Buy This Satellite!

Paul Raven @ 01-12-2010

Via, well, literally dozens of people (in one fast condensed rush on Twitter last night, in fact, suggesting a very successful viral campaign, be it deliberate or purely serendipitous), here’s a great way to get something good out of the economic collapse: why don’t we all pitch in and buy a bankruptcy fire-sale satellite, which we can then redeploy to provide wireless internet to a developing nation that could really benefit from it?

Not only a brilliant and ambitious bit of humanitarianism for the not-quite-fully-networked world, but confirmation of the practicality of a chunk of sf worldbuilding I’ve been kicking around for years… 🙂


DIY satellites to lift off soon

Paul Raven @ 22-07-2010

Just a quick update for hardcore spacegeeks and aspiring Bond villains: remember TubeSat, the company that would sell you a build-your-own-satellite kit with your launch-to-orbit fee included in the ticket price? Well, they’re doing their first suborbital test flights next month, and business seems to be good. Here’s a satisfied customer justifying the financial layout:

“$8,000? That’s just the price of a cool midlife crisis,” says Alex “Sandy” Antunes, who bought one of the kits for a project that will launch on one of earliest flights. “You could buy a motorcycle or you could launch a satellite. What would you rather do?”

It’s a tough decision, but I think the satellite gets my vote. So book your TubeSat kit now to avoid the rush… after all, you’ll want to get your bird aloft before Warren Ellis’ death-ray sat scours the planet of all life larger than the common housefly. Don’t say you weren’t warned.


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.


Legislating against orbital warfare

Paul Raven @ 08-07-2010

Those of you of a certain age will remember Star Wars… not the movies (though you probably remember those pretty well, too) but the Reagan-era space weapons program that took its name from them. And maybe you remember 2008’s brief spate of chest-thumping from the US and China as they demonstrated their abilities to destroy satellites using missiles launched from Earth.

Well, the Obama administration is putting orbital warfare back on the agenda, but in a slightly more positive way – namely by reversing the Bush administration’s previous refusal to discuss potential arms control measures against the weaponisation of near-Earth space. It’s a fine gesture, but there’s a problem – in that swords and ploughshares are very hard to tell apart in this particular domain. Think of it, perhaps, as a nation-state scale version of the street finding its own use for things.

“Dual-use technology will hugely complicate the issue of agreements,” says Joan Johnson-Freese of the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. For example, missiles that can shoot down other missiles to shield a country from attack could also be used to destroy a satellite in space. Indeed, there is “no fundamental difference” between the missiles used in each application, says Ray Williamson of the Secure World Foundation (SWF) in Washington DC.

[…]

Other double-edged swords are satellites designed to autonomously navigate their way to the vicinity of another satellite in space, a technology that the US demonstrated by flying a mission called XSS-11 in 2005.

A country could use such technology to inspect and repair one of its own malfunctioning satellites or to grab it and drag it into the atmosphere to dispose of it without adding to space junk. But the technology could also be used to interfere with or damage another country’s satellite, says Brian Weeden of SWF. “If you can remove a piece of debris from orbit, then if you really wanted to you could probably remove an active satellite maliciously,” he says. “The rendezvous technology is spreading to a lot of places, because people are seeing economic incentive in on-orbit servicing.”

So, how to prevent warfare in orbit? Call in the lawyers and policy wonks!

“I think the key is in trying to constrain behaviours rather than capabilities, because the capabilities are not going to be constrained,” says Krepon. So even if missile interceptors themselves remain legal, an agreement could outlaw their use in tests that destroy satellites.

To deal with the issue of malicious satellites with autonomous rendezvous technology, spacefaring nations might agree to a code of conduct requiring a country to provide advance notice if it expects one of its satellites to closely approach one belonging to another country.

Lots of sensible and noble thinking going on there… but as with all such agreements, the end result is rather dependent on there being no nation-state (or corporation, or other entity) that’s willing to risk international opprobrium by breaking the rules (O HAI, North Korea!). It’s not too big a deal at the moment, perhaps, but if (as seems likely) we start finding good ways to get valuable resources from beyond the gravity well, the economic incentives for playing it fast and loose in Satellite Town will become a whole lot stronger. (Always assuming, of course, that more immediate and mundane economic concerns don’t distract us from peering at the stars from our vantage point in the gutter, so to speak.)

Also worth remembering that there is a genuine need for destructive intervention in orbit; remember us mentioning the rogue zombiesat that no one could switch off? Still wandering about up there, apparently.


Zombiesat!

Paul Raven @ 05-05-2010

The undead really are everywhere at the moment – even up in orbit. Zombiesat is the delightful (and, one assumes, largely unofficial) term for the state of defunct communications satellite Galaxy 15, which has recently stopped responding to control commands, and is now shambling toward the orbits of other (still-functional, and presumably expensive) comsats

… though probably not in search of brains. Even so, if you can’t get a sort of flippant but fun Charlie-Stross-meets-Ben-Bova story out of this one, you’re probably not trying.


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