Tag Archives: geo

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.

Providing Information Equality with Satellites

Outernet’s prototype portable satellite receiver dish terminal. Image from Outernet.

Outernet is proposing to broadcast information, via satellite, to portable base stations that are also wireless networks.  The wireless networks would be free and open to the very poor around the world.  Outernet wants to provide information equality to those poor people.

They mean well, I suppose.  And it’s a very interesting idea they’re pursuing with some simple but well-made hardware.  The hardware and idea, both developed by Outernet, seem to address a problem that maybe we in the “first” world see, but maybe someone who is just looking for a non-lethal drink of water or fighting for a meal may not even want.  It’s that whole “heirarchy of needs” thing that Outernet might be pushing against.

The idea and devices were developed by Outernet, who have designed a very portable satellite receiver dish.  Using existing terminals, Outernet would initially uplink their data to existing geosynchronous (GEO) communication satellites.  Eventually, Outernet proposes they’ll have their own ground system that will send data to cheaper low earth orbiting (LEO) cubesats that will then send information down to the receiver dish.

The dish would receive signals from a satellite.  The signal loops, sending the same data over and over.  The data within those signals has already been prepackaged in a way to be efficiently transmitted.  The satellite receiver dish would receive the transmitted data, and save it.  The data itself would be a “collection of the greatest works of humanity, as decided by humanity.” The collection resides on a storage drive in the receive dish, on a local wireless network, to be accessed by locals whenever they are in range.  The core of the collection would be all of Wikipedia, Project Gutenberg, open courseware, and works Outernet dubs as critical–all broadcast in various languages.  The information would always be updated, but it wouldn’t be a “real” internet connection, since no signal is generated from the satellite dish to the satellite.  And the presentation to the viewer wouldn’t be quite like what you or I are used to on the internet, due to data bandwidth constraints.

But, according to this Wired post, Outernet say they aren’t trying to solve an internet connectivity problem.  Rather, they are trying to resolve an information deficit/equality problem, and resolving that problem doesn’t necessarily require a two-way data connection, at least to the satellite.  This might work, but I do wonder if their identified customers will really appreciate this.

The internet is a good thing.  It’s helped to make things cheaper, provides access to knowledge, allows ideas to mingle, etc.  We recognize this in the US.  But here in the US even the poor have cable TV, access to cheap food, etc.  (although, I see a lot of homeless out there–and if my job situation keeps deteriorating, I may be joining them).  Access to banks, social and health nets, employment portals, have a network component to them now.  We all see the necessary as something useful, fun, interesting, and more.  So something like this might make sense to us.

But in areas where there are more fundamental survival issues, this may not be viewed as necessary at all.  Would a concept like information equality even make sense in that kind of scenario?  I guess we will find out by watching Outernet.  You can follow them by going to their site and reading their blog.  And people don’t have to buy their equipment.  They actually show some DIY instructions, based on a Raspberry Pi.

I wish them luck and I hope they do succeed in this endeavor.  If they’re right, maybe there is a thirst for more than the basics out there.  If you’re interested in following them, just go to their blog, here.

Image from Outernet.

SpaceX–Ya Win Some and Ya Lose Some


It’s been a week of ups and downs this last week for SpaceX.  Since Friday, SpaceX have been trying their darndest to get a Falcon 9 launched out of Florida, but still haven’t launched as of this writing.  At the same time, one of their tests of the Falcon 9 Reusable (F9R) in the paradise of McGregor, Texas, went swimmingly.

Slip and Scrub, Rinse and repeat

First, some history about the launch that’s been going on forever.  Initially, SpaceX was supposed to launch the Falcon 9 in late April.  A non-related, but late-running Cargo Resupply Services (CRS) mission forced the scheduled launch to then potentially happen on May 10, 2014, starting the whole SpaceX domino delay dilemma.  But on May 8th, SpaceX had some issues with Space Launch Complex 40’s (SLC–40-the rocket’s assigned launchpad) umbilical connections to SpaceX’s rocket.  This may have prevented a mandatory static-firing test of the rocket.

The static firing of a rocket engine is a test that shows whether the rocket engine turns on and off when commanded.  Without that data, there’s more uncertainty regarding the rocket engine’s reliability and response to control.  The test was attempted again on May 9th, but was aborted because some quality control issues, a “helium leak in the rocket’s first-stage pressurization system.”

