Tag Archives: USAF

Two Years Later as a Space Industry Analyst

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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!

 

SmallSat 2016

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SDL sure knows how to treat their guests. They hosted a social “Luau” dinner on the first night there. I made sure I ran every night, to work off the extra calories…

This last week my company sent me to do some hob-nobbing and research work at Space Dynamics Laboratory’s Small Satellite (SmallSat) conference for 2016. It’s an annual event the company hosts, going on thirty years now.

For those who don’t know what a small satellite is, there are a few different definitions, but let’s just say the satellite probably should be 500 kg (1100 lbs) or less. Some might even say 100 kg (220 lbs) or less. And because we work in a field of engineers and scientists, there are sub-categories of small satellites, such as nano, mini, micro–you get the idea. If you can’t measure it and categorize it, you can’t obsess about it, right? You’ve probably seen a small satellite and not known it if you’ve been following Planet’s or Terra Bella’s activities. Cubesats fall under the smallsat definition.

So small satellites are the focus of SmallSat. Entrepreneurs, government organizations, universities, and various companies from varying backgrounds get together to show what they can do, have done, and will do with the small satellite platforms. Technical sessions are running pretty much from 0800 to 1800, with people presenting, ideally, in 15 minute presentations. So people like me, research analysts, show up, hoovering up whatever data and information we can find about this industry. Blogs and space-centric news organizations show up for their stories. And there’s a lot for everyone to talk about. I won’t get into specifics, as that is what my ‘real-life’ job is for. If you want to find out that information, you’ll have to go to the Space Foundation’s Space Report Online.

I’ve been to this event twice before, both of those times as an employee of SDL. The difference between those times and the conference this year is striking, particularly the level of energy and activities going on in the small satellite community. Both were very high this year. The support industries for small satellites seemed quite excited about field products for small satellites, and seem to think there’s going to be a lot of growth in this field. The small satellite builders, both new and old, seem to be receiving lots of orders and interest for their products. Operations services indicated growth in telemetry and data requirements. The activities, services, and experiments conducted by, and proposed for, small satellites, seems to be limited only by the imagination (and limited launch opportunities–hopefully that’s fixed soon).

To my eyes, there appears to be a lot of opportunity here. There are those that moan we’ve seen this before, and that we’re in a bubble. But the circumstances propelling the interest and growth in small satellites are different–very different. And if it’s a bubble, is that really a bad thing? Even with the collapse of the internet bubble, I think things are better today overall than they were at the height of that bubble. And we’re not in a bubble yet. But it will happen eventually, as “irrational exuberance” takes hold in this industry too.

If I were in my twenties today, and interested in space, I’d be working hard on concepts to get my own start-up going, or working in a start-up to get the needed experience, and eventually move on. None of this going to NASA or the USAF for space operations nonsense. Those organizations have very focused missions, but as I’ve noted before, small satellites seem to bring out the imagination and healthy risk-taking of motivated individuals.

But as it is, I’m having tremendous fun learning from the very energized small satellite sector, chewing on the information, and writing about it. I’m thankful SmallSat exists to bring not just national, but international focus and energy together, to learn more, and for conference participants to strut their stuff. If you’re motivated enough, try to get a paper or two in.

 

Deployment Diversity

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The Orbital ATK Cygnus, just snatched up for docking with the ISS by the station’s Canadarm2. Image from NASA.

Sometime in the past few days, new objects showed up in the satellite tracking database published by Space-Track.org. This is nothing new. Space-Track.org is supposed to do this every day. It’s their job: tracking and identifying objects orbiting the Earth, primarily for the United States Department of Defense, and as an ancillary service to the public and commercial organizations.

However, what was different about these objects was when and how they were deployed in orbit. Space-Track gave numbers to the objects associating them with the launch of a ULA rocket with an Orbital ATK Cygnus International Space Station (ISS) resupply capsule that occurred in March 2016. These objects showed up in late June, after the Cygnus capsule had departed from the ISS. Orbital ATK noted that five cubesats would be deployed before the Cygnus re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere. Space-Track identified the objects as cubesats belonging to Spire Global.

As near as I can tell, this is the first time this sort of satellite deployment has happened. What basically happened was the cubesats hitched a ride up on the Cygnus to dock with the ISS. Then stayed aboard the Cygnus while it was docked with the ISS for three months or so until the Cygnus left the ISS. Once Cygnus left, the cubesats were deployed in the desired orbit. Initially, this doesn’t sound much different from cubesats deploying from a deployer during a rocket’s ascent to orbit. That kind of rideshare has been occurring for some time now. And it might not sound much different from cubesats deploying from the ISS, which is on track this year to deploy even more cubesats than in 2015.

