Tag Archives: United States

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


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.


Explorer 1, the First US Satellite

Explorer 1 photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

January 31st, 1958.  56 years ago, and the United States had finally succeeded in launching its own satellite, the Explorer 1.  According to this Yahoo! Travel post, the launch of Explorer 1 was linked to the International Geophysical Year (IGY).  The big deal about that, as explained in this wiki entry, is the IGY marked the beginning of scientific interchange between the western and eastern countries.  Sputnik 1, the very first man-made satellite to orbit the Earth, was also launched by the Soviet Union (USSR) for IGY in late 1957.  The US hurried with a response and, 4 months after Sputnik 1’s debut, launched Explorer 1 into a slightly eccentric Medium Earth Orbit.  The “Space Race” between the USSR and the US was on.

Explorer 1 was the satellite to first detect the Van Allen radiation belts.  It’s not surprising, since it had a few instruments on board to specifically detect radiation, micro-meteoroid impacts, and cosmic rays.  Explorer 1 wasn’t shaped like the satellites we work with today.  It looked like a very large rifle bullet with dimensions of about six feet in length, and six inches in diameter.  High tech for the time, the US used solid state transistors on the satellite—a whopping 29 of them (for those not raised in a nerdery, Intel’s most current Core i7 processor contains 1.16 billion transistors).

The operational life of Explorer 1 wasn’t very long.  It took only four months after the Explorer 1’s launch for the satellite’s batteries to die.  It remained in orbit, though, until 1970, when it finally reentered the Earth’s atmosphere.  Just look at the Yahoo post to see a diagram of Explorer 1.  Even better, just click on this link to see the Explorer 1 launch video.  It’s hard to believe such dramatic music was needed for news!

Even now, we’re still learning more about those Van Allen radiation belts in spite of the 56 years of time since Explorer 1’s launch.  Explorer 1 was the start of the United States Explorer satellite program.  That space phenomena data-collecting satellite program is still active today.  IRIS (Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph), a satellite built to observe the chromosphere of the Sun, was launched in June 2013.  About 90 satellites have been fabricated and deployed under the Explorer program’s auspices.

Leaving Military Space Operations

Of course, I did leave the military some time ago.  And I haven’t looked back.  Mistakes were made during my transition from military space operations to contractor.  Some of those mistakes are what this Clearancejobs.com post is all about.  Just click on the following link to read the post:  “Lost in Military Transition:  Considerations Before “Getting Out.””

Reserved Perceptions in Military Space operations

The Military/Contractor swinger

The Military/Contractor swinger

The United States Air Force (USAF) space operations corps. has a problem.  I know, there are several (put your hands down!), but I will be talking about a specific one, one which is insidious.  One which military personnel and contractors are somewhat blurring the ethical line.

First, let’s talk about the concepts of impartiality and perception of bias.  “HOLD ON!!” I’m sure you’re thinking, “THIS ISN’T SPACE.”  I understand your confusion and hope to clear it all up with the following paragraphs.  And then you’ll see it very much involves not only space, but space operators and possibly future space systems.

But first, a few words about impartiality.  Impartiality is pretty easy.  It’s a description of a state of not being influenced, as humanly as possible, by the circumstances a person is in or has to observe.  A federal judge, for example, could be viewed as somewhat impartial.

But here’s an example related to space:  when I was an instructor and evaluator of future space operators, we observed certain rules to make sure our students were fairly judged as qualified to operate nuclear weapons systems.  But one rule in particular was followed without exception:  an instructor could not evaluate his/her own students during an evaluation.  Other instructors would evaluate the students’ proficiency, because, other instructors could conduct the evaluation with a somewhat even-handed eye.  And this system was set up not because the students’ instructor was dishonest or untrustworthy.

It was set up to avoid a perception the students’ instructor might be a little more forgiving, a little more lenient to their own students during the evaluation.  Which describes the perception of bias.  If a person has a vested interest in the success of something being judged, that person may look the other way as problems with that something arise.

A similar scenario, but bigger, is going on between the USAF and the contracting world.  Please understand the situation I will be describing probably isn’t intentional or malicious–it’s just the way it is.  But it might be contributing to some of the problems both parties are facing as they slowly acquire space systems.  Surely it’s something the Government Accountability Office (GAO) should consider when they look at these programs.