By May 19th, a new launch date was projected:  June 11th.  Ten days later, on May 29th, the launch date was pushed back to June 13th.  On June 10th, one of the rocket’s six payloads, an ORBCOMM satellite, had some problems, too, so June 16th became the new launch date.

ORBCOMM is working with SpaceX to get a new constellation of six communications satellites into Low Earth Orbit (LEO).  The satellites would help to provide communications coverage on the Earth in areas that geostationary (GEO) satellites have issues with, such as anyplace above 70 degrees north latitude and 70 degrees south latitude.  The satellites can also help with tracking surface ships that are equipped with a special radio “beacons.”

By June 13th, then, everyone involved knew a new launch date would be needed.  On June 15th, SpaceX was given June 20th as a good launch date.  On launch day, June 20th, the launch was scrubbed because there were pressure problems with the Falcon 9’s second stage.  June 21st, a designated backup day, became the new launch day.  But the June 21st launch was scrubbed because the weather hadn’t cooperated.  So on to Sunday, June 22nd.

This launch was scrubbed, too, because of unspecified concerns with pre-flight checkout (a series of checks conducted, step-by-step, of the rocket before lift-off).  While there’s no confirmation, a CBS news article suggests the scrub was caused by concerns about the Falcon 9’s engine nozzle system, which moves the rocket engine’s nozzle to steer the rocket.  Again, that’s an unconfirmed source, since SpaceX itself isn’t committing to that answer.  So the SpaceX/ORBCOMM roller coaster ride still hasn’t come to a complete stop.

Reuse and recycle–it’s in the fins

But, SpaceX has not been standing still with its rocket reusability tests while wrangling the Falcon 9 launch.  It’s been testing with a F9R, and on the 17th of June, 2014, the company continued its tests with the F9R, but with a twist:  they put moving, controlled fins on the rocket.  The fins are used to steer the rocket during the “fly back” part of a SpaceX rocket.  You can watch the video below to get an idea.

It looks like the test worked.  The rocket flew up to 1000 meters (or 1 kilometer), the flew back down, while being steered with those weird “wiffle-paddles” mounted on the rocket’s sides.  It also looks like the test scared the crap out of the herd of cows grazing nearby.  There were probably other smells in the air than burnt propellant.

But, the fins are just testing whether the idea can work for SpaceX–and it looks like it can.  The next step is to get the actual rocket legs on the F9R.  Those rocket legs are supposed to act exactly like the fins.  There’s more to read about the significance of these fins on this site, in On a Roll:  One Small Step for Reusable Rockets.”  You can see the differences between the fins and the legs in the pictures below.


Those fins are the black dots near the top of the F9R. Image from Geek.com.

Even though this is a model, the legs will be bigger than the fins tested last week.

Even though this is a model, the legs will be bigger than the fins tested last week.

…and from Universe Today’s site. You can see the “wiffle-pattern” in the fins as they are deployed out in this picture. Picture hosted on Universe Today’s site.

So these are the ups and downs for SpaceX.  Some bad luck with launch delays, but good luck with reusable rocket tests.  I understand that SpaceX is still learning about launch, but it seems to be an expensive way to do it.  I don’t know how they’ll be able to keep launch costs down–after all, more time and people involved in a launch means more money spent.  But the successful test of the F9R shows the promise of what SpaceX might do.   Both are what make this industry interesting to watch.

SpaceX a Catalyst for Change to European Space Launch


Most of this site’s readers are somewhat familiar with the kerfuffle concerning SpaceX and the US government’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) contract.  For those who aren’t, there are quite a few sources for the story, including this site.  But the US government isn’t the only one on the defensive from SpaceX’s aggressive launch development program and PR campaign.

According to this Reuters post (written today), a few European companies are concerned that SpaceX’s low launch prices will make the European offerings look overpriced and irrelevant.  Specifically, Airbus’ branch of Defense and Space (the builder of the Ariane rocket), and Safran (no, not saffron), a company that builds solid rocket motors.

Unsubstantiated rumors go from there, with speculation that the companies of Airbus and Safran would like to start consolidation moves to fight SpaceX’s low rocket prices.  Will this kind of reorganization really help against SpaceX?  If European big companies and bureaucracies run like American big companies and bureaucracies, I don’t believe it will.

I do believe the companies are right to respect the progress SpaceX is making with the Falcon 9 rocket.  But, and this is also a sticking point with the US government, SpaceX have not yet launched a rocket able to take very heavy satellite payloads into geosynchronous orbit (GEO)–at least until later this year (so their website says).  So, there is some time to think the consolidation idea through.

