Tag Archives: geosynchronous

Who Will (Want to) Pay for A Few Broadband Constellations?


Yes–some images from the Usual Gang of idiots.

This site contains my opinions and ideas only, not the opinions or ideas of any organization I work for. It’s my idea playground, and I’m inviting you in. Welcome!

In the last post, I noted that the proposed, but preposterously large, low/medium Earth orbiting broadband constellations will be cheap.

Some technology and economies of scale will possibly play into that, but that’s not the kind of cost-savings I’m referring to. Let’s start with price estimates for creating the Starlink constellation from Mr. Musk: $10 to $15 billion (https://www.msn.com/en-us/finance/companies/elon-musk-dares-to-go-where-others-failed-with-internet-from-space/ar-AAvfNSu). Others have given much higher estimates for the constellation, as high as $40 billion. This is a lot of money, even for satellite operations. I could finally buy a Nintendo Switch with that kind of money. Maybe two.

But, those satellites will be in an orbit that takes them over nearly EVERY SINGLE SQUARE METER of the Earth’s surface. As noted in the previous posts, this means the satellites can transmit, receive, and relay information, very quickly, in the service of a potential global customer base. And while some of the messaging the entrepreneurs have been trotting out for these satellites implies they are for poor people in poor regions, those aren’t the ones who will fund it.

There are implications within this kind of space network–military and intelligence ones. Again, the following paragraphs are conjecture, based on some observations of what’s happened in the past and happening now.

This kind of constellation is very distributed. It’s very difficult for an adversary to disrupt physically. It would probably cost a troublemaker more to shoot a satellite down, than the cost of the satellite itself.  And a few thousand would probably need to be destroyed. So these broadband constellations almost fit the model for redundant military communications, worldwide (http://www.airuniversity.af.mil/Portals/10/ASPJ/journals/Volume-29_Issue-6/C-Wegner_Adang_Rhemann.pdf). They don’t even have the terrestrial broadband network’s downside of possibly having cables cut somewhere under the sea (Think that’s made up? Some folks are concerned-updated 31 Mar: http://time.com/5223237/russia-targeting-undersea-internet-cables/).

A few upsides for the military is not needing military “space operators” communications satellites, or needing to worry about leasing from certain geostationary communications satellite operators over certain areas of the Earth (http://spacenews.com/42261pentagon-report-says-commercial-bandwidth-is-four-times-more-expensive/). Just like the regular internet, a deployed soldier could theoretically have access to a very, very fast network, immediately. While it’s doubtful the military will be very trusting of commercial communications networks, they might stop needing very costly and specific military communications satellites for enemy target practice.

Heck, the USAF is used to paying billions for a single satellite, and tens of billions for satellite systems (http://spacenews.com/the-end-of-sbirs-air-force-says-its-time-to-move-on/). These proposed broadband constellations will be a bargain, not need a typically over his/her head DoD acquisitions officer, and will probably become operational closer to original scheduled dates than any government system ever has.

Signals intelligence satellites and organizations from various nations will have a field day trying to shadow these satellites to have a peek at the radio traffic going through them. But since these are broadband satellites, common internet security standards will generally separate the smart from the targets.

This sort of communications network could benefit space stations, like the International Space Station. It could aid with space situational awareness satellites. It could help relinquish some geographic dependencies for certain kinds of other constellations and ground networks. And this kind of data would be small potatoes compared to the day-to-day internet traffic we have on Earth today.

This is also a multi-way street, by the way–a traffic circle of Parisian proportions. Militaries from other nations, some who have never invested in space, will probably benefit from these broadband constellations. It’s likely governments will realize this, too. Some will attempt to build rival constellations, probably not as successfully, because other populaces in other nations may not trust those constellations.

Again, these constellations are worldwide. If the operators work these intelligently, they will be pure dumb pipes. And anyone willing to pay to access them, will be allowed access. Why wouldn’t the governments from many different nations invest money to help build it? Why wouldn’t they pay to use it? It’s much cheaper than the alternative. And they might end up subsidizing the very poor’s access to it.

But that’s still not what I meant by cheap. More about that later.


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 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.

Why Space Matters: HEO Satellite Operations, Part 5–Spysats, IR, and MMS

The Molniya orbit, a type of highly elliptical orbit (HEO), was the focus of the last HEO post.  And it was noted that the Molniya is an orbit perfectly suited to communication.  But what other missions and satellites use the HEO?

Believe it or not, the US has organizations that use the HEO for a few missions.  The most recent launch of the NROL-33 “spy satellite” is kind of related to the HEO, in that it’s part of a possible satellite communications and data constellation using a combination of HEO and geosynchronous (GEO) satellites called the Space Data Segment (SDS).

SDS-3 Constellation. Image on Spaceflight101.com.

In the illustration above, they call this particular combination of HEO and GEO satellites the “SDS-3 Constellation.”  Does anyone really know what’s on these satellites, aside from the people working with them?  One observation:  realize the government likes to maximize on their investments with additional payloads on satellites.  Just look at what NASA has done with their satellites and payloads to get an idea.  There’s nothing to prevent the installation of some kind of extra monitoring payloads on any of these satellites.  As discussed before regarding why the Russians use this kind of orbit, the view of areas that might be interesting to the US is pretty good.  Only the people working with this constellation really know what it’s all for, though.

