, but 16 (careful, a small informational error in this article, but still useful), 17 (addresses error), 18, and a few others have wavelength/color information, too.  Apparently someone already learned some obscuration lessons (as evidenced by the 420 post), thanks to US and ESA drug war efforts, that Chinese Mary Jane cultivators are now re-learning.  Maybe China’s Great Firewall doesn’t allow easy access to such information?

The South China Morning Post’s article also noted that Gaofen-1 has helped analysts find opium fields and smuggling tunnels.  But, as I’ve noted with the Malaysian Airlines MH370 situation and why imagery satellites are having a difficult time with that mystery, the satellite operators have to know where to look in order to find the fields and tunnels.  So maybe some clever detective or miffed MAFIA-type gave a tip of where to look.

Gaofen-1 is one of two Gaofen satellites orbiting the Earth.  According to the Post, the Chinese would like to increase the number of satellites for their imagery constellation to seven, which means they will have beat DigitalGlobe’s current constellation of 5 imagery satellites.  But this kind of thing changes all the time, and government plans, even from a very top-down style of government, are very prone to political whims.






The UN “Disaster Charter”–what is it and who uses it?

Satellite image of 2013 Colorado flooding (town of Lyons). Image from Digitalglobe, and hosted by Digitalglobe.

Because it’s been a year, I’m taking a little break, but don’t worry, more original content is coming starting tomorrow again.  So you’re currently looking at some of the Clearancejobs.com articles about space I’ve written.  I’ll be interspersing these throughout for a little bit (not long).  This particular article was posted on Clearancejobs.com on 22 January, 2014.

Quick quiz:  What nation has invoked the United Nations International Charter for Space & Major Disasters twice in the past two months?  What, you didn’t know there was a UN “Disaster Charter?”  You don’t even know what the Charter means?  Well the Charter does exist, and you can fully get up to speed on it at the official Disastercharter.org website, right here.

But back to the question and possible answers. Did you answer Vietnam?  Malaysia?  The Philippines?  No fair using the internet for your answer.  But if you did try those particular answers, you’d be incorrect.  The answer is:  the United Kingdom.  That’s right, the UK activated the Charter on 4 December, and then again on 6 January.  There’s been extreme amounts of flooding in the land of jelly babies, tea, and crumpets during these past two months.

What does activating the UN “Disaster Charter” do?  It allows countries facing disasters to request image data collection immediately.  The imagery collection depends on who is immediately available in the satellite pool.  The satellite operator pool consists of many different organizations and companies, including DigitalGlobe, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT), and about twenty other charter members.  Each of them brings a complement of satellites to help image the disaster area.

Why is the UN “Disaster Charter” important?  Simple—the activation and subsequent actions get images to the affected countries quickly.  This is theoretically a faster process than having to rely on a single national or commercial entity and waiting for their specific satellites to fly overhead at the right time.  The Charter activation allows the affected countries to see where the impact of the disaster and then “rack and stack” emergency resource responses based on the imagery.  To request activation of the Charter, you don’t even need to be a member–the Charter promotes universal access to the satellite resources.  Neat idea, eh?

It’s going to be more exciting and interesting to see how involved with the UN “Disaster Charter” companies like Skybox, Planet Labs, and Urthecast will be.  Such small and relatively inexpensive satellites and their operators might actually be more responsive than the bigger satellite operators.  Skybox wants to stream HD video from their birds—so imagine seeing the disaster area in real-time and how handy that might be.

UNITAR’s Operational Satellite Applications Program (UNOSAT), a sub-branch of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) is the coordinating agency for all the images collected from the satellites responding to Charter activation.  It also insures the images get to the correct organizations and people (they are acting as collection managers).

For more information about the Charter’s purpose, in a presentation format, just go to this site.