Let’s look at how SpaceX is run.  SpaceX is fairly lean in its day-to-day operations.  And I’ve heard from certain sources that Elon Musk intends to run the company in “internet startup” mode for a good long time.  They’ve also been “iterating” their Falcon 9 rocket designs almost every single launch, something that is considered quite risky in the industry.  The company has “only” some 3,000 employees.  Airbus, on the other hand, is big.  It’s very big.  According to the wiki, the company employs 63,000 people.  Safran is even bigger, with 66,300 employees.

What happens when big companies merge?  Just guessing from here on out, but I believe there will be some growing pains.  People will get laid off.  Morale takes a hit because of mixed messages about who will remain employed.  Every group will be reorganized, and need time to adjust to different bosses and expectations.  Plans will need to be re-explained and reviewed to many different people.  Such a process requires a few years at least until a company can effectively move forward again.

But perhaps more importantly, the companies will form a bigger entity, and bigger almost never means “quick to respond.”  A bigger organization will be unable to respond appropriately to a company as nimble and as small as SpaceX.  Because combining two bureaucracies doesn’t produce a smaller, streamlined and competitive bureaucracy, but an even bigger one, with more fingers in the launch pie.  More fingers in the pie, or stakeholders, may make risk-taking almost impossible.  How will any of these potential results make launch costs cheaper?

While European laws are different than the ones here in the US, there may also be a monopoly question.  Instead of going the route of merging, why not decide to have the two companies become more competitive with each other?  This may be a foreign concept to some countries over there, especially France.

Either way, SpaceX will probably keep on its track, iterating rockets quickly, and maybe even successfully launching some heavy payloads into orbit with newer, possibly reusable, rockets, getting some European launch contracts in the process.  That will surely get some competition going.

Profits in Space


Do you know there are not many markets in the space business that are profitable?  At least that’s the spin of this Space Daily article.  It gives a few examples of areas in space business  and operations that can continue to grow and/or have potential to grow.

The area of space business which is growing like gangbusters, at least according to the post, is the communications sector.  This sector includes the continued use of communications satellites orbiting the Earth in geosynchronous orbit (GEO).  While the post doesn’t define exactly what the communications sector is, let’s assume it’s one full of internet relay, television broadcast, and telephone services.  There are quite a few commercial players in this particular field such as Dish, Arabsat, InMarsat, etc., so this kind of information shouldn’t be too shocking.

The growth part is in something we’ve already heard so much about:  space debris.  The post writer admits there really hasn’t been much done to fix the debris issue.  Sure, there are plenty of plans and announcements, but the writer believes there currently is no marketplace incentive to remove debris orbiting the Earth.

While I’ve always wanted some attention and eventual solution to the space debris problem, I do think that a solution won’t be built until something truly terrible happens.  That’s when there’s suddenly a market, because nations will be desperate to remove any other potential disasters.  Or, that a solution will come forth, but it will be a “dual-role” satellite.  This satellite would be able to not only clean up space debris, but it could also be used to take out satellites from other countries in time of war.

But back to the post–sure, if there’s nothing happening in the space debris market right now, then any growth will be a positive in business, right?  There’s an obviousness to that kind of prediction.  That’s kind of like mobile phone analyst “predictions” that the new iPhone will have a better screen, faster processor, etc.  Of course, these analysts still get paid for that kind of thing…

The writer of the post also mentions, almost curtly, the space tourism market.  Companies like Virgin Galactic and XCOR are working hard to get the millionaires into a sub-orbital flight.  I say millionaires because there are few “real” people who can afford the $75,000 to $250,000 price tag per seat on those spacecraft.  Perhaps the writer recognizes there’s a limited market for such space tourism–at least until prices begin to tumble.

Curiously, there’s not much focus on the launch market.  Someone has to get all of these satellites into orbit, and companies like SpaceX and Orbital are aggressively moving into it.  Ms. Gwynne Shotwell of SpaceX is saying the company is aiming to at least build two rockets per month by the end of the year to help it cope with a backlog of launches it needs to do.

There’s also the smallsat market, which is innovating at such a speed, it’s very difficult to keep up.  And these satellites will also need a way to get up into space.  So, yes, there is a chance to make profits in space.  But why limit it to just the obvious space communications and debris market?  There are definitely more opportunities out there in these other markets, too.