Tag Archives: satellites

Two Years Later as a Space Industry Analyst


Happy New Year!

Transitions are not unfamiliar to me. During my childhood, our family moved around a lot. We’d move to other countries occasionally, always from assignment to assignment on different Air Force bases. Each move contained challenges and over time, each time, I looked forward to the moves. A move meant I would see something different, make new friends, and learn something new. It was great being a Air Force “brat.”

I’d like to think growing up in a military family, moving, and as a result, adapting and learning, have influenced me positively. I might never have learned German, German culture, or eventually become aware of different perspectives from the American Way. My tolerance for risk might have been lower or non-existent. I might never have tried to make my luck with writing.

I have the same attitude towards job transitions. Each new job means there’s something new to learn, something different. So, how do I feel about changing from a satellite missile defense test manager and space operator to my current position as a space industry research analyst? It’s been over two years since I took on this writing gig.

I like the change! Heck yeah, I really like this last transition! I’m learning a lot, too.

I’ve always had an affinity for writing. My degree was in communications, for goodness sakes. I definitely am better at expressing myself in writing than speaking. Writing allows for my brain’s background processing to come to the fore in a nice tidy package once the processing is done. Writing about the space industry is icing on the cake.

But it’s not just about writing about the industry. It’s also learning about the industry, conducting research, finding great sources, reading whatever I can find, which can sometimes seem unrelated. Then I think about it all. I think about it in the gym. I think about it when I’m watching TV at home. I think about it when I’m sleeping. It’s the way my brain likes to work. Some of my better insights come from listening to podcasts not at all connected to my research. Some of my ideas just fall in my lap while running on the treadmill. It’s not tiring, and it’s not forced.

So, yes, my current job is a blast. So much so, I don’t really feel like it’s a job. I get to meet with interesting people from around the world. I get to study and learn about new trends in the industry. I get to write it all down. And, shockingly, people find the information I bring to them useful. It doesn’t hurt I’ve got a good boss, who also has a good boss. It doesn’t hurt I’m on a team full of great people. But what motivates me is finding and writing an analysis people use. It’s wonderful when that happens.

It’s not all sunshine and tea cakes all the time. And the transition between jobs was a bit rough, as part of the problem was me trying to figure out what I REALLY wanted to do. But I can honestly say I feel more fulfilled in this job than my prior work. Admittedly, my experiences and lessons learned in my prior work helped me in my transition to this job. And I’m still learning a lot. So I’ll mention a quick overview of my perception of the space industry today.

There is so much going on in the space industry, a person researching the category would really have to work hard to NOT learn something. Space situational awareness, small satellite growth, possible new entries in the launch market, reusable rocket stages, and more—there’s always a learning moment waiting around the corner. And that’s assuming a person stuck with studying only the American launch industry. But globally, there are trends that impact the launch industry, too.

There are the activities conducted by India and China. Both countries have very active space programs, with China’s commitment evidenced in it’s recent 2016 attainment as the world’s most prolific launcher for that year (actually, they tied with the US this year–I just finished updating our database–sorry). The Europeans haven’t been sitting still either. And there’s surely a story behind Russia’s alarming decline in launches for 2016 as well as a seeming decline in launch reliability, too.

That’s not to say that the U.S. is lagging. From my observation, the U.S. space industry is perhaps the most innovative and most vibrant it’s been in a while. But the U.S. space industry is also in transition, slowly switching from primarily government-sponsored missions relying on government launch services, to a healthier, and hopefully multi-pronged launch industry with many more customers. There are many, many plans, from many entrepreneurs and companies, some of which may actually transition to real businesses and opportunities.

The upshot is, I get to research, learn, ponder, and write about this changing and interesting industry. It’s been fun during the past few years, and I’m pretty sure it will be fun for the next few. This was a fortunate transition for me. Sorry if that sounds like bragging.

Transitions can be wonderful—if you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up. Oh, yeah!


SpaceX’s CRS7 mission explodes

The Falcon 9 a little over 2 minutes after launch. Image from NASA TV courtesy of SpaceNew.com

This Sunday morning, a Falcon 9 rocket was supposed to launch and deliver supplies to the International Space Station (ISS). And while SpaceX launched the rocket around 8:20 AM (MST) this morning, the resupply mission, CRS7, didn’t make it. The Falcon 9 exploded a little over 2 minutes into flight. There were mentions of an anomaly right before the explosion, but that word has little meaning to public understanding of what happened.

