Tag Archives: SBIRS

Nerd Warriors in Space


 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!

When I was very, very young I remember watching a particular movie. In it, the protagonists were misfits, non-athletic, good with computers, had social problems, bad hygiene, a style that might optimistically be called “kindergarten,” were generally pretty smart, and came from varied backgrounds. The bad guys were the establishment, the jocks, the moneyed set, people with good teeth who had all the complexity of a child’s coloring book, and they were very, very white. The setting was a college campus, and the good guys needed to somehow affiliate with a fraternity. The bad guys didn’t want this to happen, and that pretty much sums up the beginning of “Revenge of the Nerds.”

Which is why I felt like I was reading the movie’s premise when I looked at SpaceNews.com this week. This post , quoting comments from ANOTHER Air Force general, was, if not surprising, then disappointing. It’s also concerning and astonishing, because here is someone who obviously hasn’t been in U.S. military space for very long, but certainly wants everyone to know he’s the warrior in charge. Like a jock might. And marking territory is very important to a jock, so why not mark the very people that he is supposed to lead?

Let’s cover the disappointment first. The assumption that space operators in the USAF don’t understand they are war fighters is insulting and wrong. Let’s assume for the moment that someone who is smart enough to work in the military and in a position of not having to worry too much about being shot at while ensuring the right people stay alive and the targets are identified/eliminated, is probably someone who is aware of being part of a warrior culture. And let’s not forget the force multiplication that normally comes with military space operations.

A SBIRS crew, for example, knows how critical it is to get information to the people who need it quickly, and may potentially not just save a comrade’s neck–they could potentially save millions. A GPS crew knows timing is important. Their actions allows other warfighters the luxury of staying out of harm’s way, while sending expensive explosive packages very precisely to those nice people in hardened bunkers. Amazon’s got nuthin’ on them.

Just because they are in front of a screen at a ground station, doesn’t mean they aren’t doing their duty. It certainly doesn’t mean they aren’t under potential attack. Just ask the Missileers in Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming. Maybe it just means they are smarter. Just sayin’… but because I used to be one, I know better…at least on that score.

The concern and astonishment comes because, here is yet another general, who isn’t from any space background, who doesn’t understand space operators do have simulators. I think there’s a rather elaborate SBIRS simulator in Vandenberg for students. And I’m fairly certain the space operators on console have their scripts and sims when working in the real world too. I know SBIRS operators get a lot of real-world training–maybe even more than someone who flies a target through the air.

Each one of the space systems that operators work with has proficiency standards. Each space operations squadron has scripts, instructors, and evaluators. Does that mean things go perfectly? No, but it does mean crews are ready for whatever comes their way. The crews are presented with scenarios which may mix things that have happened in the past with things that are likely to happen.

By the way, the whole “baking in intelligence”–how the hell do you think space ops crews like those for SBIRS operate? Because these systems are considered low density and high demand, good intelligence is not optional. Does anyone really think space ops crews aren’t talking with another type of nerd, the intelligence weenie?

So, enough of this. I’ve seen it before. When I was in, we had bomber/fighter generals leading us too. For the most part, they ignored us and let us do our work. But I fear for of our space operators today. The jocks are in charge, and want to make sure the nerds learn the ways of the jock.

When will our beloved space crews ever get an outstanding leader? Good luck, folks!



Satellite Imagery Provides No Real Help for MH17 (because of Photoshopping?)

Wait, this image is probably not what it looks like. Image is hosted on DailyMail.com.

I happened on this news story last Friday as I was in research mode at work: MH17 update. It looked interesting, but was also suspicious when I considered the timing of the image’s release corresponding to Putin getting a finger in the chest from the Australian Prime Minister. However, me being at work meant I really couldn’t look into it a bit more to figure out what exactly was going on.

As a reminder, earlier this year Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was shot out of the sky over Ukraine. Passengers and crew on board all died. Some sources were pointing to a surface to air missile shot from a BUK (a vehicle dedicated to carrying and launching rockets), but there hasn’t been any authoritative evidence really set forth for any kind of criminal investigation to contemplate. The image in the Daily Mail’s story shows that a fighter jet of some kind fired off a missile (the line in front of the fighter’s nose is the missile’s contrail) toward some kind of passenger jet. Except maybe that’s not the truth either.