As you might imagine, space systems can be very specialized in the military.  There’s GPS, there’s DMSP, DSP, SBIRS, etc., etc.  So, what does a contracting company, such as Boeing or Lockheed Martin, do when they want to win a government contract?  They obtain the subject matter experts, the operators, the ones who know these systems.  They get these people to work for them, so the company can tell the government “Yes, we have the expertise.  We have ** many years of GPS experience.”  It’s a natural response, right?  And it would only be natural for the company to specifically ask for experienced GPS personnel whenever they are hiring.

Here’s an example of a hiring listing for a Military Program Analyst II (SBIRS):

Military Program Analyst II (SBIRS)
Bachelor’s Degree in related field. Master’s highly desired.
Minimum of 15 years work related experience or 8 years specifically related in space operations
Standardization/evaluation and training program experience relevant to space operations required
Experience with Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) required
Minimum of an active Top Secret/SCI clearance required
Air Force background in the following fields: OPIR systems operations, Standardization and Evaluation, training, DT&E and OT&E
Excellent interpersonal, oral and written communications skills
Proficient with MS Office Suite
Recent AFSPC assignment within the 460th Space Wing standardization/evaluation and training offices
1C6 or 13S AFSC
Military active duty background in DSP, SBIRS or related operational unit
Combatant Command (COCOM) experience related to MW/MD
Prior AETC assignment with space operations instructor qualifications
Legacy DSP and SBIRS certified operator experience
Operational testing and/or transition background relative to OPIR mission

Seems innocent enough.  Keep in mind the contracting company listing this position isn’t making up all of these qualifications.  They are hiring based on the criteria the customer has asked for (and probably defined).

So, this is fine.  But notice the company’s listing also asks for “Recent” assignments and “Military active duty background in DSP, SBIRS, or related operational unit?”  Such descriptions may prompt some companies to start looking really closely at the Air Force reservists.  The ethical line starts getting a little blurry when reserve personnel start getting involved (and no, not because they are of shady character).  I’ve worked with reserve personnel who worked in a reserve unit, like the 8th Space Warning Squadron (SWS).  I’ve noticed that once they are done with their “military tour”, they then put on their contractor “hat” and work on SBIRS HEO or GEO programs.  Why’s this a problem?

For one thing, it LOOKS like these reservists/contractors have a vested interest in the success of the company they’re working for with systems they’ll eventually work with as reservists (perception of bias).    We’ll explain more of this next week.

Broken American Space Policy exclamation point…

I wrote a longer than anticipated series about the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA–and darn it, I just noticed it’s Oceanic and not Oceanographic) problems in getting just one satellite up into space.  The NOAA’s problems are so bad, they had to have an Independent Review Team get into their business, note the problems, and come up with some suggestions (you can go here to read their assessment).

The thing is, this problem is a recurring theme, for at least the past two decades.  Whether it’s the NOAA, the United States Air Force, or the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)–all of them seem to have extreme difficulty with just building their space systems.  If a program does get finished, it’s extremely over budget and not as capable as proposed.

Just to hammer home this point, I happened upon, and am linking to, a Breaking Defense article written last year by Mr. Bob Butterworth.  His article, “Doing More with Less Much Scarier Than Budget Cuts,” is a great historical summary of all of the government agencies’ fumbling of space.

For those who can’t be bothered to read it, here’s a very short take:  doing more with less wasn’t within ANY federal government space agency capability and it hurt our space capabilities in a big way.  We’re still not able to do the things we need to do to be secure in space.

My opinion:  our confusion and fumbling with space is obvious to our friends and not-so-friendly governments.  Because of this, the Chinese are being quite bold, the Russians are talking of militarizing space, and our own Congress and Senators are quite willing to keep chopping the nose off of the face representing US space defense.

There needs to be a story–not a lie, not a jingoistic panic–but a cohesive, relevant story.  Americans care about eating, sleeping, loving, and working in peace.  Why space matters to the United States and its citizens needs to be tied into those qualities.  It’s quite possible the United States citizenry don’t care about being #1 in space, so we should quit depicting this as a race.  But they do care about those other things.

I think I know an answer for this, but if you ask any of our politicians why space, the moon, and Mars, are important to US security AND prosperity policy (not just for NSA spying), you’d probably get confused looks.  This needs to change.