Image from Wikipedia. SBIRS constellation. Old picture, as SBIRS LEO is now STSS.

A few more HEO birds owned by the US are the overpriced Space Based InfraRed System (SBIRS) HEO satellites.  There are currently two in orbit, with a third theoretically on the way.  This system is a little more straightforward in purpose, as it’s part of the early warning system for missile launch detection.  Why would the US want two to three missile launch detection satellites in highly elliptical orbit?  The Russians/Soviets also did and still do use satellites in HEO for early warning.  But the SDS, SBIRS, and OKO (Russian) satellites have to do with terrestrial activities and likely are trying to give their corresponding militaries an edge on terrestrial battlefields.

The most interesting mission using the HEO is one that’s coming up and has nothing to do with human activities on Earth:  NASA’s Magnetospheric MultiScale mission (MMS).  The focus of this two-phase mission isn’t necessarily the Earth, but the Earth’s magnetic field.  And not just the Earth’s magnetic field, but the Sun’s, too, and observing the interplay (NASA say the connecting and disconnecting of the fields) between the two fields.  The mission uses four satellites that will be “flying” in formation and placed in a “low-inclination” elliptical orbit of 28 degrees.  This means the orbit’s tilt is at a 28 degree angle to the Earth’s Equator.

Different phases, different elliptical orbital periods. Image on MMS site.

During phase 1, the satellites will have a perigee (point of orbit closest to the Earth) of 7,645 kilometers (4,750 miles) and an apogee (point of orbit furthest away from the Earth) of 76,452 kilometers (47,505 miles–at least I think NASA means apogee—on their website they say perigee twice).  During Phase 2, the perigee’s the same, but apogee increases to 159,274 kilometers (a little over 98,968 miles).  Seems like that’s pretty far, but believe it or not, the Moon is still further away, at over 238,857 miles average distance from Earth.

The two different orbits are designed to pass through the reconnection points of the magnetic fields of the Earth and the Sun.  So they are necessarily big.  But such an orbit also allows the satellites to “sample” different portions of the magnetic fields.  And they fly in a pyramid formation to help map out the reconnection events in 3-D.  Why go through all of this just to observe these reconnection events?  The reconnection events tend to release energy, and the energy can impact the electronics here on Earth and on the satellites orbiting around it.  There’s more to the science of these satellites on the MMS website.  As a side note, the MMS satellites will be controlled out of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) in Boulder, Colorado (same place the Kepler mission is run out of).  Worth visiting, if only just to walk around the campus in Spring.

And while you’re in Boulder, enjoy the offerings of the Avery Brewing Company, which has a terrific Belgian Wheat (White Rascal) beer and a tasty Imperial Oktoberfest (The Kaiser) beer.  Sadly, there are no beers for HEO—which means we are now at the empty bottle part of the lesson.

Dinner for the Space Technology Hall of Fame Nominees

The 30th Space Symposium is almost at an end.  The whole event ends tonight with the Space Technology Hall of Fame Dinner at the Broadmoor.  The dinner is all about recognizing nominee contributions and picking a winner.  The nominees have developed products from satellite and space technology that help make life easier for folks here on Earth.

One of the nominees is the Cospas-Sarsat Global Satellite System, which is a mixed constellation of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and geosynchronous (GEO) satellites dedicated to detecting and locating a particular kind of distress beacon around the world.  SAR is short for “Search and Rescue,” by the way (although some space systems use a different kind of SAR with the same acronym–synthetic aperture radar).  You can read a more detailed description of what that system does, here.

The other nominee is the NeuroArm Technologies robot.  The robot, specifically a robotic arm, is designed to work with Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) images, guided by the images to help with neuro-surgery.  There’s an older video of the arm at work below.  And you can find more information about the project here.

The symposium ends today, but I do have a few pictures, a before and after, of the exhibit hall below.

Exhibit hall on Monday, before everything opens up.  Pretty messy, eh?

Exhibit hall on Monday, before everything opens up. Pretty messy, eh?

Exhibition hall after it opened.  Note the booths in the foreground are regular size.  The ones from NG, Boeing, LockMar, and others are huge.  Thank you taxpayers for lucrative contracts!!

Exhibition hall after it opened. Note the booths in the foreground are regular size. The ones from NG, Boeing, LockMar, and others are huge. Thank you taxpayers for lucrative contracts!!

And here’s one more–although I reserve the right to use this image again for a different post.  But XCOR’s booth had two models of their space vehicle.  One of them is human scale.

Can you guess which one is to human scale?

Can you guess which one is to human scale?

I did volunteer and helped a few hours at Registrant Check-in right in front of the exhibition hall.  I had a fantastic time meeting and helping people as they came in.  Breakfast and lunch were provided and pretty tasty.  If you have the time, I highly recommend helping out at the Space Symposium next year.  Of course, if you have more time, the Space Foundation can always use your help with their Discovery Center here in Colorado Springs year round.  If interested you can go this page to get more information about volunteering.