So now I have had time do some searching about this story online, and can’t say I’m too surprised with the stories coming out regarding the image above. Many people with much better eyes and backgrounds in imagery have come out to say the picture’s been cobbled together. This site, Belling¿cat, seems to be a pretty good overall place to go and read about how people have figured out the satellite images are fakes. There are the side-by-side comparisons, plus the obvious grabs for images off the internet by whoever made it. Keep in mind that I’m not very familiar with Belling¿cat, so they may have an agenda for spinning stories a certain way. It seems legit, though.

I’m not saying it’s impossible for the kind of thing that’s pictured in that imagery to have happened, but it seems unlikely–maybe as unlikely as a BUK launching a surface to air missile at an airliner. This story is so convoluted, so tinged by political agendas, I am unsure there will be any kind of truth coming out of this soon, if ever.

But here’s the reality–those people on that Malaysian Airlines MH17 airplane were murdered. Whether it was politics, a guerilla war, one side or the other–someone took a shot at a passenger plane, downed it, then stayed quiet about it. Is this the first time something like this has happened? No, and this Wikipedia list (which I wouldn’t consider a first-hand source), has a list of the unfortunates shot down since passengers have been flying in aircraft.

It’s easy to get cynical about it, saying the thugs in the region have too much control for any truth to get out. I’ve seen some of those comments, and must note that if people go in with that kind of perspective, then such a perspective might perhaps inform the outcome of this tragedy’s investigation, no matter how grounded in history and reality the perspective might be.

Not helping in any of this is the US government. People within the US government made allegations that sounded like they could be substantiated. I wrote a bit about those allegations in this post: Can Top Secret Satellites Aid in International Justice? Overhead military assets like the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) were mentioned, as well as mentions by none other than John Kerry of possible Signals/Communications Intelligence (SIGINT/COMINT) interceptions. But then things seemed to just get quiet. I really haven’t found any reasons why there hasn’t been any other information. But it could be the US is unwilling to divulge any more information that may reveal technical data about the US intelligence collection assets. Even if a judge were given jurisdiction of this case, and subpoenaed the information, I am not sure the US government would divulge the details.

The upshot of this whole thing, though, is nobody seems to believe the image wasn’t doctored, except where it counts: in Russia. This Austin 360 post reiterates this sentiment fairly well at the end of its own story about this image kerfuffle. Sigh!

Top Secret Satellites Involved in International Justice?

Clearancejobs.com posted my article about this last Friday.  I note that a lot of different space assets seem to have been brought to bear to clarify how the MH17 passengers were murdered.  If you want to read more, please read:  Can Top Secret Satellites Aid in International Justice?


Where is Space Traffic Control?


In response to this site’s previous posts, my most curious spouse asked a very common-sense question: who controls what gets launched into the Earth’s orbit?  For that matter, who controls what rockets get launched?  My initial response was that price had controlled the launching of satellites into orbit.  There was a time, not too long ago, when money was the gatekeeper and determined who could build, launch, and control satellites in space.  The richer a country was, the more likely it was able to be a space-faring nation.

But that has changed, and honestly, this isn’t an aspect of space operations I’ve really had to deal with.  The answer to her question, I think, is no one really controls who launches satellites into orbit.  Maybe we can muddle through this together to see why that probably is true.

First, just to make sure people are clear about what is meant by control, we’re not talking about satellite control, or the way a satellite’s operators send commands and receive telemetry from their satellites.  This is more about legal authority, and the ability to enforce it for all rockets, and satellites on them, that are launched (also, I’m not necessarily advocating control).  Sure, there are agencies in the US, like the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), that have rules surrounding rocket launches conducted in the United States.  There are international bodies, such as the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), responsible for radio frequency and orbit allocation and coordination.

But what do the rules and courtesies these organizations facilitate really mean in the real world to people who choose to ignore them?  What if there’s a determined someone who has decided to build and launch rockets and satellites without letting anyone know?  We already know that if a country is determined to launch space vehicles, there’s not much other countries can do, aside from a full invasion, to prevent that.  Iran is one of the latest ones to prove that rule.  And it’s under intense scrutiny.