The mission was intended to get supplies and equipment to the ISS. Two days after launch, the Dragon resupply capsule would have rendezvoused with the ISS and the crew would have started unloading the slightly over 4000 pounds (nearly 2000 kilograms) of supplies, vehicle equipment, experiments, and more. Eight of Planet Labs’ cubesats were also aboard as cargo, and would have been deployed in the months after they had been transferred from the Dragon to the ISS.

After today, of course, none of that mission is possible. The question is, what will happen next? Some might say it’s a reflection of our character as a nation on how we act towards this accident. There are already a few people who are ready to take their “ball,” the taxpayers’ money, and go home. Sad to say, there are some who have been waiting for something like this to happen, and are ready to undercut the pile of work that has gone into not only NASA’s and SpaceX’s work, but Orbital Sciences’, Boeing’s, and Sierra Nevada, and quite a few others.

But, and I admit this as me being optimistic, I’d like to think there are a few more level-head people who will, as they did with Antares, note that this kind of thing is the price of working in space. Occasionally, especially with long tubes of fuel and complex machinery flying through the sky, things go “boom.” And then those same level-headed people will just turn around and continue working to get the U.S. a commercial rocket fleet–which would be a first of its kind in the world.

We already saw some wisdom in NASA’s approach when the Antares launch failure occurred. While bad for Orbital Sciences, the accident didn’t seem to cripple NASA’s ability to resupply the ISS, because there was still SpaceX’s Falcon rocket ready for use. If anything, this latest incident with SpaceX seems to be full of opportunities.

First, SpaceX has the chance to show its chops to perhaps do a quick-turnaround on this. The company has already said it wants to be able to launch their rockets quickly, so why not just get another one on the pad? Of course, the company and NASA would still be striving to figure out what happened with today’s rocket. But, isn’t part of this whole concept just to keep launching in spite of some hiccups?

Second, get more players involved with the business of launching. NASA basically whittled the field down to two resupply players, SpaceX and Orbital, because of money. But today’s lesson should be showing just how frail our space launch infrastructure is with even two launch systems resupplying the ISS. Get someone else in there. Heck, the United Launch Alliance might be able to pick up some slack on this, and in the process prove they can compete with the lower launch prices. It doesn’t even have to be through as complicated a contract vehicle as NASA’s Commercial Cargo.

Third, keep pushing government money out of the industry. If other political players are attempting to influence the future of humanity in the stars by taking funding away to get work done on a bridge to nowhere, then maybe that’s a sign that government might not be the best steward for fostering the space industry.

And, oh by the way, the more we do this kind of thing, the better our rockets will be.

In the end, I’d like to think some combination of these three options will happen. But I’ve also seen enough shenanigans to know that none of these options might ever happen because–politics. But for now I’m cheering NASA and all these companies to get up. Get up, keep showing how amazing your products are, and how smart and tough your engineers are, and ultimately ignore the whiners who want to take their ball and go home. You’re the ones on the ball court, not them.

DIY Space: Eyes On NASA

NASAs Eyes

There are several great tools available online designed to educate the public about space discoveries.  The best ones use data gathered by our space faring machines and help put it all into an understandable form.  Which is why NASA has developed the “NASA’s Eyes” program.

NASA’s Eyes is a program that can be used for multiple uses regarding virtual planetary exploration and understanding.  The program can be downloaded from this link.  It is a good tool to use to help in our understanding of some of the things going on here on Earth, too.  Honestly, the more I play with this particular program, the more I like it.  There’s a lot of data NASA has collected over the years about a lot of things, and it’s great that I can look at it in this form and play around with it.

NASAs Eyes Grav

Gravity map of the Earth. Note the GRACE satellites on the left side.

There are three primary topics of the NASA’s Eyes exploration tool.  “Eyes on the Earth” focuses on the Earth, the Earth’s environment, characteristics, the satellites looking at the Earth, and the payloads on the satellites used to gather data all about the Earth.  You can load what NASA calls “datasets,” data about a particular topic, such as ocean salinity, that’s been put together over the years.  The dataset then is displayed to show some interesting characteristics about things we take for granted, like gravity (image above).

NASAs Eyes Kepler

Eyes on the Solar System” has different kinds of datasets you can play with, but instead of the Earth, you can generally explore the Solar System.  There are different missions you can focus on, and see in great detail.  The Cassini mission (below)  around Saturn is pretty nifty.

