Orbital clutter reaching crisis point

Paul Raven @ 10-05-2011

A grim prognosis from Marshall Kaplan, orbital debris expert at John Hopkins University:

“The proliferation is irreversible. Any cleanup would be too expensive. Given this insight, it is unlikely spacefaring nations are going to do anything significant about cleaning up space,” Kaplan said. “The fact is that we really can’t do anything. We can’t afford it. We don’t have the technology. We don’t have the cooperation. Nobody wants to pay for it. Space debris cleanup is a ‘growth industry,’ but there are no customers. In addition, it is politically untenable.”

[…]

“There is a good chance that we may have to eventually abandon all active satellites in currently used orbits,” Kaplan said. “One possible scenario for the future is that we may phase out this generation of spacecraft while replacing them with a brand-new infrastructure of low-orbiting constellations of small satellites, each of which partially contributes to collecting desired data or making communications links.”

These constellations could be placed below 370 miles (600 km), thus avoiding the debris issue.

“Such a new infrastructure could be developed over the next 20, 30 or 40 years,” Kaplan said. “We should have plenty of time to make the transition, so let’s use it wisely. We all caused this problem … there is no doubt about that. And, nobody will claim somebody else did it.”

Nobody will claim someone else did it? Charming political naivete from Mister Kaplan, there; there’ll be plenty of finger-pointing once the rate of failed launches due to debris collisions increases significantly. I’m guessing China will be on the receiving end of most of it, too.

But there’s an old saying in the English county of Yorkshire: “where there’s muck, there’s brass”. If I was looking for a way to monetise a manned orbital station, making orbital junk-wrangling a big part of the commercial offer would be my first angle; maybe no one is willing to pay yet, but demonstrate an ability to save pricey sats from destruction and folk might think differently.

[ If you’re reading this, Elon Musk, my offer to act as a low-cost ideas-geek in your organisation still stands. 🙂 ]


Satellite rejuvenation stations could reduce orbital junk

Paul Raven @ 21-07-2010

We already know that there’s a whole lot of junk at the top of the gravity well; a lot of it is dead satellites, and as much as we could blast the things apart, it’d probably be a lot more economical to ensure they have a longer working life. Enter MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates, a Canadian outfit who propose building an orbital platform for refuelling and repairing ailing satellites:

MDA wants to fill that niche by launching a satellite refueling station that can track down and dock with satellites in the sky, filling them up with hydrazine and performing small repairs. Such a service could double, or even triple, the lives of satellites already flying, provided their on-board instruments are still working properly.

But such a refueling station isn’t the same as pulling up to the gas pump, or even refueling a jet in flight. Satellites are roaring through space at nearly 7,000 miles per hour, so a fueling station would have to first catch the satellite in motion, then somehow finagle the fueling port open with a robotic arm of some kind — if, that is, the door hasn’t been seared closed by years of exposure to space. It’s been done exactly twice before, but both times it happened under experimental conditions where the satellite and the refueling vehicle were both new and designed to be compatible.

Still, it’s not impossible and MDA thinks it could make $100 million a year servicing satellites which themselves are very expensive to replace.

Another potentially lucrative business model for commercial space companies, and a lot less adventurous than asteroid mining (though I suspect it may turn out to be more technically challenging in some respects). It also looks (to my layman’s eye, at least) more sensible than the previously-mooted idea of sending up wandering repairbots.

Probably too little too late for poor old Zombiesat, though.


More on the Orbit digital short fiction offer

Paul Raven @ 16-04-2010

In the wake of yesterday’s announcement that Orbit US will be publishing short genre fiction in a digital format, The Scalzi weighs in with some pertinent questions from the authorial side of the fence:

As I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, I’ll refrain from saying anything about this particular proposed program until I do. However, in a very general sense I can say that proposing writers offer up work uncompensated save for rosy promises of back-end glory is something one shouldn’t tolerate in poorly-funded start-ups done in apartment living rooms. If such a thing were proposed from, say, an arm of the second-largest publisher on the planet, itself an arm of a huge multinational corporation with roughly ten billion dollars in revenue and $180 million in profit in 2009, it should be tolerated even less.

And gets answers, straight from the horse’s mouth. Or rather, from the keyboard of Tim Holman, Orbit Publisher:

The program is likely to be royalty-only. This might not be attractive to some, but I believe it may well be beneficial to authors. Again, perhaps not all authors, but that’s what can happen in a marketplace. I like the principle of creating a direct relationship between the popularity of a story and the revenues received by author and publisher. I also like the idea of giving readers the opportunity to pay for short fiction if they are prepared to do so, and think that doing so adds an interesting dimension to the short fiction market.

Orbit will be handling editorial and marketing for the stories. We like to work with our authors on some aspects of marketing, but there will be no onus on any author to provide any service related to this publishing program.

DRM-free is unlikely.

[…]

It wasn’t asked, but I can also say that we’re expecting individual stories to be priced at $1.99.

