Tag Archives: SatNav

The New Year’s Eve Ball Drop

There are a few connections, believe it or not, between space and New York’s New Year’s Eve Ball Drop. What are those connections you might ask? I ask you just to go to Clearancejobs.com and read this short article with my attempts to explain.

Sorry about the delay in writing. I was a bit, um, gone for a while. Which is why this post is being re-posted now, instead of on 31 Dec, when Clearancejobs.com posted my article.

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Russia’s Fregat: What Mission Assurance?

“Quit fiddling with it. The helium line is fine where it is.” Fregat image from the ESA image library.

Placing a satellite in the wrong orbit.  It’s what the delightful world of mission assurance is supposed to prevent.  If you talk to any space operator, mission assurance is the sexiest profession in the space realm…JK–not really!  If anything, the typical space operator falls asleep at the first fishbone chart presented in the omnipresent and snore-inducing PowerPoint presentation tool. And heaven help the poor fool who got caught in the hallway to be brought in to listen to some enthusiastic engineer wax poetic about particular thermal characteristics of a passive radiator in a scatter chart.  The victim might suffer from whiplash at the sudden onset of near universal narcolepsy brought on by such deadly characterization tools…and boom goes the satellite.

So maybe that’s what happened when NPO Lavochkin presented their processes and plans to the Galileo satellite team for the Fregat upper stage.  How else could something like locating a freezing cold helium line next to the fuel line have not been noticed?  At least that’s what an independent review panel figured out AFTER the orbital disaster and concluded in a report on 8 October, 2014.

Although, typically such technical information, as what Lavochkin may have briefed the Galileo team, tends to be given by a particular personality to the same kind of particular personality.  And the receiving personality tends to give the data a very critical eye before nodding the go ahead to the next slide.  But this IEEE Spectrum post indicates that the plans for the Fregat upper stage that ultimately placed the Galileo satellite in the wrong orbit had “ambiguities.”  This means the “blueprints” of the Fregat might have not presented the whole picture highlighting the potential problem of the Fregat to the Galileo team.  If there was any following up of the ambiguities, it apparently wasn’t forceful enough to get the Russian company to double-check the design.

For those who don’t know, mission assurance is the process that usually watches and sometimes informs other space project processes.  Usually it’s associated with managing risks (some try to associate it with zero risk) to a project.  But it’s really a bit more complicated than that, since engineers obviously designed it.  It’s how companies like the Aerospace Corporation make their bread and butter.  They usually provide independent reviews and assessments of the engineering, building and operating processes other contractors use for space component production.  It’s a cumbersome and burdensome process.

But the US government and a few others believe mission assurance to be a valuable service, and therefore use it.  Does it work?  Does it keep the elephants away?*  If you look at the record of the United Launch Alliance in the last few years, which hasn’t lost a launch for a while, the answer could be a “yes.”  But maybe they’re lucky.

Which brings us back to the Russians.  Maybe they’ve been lucky all this time with Fregat.  Unfortunately for the Galileo’s mission assurance team (they do have one, right?), that luck ran out on 22 August 2014.  Anyone out there up for a European tour?

*This is a joke based on a humorous Sufi Nasrudin teaching story.  It goes like this:  A man who worked in an office suddenly started to slam his desk drawers and yell at the top of his lungs in the morning.  He did this for a few days before a friend approached him and asked, “Why are you making all this noise every morning?”  The man replied,”It’s to keep the elephants away.”  To which his friend then stated, “But there are no elephants here.”  The noisemaker nodded with satisfaction and said, “You see!! It works!”

Find that Airplane–FREE!!

GPS Satellites

Earlier this year, I wrote a little post about how Harris Corporation and Aireon were working together to make accurate global aircraft tracking a reality.  They’re doing this by placing GPS signal receivers and transmitters as an extra payload on board Iridium NEXT satellites.  This allows GPS equipment to send  a message through a special radio transmitter from an aircraft to the signal receivers and transmitters on the Iridium NEXT satellites, which would then relay to an air traffic control site, showing, in relative real-time, where the aircraft is. The message would contain very accurate information about where the aircraft is (speed, altitude, latitude, longitude, etc.).  And what if you needed that data in an emergency, and you were able to get that for free?  That’d be awesome, right?

At least that’s one of the things Aireon will do, according to their brochure.  But they also emphasized in a press release from this Monday, that they will make the tracking data freely available in case of emergency.  The data will be provided from a program they call the Aircraft Locating and Emergency Response Tracking (ALERT) service, which will provide the aircraft location data free of charge to those who have a need to know where their aircraft went.

How can Aireon make this free?  While they don’t really say, they do expect airlines to adopt this technology which will enable some high fidelity air traffic control.  The ALERT service is just one of their core aircraft surveillance services, so if airlines find the day-to-day tracking data useful for air traffic control, they just might pay for a subscription for the service for all of their aircraft.  Of course, another way to make money is if there’s some sort of contract with particular governments for tracking aircraft and receiving data, too.  It might be useful for certain shady agencies.

Overall, this service might address some of the issues surrounding a future missing aircraft scenario, similar to the Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 mystery.  But if an aircraft is hijacked, and the circuit breaker or power switch of this Aireon system is shut off on board the airplane (and there likely will be a switch or a breaker, if only for safety and system isolation purposes), then the ALERT service will not be that effective.  If you think that’s too far fetched, that a hijacker wouldn’t bother with learning how to do that, remember there were similar shenanigans with MH370.

Just don’t get too excited about your airplane being tracked just yet.  First, you have to have the proper equipment on the plane.  Second, you need a satellite (and really, more than one is required for this service to work) with the receiver/transmitter payload.  Which means some time will be needed for all the pieces to be in place for this service.  Aireon say they expect the service to be fully operational in 2017.