But there are some possible differences that makes this kind of post-ISS deployment desirable. What immediately comes to mind is deploying the cubesats that way gives the owners more flexibility in what low Earth orbit (LEO) the satellites can be placed in. Depending on whether the Cygnus has power left over after it’s ascent to the ISS, the orbital inclination (the angle of an orbit as it goes across the Earth’s equator) might be different than that of the ISS. There’s also the possibility of using a Cygnus-like dedicated cubesat deployer to deploy more than five cubesats. Imagine an entire constellation, maybe 50 or more cubesats belonging to one company, being deployed this way.

A bigger, dedicated deployment spacecraft is not too far from reality. SpaceX keeps pushing back the launch of Formosat 5, which unfortunately, is also tied with Sherpa. A Falcon 9 will be conducting a launch of the two spacecraft sometime during the third quarter of 2016…unless they postpone it again. Formosat 5 isn’t that interesting. It’s an optical Earth observation satellite, one of many orbiting the Earth. Sherpa, however, is more interesting.

Sherpa has been called a space tug. Sherpa is designed, by the folks at Spaceflight Services, to deploy cubesats. A LOT of cubesats. When it launches with Formosat 5, it will eventually deploy 87 cubesats. A Dnepr cluster mission launched in 2014, which deployed the most types of small satellites so far, 37 (don’t let their advertised number of 33 fool you–there was s a satellite that deployed more satellites on board the Dnepr), doesn’t even approach half of Sherpa’s projected deployments. Of course Sherpa needs to be launched first.

There seem to be many different ideas for how to place small satellites in orbit. The weight and size standards set for cubesats in particular, seem to be encouraging people to be creative. The post-ISS Cygnus deployments and Sherpa tug both seem to indicate that no matter which way is offered, there is someone willing to fund a cubesat.

Spire Global, in the case of the Cygnus deployments, has been busy populating low Earth orbits with their own imagery/Earth observation constellation, which might be called Lemur. They’ve also had a few cubesats deployed from the ISS Nanoracks CubeSat Deployment system this last May.

 

When China Attacks?

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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.

The Military Space Operator–After the Military

Transitioning as The New Civilian

When I left the U.S. Air Force, I was a space operator. After working in the military space world for 11 years, it seemed very obvious to me and the Air Force, that I was a space operator, but not to anyone in the civilian world. I spent nearly six months applying for related positions, trying to convince others of my qualifications, before I found work. It was frustrating.

I had the training and experience in various sub-disciplines related to or directly involved in space operations. When the USAF trains someone like me in space operations, they assign a special prefix denoting the corresponding specialty: 13S or 1C6 (officer or enlisted). Add some extra letters and numbers to the end of those three letters and numbers and it SEEMS the Air Force stays pretty happy about how they keep track of their space operations force.

The Problem

However, there are some wrinkles within the Air Force which obfuscate what a space operator is. Such complications are what might have hindered my job searches. In the USAF, being a space operator might mean a person’s job is acquiring the systems for missions in space. It might mean a person installs fiber for ground networks to talk with space systems or runs computer network operations. It might mean conducting system engineering or mission assurance for particular systems. It might mean intelligence analysis. At one time it meant maintaining and launching nuclear missiles. Each of these was the Air Force’s way to appear to beef up its space cadre. Some of us benefited from the Air Force’s efforts to “spread space.”

So, while being a 13S or 1C6 still means a trained space professional sitting at a computer command console, operating a space system, making sure a missile, rocket, or a satellite and its payload responds to commands, there are some other professions within the space operations category without those prefixes that might be related but need more explanation. Don’t get me wrong: the multiplicity of jobs within the space operations career-field is great for those who are willing to learn about the different space systems. It’s particularly interesting to the many who gain the technical chops and experience in the USAF without any science, technology, engineering, or other types of technical educational backgrounds.

The problem though, is that while it’s very interesting and quite educational to work for the USAF, there’s the question “What happens after my USAF career?” The USAF isn’t doing you any favors with its broadly applied “Space Operator” category. Because, for example, being an acquisitions program manager is not the same as conducting communications satellite upkeep or running satellite warning or space intelligence missions. Hiring managers in the civilian world may become confused by all the great experience a person gained as a program manager while that person calls him/herself a space operator. There’s also the problem that a good portion of space operations occur in the classified world, and an involved person can’t really say what they were doing in that world. So how can a person define what their part in the military space world is, without getting into trouble? How can a USAF space operator make their military space job relate, in very simple terms, to the civilian space world? With the broader question being, what does it mean to work in the space industry in the United States?

Stay tuned…

I have a few ideas about this, just based on my experience in writing about this industry over the past few years. My next post will attempt to elaborate some of the terms to help make those connections in the civilian world. Hopefully it will help you in your job searches.