Not as pretty a picture as many might like, but Holman’s being refreshingly open about it all; if Orbit are wise, they’ll keep the conversation public and listen to feedback, even if they’re determined to go with their existing plan.

At any rate, I think we’re looking at the new genre lit blogosphere topic de la semaine here.


Orbit to take short fiction to the digital market

Paul Raven @ 15-04-2010

From the press release:

Orbit (US) has offered to publish digital editions of all original short fiction written by its authors. The digital editions will be distributed widely through major retail channels, for reading on a variety of devices. Authors will be paid a royalty for each story sold, rather than the flat fee more common in the short story market.

Tim Holman, Orbit VP & Publisher, said: “We know that writing short fiction is important for many of our authors. By offering to publish their short fiction – and to publish it quickly – we will be providing a new way for them to connect with readers. The initial response from our authors has been great, and we are looking forward to launching the first stories later this year.”

Maja Thomas, SVP Hachette Digital, said: “Publishing timely and well-priced short fiction has long been one of HBG’s goals. The digital reading revolution and the proliferation of new devices and mobile platforms now make this possible.”

Interesting. Here’s Nick Mamatas’ initial assessment:

Why, you ask? My theory:

To train the audience to associate digital purchasing with publisher rather than author or the (online) bookstore, thus allowing HBG to more easily sell ebooks direct to the consumer without having to cut in Amazon, Apple, etc. (This can also lead to cheaper ebooks, once one can keep much of what otherwise would be the discount to the trade.) That part of the idea isn’t even a bad one.

And Charlie Stross’ response to such:

If approached, I shall politely tell them what I get paid for my short fiction sales elsewhere, and offer them the opportunity to compete.

[…]

Orbit is part of Hachette. Hachette’s current policy — dictated from a boardroom high in the stratosphere and divorced from earthly considerations — is that DRM on ebooks is mandatory. This won’t be waived for these stories without a major internal argument; so I’m assuming it’s business as usual for now.

Royalties on ebooks are around 20%; viewing this as a new sales channel, they might go higher (25-30%).

Pricing on short story ebooks … they’d look like complete tools if they priced short stories at the same level as novels, so I’m betting on a price point in the range $1-5, probably $2.50-5 (the $1-2 price spread would be better for sales but is difficult, because the cost of processing the credit card/paypal transactions puts a floor of around $0.5 under each sale).

Asking $5.00 for a 12,000 word novelette with DRM on top is not going to boost sales relative to, say, $8 for a 120,000 word novel, also with DRM. So I expect sales to be no better than their current ebook sales, which is to say, dismal. Let’s be optimistic and say they can shift a thousand copies of each story — 1000 sales via Kindle is enough to put you in the monthly Top Ten Bestsellers on that platform. That’s revenue of $5000 for a story, of which somewhere in the range $1000-1500 goes to the author. More realistically they’re going to sell 100-250 copies, meaning the author might get $100-250, eventually, after a couple of royalty periods (6-12 months). Compared to the $600 they’d get from Asimov’s SF, for example — with their rights back after 12 months.

For a tenth of the words that go into a novel that would earn them $10,000.

Does Not Compute, does it?

[…]

If they want to make it work they will have to start paying the authors an advance against future earnings, or run it like tor.com (at a stonking loss for the first couple of years as they build their audience).

That last bit is quite telling, really. I used to hear a timespan of five years bandied around as the duration a print mag needed to survive before it would start making a profit; it’ll be interesting to see how Tor.com makes out over the next few years. But then they were lucky to have had that initial investment behind ’em… I could do amazing thigs with Futurismic if someone would just lend me ten grand… 🙂

It’s also nice to see a major genre publisher realising that not only is there a market for short fiction, but that their writers want to produce it. Common sense would dictate that the lesser-known writers will see the most advantage in pumping out the short stuff, which should maintain the idea that short stories are the genre’s proving grounds.

What do you reckon – can Orbit make digital short fiction work on the royalties model at a price point that keeps both writers and readers happy?


Space Jockeys

Brenda Cooper @ 21-10-2009

I was interviewed twice last week, and both times the topic of space flight came up.  One of the questions one of the interviewers, Annie Tupek, asked me was, “You write about mankind’s future in space.  What do you think is the largest obstacle opposing space colonization today?”

Here’s the short form of my answer to that question:  “…it’s expensive and difficult to get heavy stuff from here out into space. The distances are long and the travel hard. …  We tend to think it’s taking a long time to explore space.  The Wright Brother’s first flight was in 1903.  So in a little over a hundred years we’ve gone from being stuck fact to the surface of the planet to flying all over it all the time with hardly a worry except the TSA search indignities.  We’ve flown past almost every planet and moon in the solar system, landed rovers on Mars, and men on the moon.”

So I decided I’d write this month’s column about what’s happening as private companies compete to get to space. In fact, there’s so much happening, I could write a book about it.  Instead, I’m going to survey the news from LEO, give a little futuristic spin, and discuss one book. Continue reading “Space Jockeys”


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