But, if a launch happened in a pasture in the middle of North Dakota, or in the middle of the Sahara Desert, would anyone really know about the launch before the satellite is up in orbit?  How intensely are those areas watched?  In theory, the launches might be detected, and someone, possibly the Spanish Inquisition, might get to those areas in time to lay down the law.  That depends, I think, on the way a country controls its airspace, or how good an overhead technology is, if it happens to be monitoring those areas.

A Chinese mobile launcher. Image hosted on Defensetech.org.

But, even with those assets aiding in the hunt, I then think of those mobile missile launchers other countries have, like the one pictured above.  How easy would it be for an organization to get some older ones at a “fire sale,” or perhaps from evacuated bases that might’ve contained them?  And then convert them to rocket launchers for getting small satellites into low earth orbit (LEO)?  Talk about possible cheap space launch options.  It would be mobile, too, so quite difficult to track–especially if no one expected it to be in a particular place, anyway.  Terrorists like to be unpredictable.

How would tracking of the launch be accomplished, though?  Do we really want to be in a world that’s under constant satellite scrutiny (some might argue it already is)?  The question that perhaps should be asked is: do we want to have an organization that is aware, at all times, about all launches?  Is something like that necessary or required?  Maybe something structured like the air traffic control systems, but more comprehensive?

There are satellites capable of detecting rocket launches, such as the ones in service to the US military:  the Defense Support Program (DSP) and Space Based InfraRed System (SBIRS).  But they are military-controlled and have a military mission.  For satellite tracking, there’s been plenty of talk about a “space fence.”  While there is a very rudimentary one in operation, a newer one might be a while in coming.  Especially since the newer space fence involves Lockheed Martin and the US government–both known for technical program progression at sub-glacial speeds (look at SBIRS!!  Too easy, I know…).

But even with those organizations and systems in place–ITU, FAA, SBIRS, DSP, etc.–they are only pieces in a global puzzle, one requiring more participants than just the US and its allies.   Until the other puzzle pieces come together, such as cooperation, planning, and money, then the questions regarding worldwide organizational control of launch vehicles and satellites around the world will continue to yield the same answer:  no one’s in control.



Satellite Limitations Searching for MH370

Image hosted on OgleEarth.com.

It’s been awhile since there’s been anything said about the mission Malaysian MH370 passenger jet,  That’s good, because maybe it allows investigators to investigate.  It’s potentially bad if the entire investigation has been dropped (doesn’t appear to be the case though–read about that, here).

Some image swaths of the area. Image hosted on OgleEarth.com.

It appears that Space Safety Magazine has remembered the missing airliner and decided to re-explain, in an article published yesterday, why satellites really aren’t the solution to finding the airliner.  The article brings up the problem that such a big area, in which the airliner disappeared, represents a problem for satellites.  There are trade-offs of satellite imagery/remote sensing payloads covering a large area with relatively low resolution, or covering a small area with great fidelity.  For an explanation about why there’s trade-offs, please go to one of my lessons about them, here.

What I didn’t know is that China activated the UN Disaster Charter to help with searching for MH370.  The Charter is primarily meant to allocate satellites from different countries and companies to help countries facing major disasters, like earthquakes, typhoons, and flooding.  It’s unusual, and perhaps inappropriate, to activate it for a missing airliner.  It might have been a knee-jerk response by China to it’s citizens, perhaps to appear like it’s “doing something” to help find MH370.  If you would like to learn a little bit more about the Disaster Charter, you can read about it, here.

But if all of what Space Safety Magazine has posted sounds a little familiar, it may have been because you’ve already read a bit more in-depth about why satellites are limited in their search for MH370 in my March 16 post for Clearancejobs.com.  There’s also a bit more about the issues with InMarSat’s analysis of their data from The Atlantic, here.  If you haven’t read either one, I recommend reading them.

The Space Safety Magazine post also notes that information regarding military satellite observations–or the lack of information about them–certainly hasn’t been forthcoming or supporting the search very well.  I did note that Space Based InfraRed System (SBIRS)/Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites were reported as not seeing any explosion in the area being searched.  But not much else has come to the fore from “national technical means”–from any country.

But after all the exposition, the post comes to the same conclusion I gave about the question of whether satellites will be able to detect and pinpoint wayward airliners: it is still a wishy-washy “It depends.”