Tag Archives: medium Earth orbit

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

Milpoor

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.

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When China Attacks?

Spacewar1

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.