Tag Archives: Low Earth orbit

Another “Space Watch” article…

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“Ride ’em cowboy”–a bit of encouragement Pete Conrad gives to Richard Gordon while straddling the spacecraft. Image from NASA.

While I’ve been lying low content-wise on the site here, I’ve been staying pretty busy at work. One of the many fun things I get to do is to look up historic events leading up to the Apollo moon missions, and then write a little bit about the event for the Space Foundation’s “Space Watch” monthly newsletter.

In this particular “Space Watch” article, titled Gordon’s Orbital Garbage Disposal and Rocket Herding Service,” I try to describe the activities of two brave astronauts during a Gemini mission fifty years ago. What they did gives the category of “space operations” an entirely different meaning, and shows just what kind of interesting and courageous explorers they were.

While many NASA fans seem to attribute the administration’s achievements to the idea of NASA itself, I’ve always felt it was the people within, such as Gordon and Conrad in this story, who really moved the agency forward toward the lunar missions and subsequent successes. This is not to downplay the mission controllers, engineers, and others who all played their part. Indeed, it’s the team, the people, who figure out how to overcome challenges, and then move ahead. But the astronauts in particular put their lives on the line during space missions. Whether it’s NASA, or in the future, one particular company or other that starts regular manned flights to space, the professionals called astronauts will still be the ones trading the ability to “fly” in space with the possibility of real, deathly, consequences.

With these thoughts in mind, I hope you enjoy Gordon’s Orbital Garbage Disposal and Rocket Herding Service.”

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When China Attacks?

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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.

Pigs in Space: Coming to a Neighborhood Near You?

Police Satellite

This might go into the category of “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.”  This CNN post talks about how satellite imagery is aiding in the resolution of a murder investigation, which is great.  Satellites are tools that have multiple uses, and if helping to solve murder is one use, then good.

But the post makes the leap that there’s some cost effectiveness to get for a local police department to buy satellites.  Let’s just stop the silliness that line of thought brings about, shall we.  First, if a local police force wanted to buy a satellite to help fight crime, it would have to buy a fleet, or constellation, of satellites, because just one satellite, particular one in polar low earth orbit (LEO) with a high resolution imagery camera on board for fighting crime, would only be over that part of the world maybe once a day for about 15 minutes or so.  So more satellites would be required.

They would also need to hire people to operate, troubleshoot, and monitor the satellites–something typically not consistent with police training.  Then there’s the data itself.  Even if privacy issues were ignored, there’s a lot of data that high resolution cameras produce.  This data, to be useful, needs to be downloaded through a high-bandwidth link to a ground station, then shunted to the satellite operations center.  Building such a network is very expensive.  Upgrading such a network is also expensive.  There are services, such as Kongsberg Satellite Services (KSAT), that already have infrastructure in place, but there would have to be agreements and payments made to download and shunt information to the local satellite operations center.

There’s also just the designing, reviewing, and launching of the satellites, which can also be time-intensive and expensive.  After all, no organization is more cautious or risk-averse than a government one spending taxpayer money–and building and launching satellites are so full of risks, the process of just designing the satellites would be very long and costly.  So I am unsure what the CNN post means when the words “cost effectiveness” are used.

I would suggest an alternative, a technology the police are used to, if only because they use helicopters:  flying drones.  Drones can be made to stay in one location, are relatively inexpensive compared to satellites, can be relatively cheap to configure for quick and near-simultaneous data transmission.  Sure, they would need to train a few people for flying drones, but I daresay that might be cheaper and easier than employing space operators 24/7 just to monitor satellite health and safety.

Again, I’m not pooh-poohing the fact satellites can help with local crimes.  I just don’t think, once people analyze the costs versus benefits of buying and operating satellites, that satellites are the answer.  Heresy, I know.

As for the title of this post–I don’t have anything against the local constabulatory.  But I couldn’t resist a cheap laugh.

 

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.