NASAs Eyes Cassini

If you do get tired of the planets in our Solar System, there’s always the opportunity to look beyond, which is what the third set of datasets, called “Eyes on Exoplanets,” allows you to do.  Whether you wish to see exoplanets up close or just zoom out to admire the beauty of the galaxy we live in (below), Eyes on Exoplanets will help you.

Have a great time exploring space and please don’t forget to send a postcard :-).

DIY Space: Print Your Own Spacecraft

3D model of Kepler. It’s yours, for free. Just go to the NASA 3D Resources site. That’s where this picture came from.

Have you ever wanted to build the Kepler satellite?  What about the current crowd favorite, the International Sun Earth Explorer-3 (ISEE-3)?  Or maybe you appreciate textures and just want to touch things, such as the moon’s surface, space shuttle flight panels (with switches),  or the surface of Chiron.  Maybe you’re a visual type, who truly appreciates images of NASA’s efforts in space.  If so, then the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has a great site for you.

Before you get excited, I must ask–do you have a 3-D printer?  If you do, terrific.  Even if you don’t, you might have access to one but don’t know it (a little bit more about this option later).  Either way, NASA’s site, “NASA 3D Resources (beta),” will probably be you’re favorite site for quite a while.  You can print out models, like the “New Horizons” spacecraft or the “Rosetta” satellite.  Maybe both.  Same for the textures and such.

The best part is these models is that NASA is providing these model files for FREE.  As in, it will only cost you whatever amount of electricity is needed to download the file and write to the storage drive.  Of course, you do need to have access to a 3D printer.  So if a friend of yours has one, maybe that person will be your best friend for a while.  Another option is the local library.  Yup, the library.  My local library just opened a Makerspace not too long ago, and among the nifty bits of equipment such as a laser cutter and a CNC machine, a 3D printer is available.  Or, if you have them in your area, go to the local Makerspace or TechShop.  While the library is probably one of the lowest cost options for us jobless, the others seem to have fairly reasonable rates for the different options they offer.

So, yes, you can build a NASA satellite.  They’re giving you the plans, and maybe you have the technology.  If so, have a great time!

Side note:  There’s a holiday Monday.  Not everyone takes that day off, but I intend to (likely I’ll be writing up the next post).  So, there will not be a post this Monday.  Enjoy Labor Day, my fellow ‘meruhcans.  The rest of you, have a great Monday.

Rockzip’s Inflated Dreams

Image on Rockzip site, hosted by Kickstarter.

Rockzip Highballoon’s mission “is to improve life on Earth by giving people a new angle from which to solve difficult problems.”  How are they proposing to do give people that new angle?  By simply launching a “highballoon” about 75,000 ft or a little over 14 miles high.  That’s right, this isn’t about satellites, but about balloons that might do work only satellites, and maybe spy planes, have done before.

Rockzip brings up cheap, wireless internet connectivity (a la Google’s Project Loon) as one use for their balloons.  Another is to use the balloons as spacecraft testbeds, which allows students, researchers, corporations and the like to test components and systems in near space very inexpensively (at least that’s one of Rockzip’s goals).  They also mention the civil application of hurricane tracking.  There are many other missions the balloons could be used for too.  Rockzip view their “launch” platform in the way some people view smallsats–so cheap that the system might proliferate and iterate quickly.

They have two different types of highballoons that they are designing:  a “Pro Highballoon” with a payload capacity of 1 lb and a max altitude of 30,000 ft; or a “Full Size Beta Highballoon” with a payload capacity of 6 lbs and max altitude of 75,000 ft.  The “Full Size Beta” will fly nearly twice as long as the “Pro.”  The money they’re asking for on Kickstarter, $15,000, will be used to get these balloons to “students and innovators.”

So, yes, Rockzip are attempting to kickstart their project by trying to raise the $15,000 through Kickstarter.  Your next question, I’m sure, is about the different pledge levels for this project.  The answer to that question is that, yes, there are many, many pledge levels.  You can pledge a minimum of $1, but that won’t get you anything other than the satisfaction of contributing to something worthwhile.  If you kick in another $4, you’ll be put on the Rockzip Highballoon Wall of Fame website.

There are many other levels, with the $10,000 pledge giving “Round the World Launch Partner” status to the donor.  What does that mean?  Go to the Rockzip Kickstarter page to find out.  You’ve probably been wanting to donate to something like this, anyway.  Donate, help kids learn about balloons and space, and feel smug.  Win-win.