Rogue (satellite) hunter

Paul Raven @ 13-10-2009

Things are going to get a little busier up in geostationary orbit… not only are there destined to be an increasing number of broken satellites cluttering up this important orbital region, but soon there’ll be little robot repair bots flying around up there trying to fix them (or push them out of the way):

Their robots will dock with failing satellites to carry out repairs or push them into “graveyard orbits”, freeing vital space in geostationary orbit. This is the narrow band 22,000 miles above the Earth in which orbiting objects appear fixed at the same point. More than 200 dead satellites litter this orbit. Within 10 years that number could increase fivefold, the International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety has warned.

Klaus Landzettel, head of space robotics at DLR, said engineering advances, including the development of machines that can withstand temperatures ranging from -170C (-274F) to 200C (392F), meant that the German robots will be “ready to be used on any satellite, whether it’s designed to be docked or not”.

Hellooooo, orbital commercial warfare! Rival communications company squeezing you out in a particular region? Not any longer – not once their sat takes an unscheduled trip to the Lagrange point!


Send Uncle Warren money for a death ray… or maybe this other guy

Paul Raven @ 09-10-2009

TubeSatSo, d’you remember us mentioning the TubeSat company back in summer? Y’know, the outfit from whom you can buy a one-shot tubular satellite from for only US$8,000 the people at H+ Magazine gave them a good grilling last month, too.

Well, Warren Ellis certainly noticed, and he’s now in this month’s issue of Wired UK, begging for money with which to launch his own death ray.

So if you fancy arming the High Curmudgeon of comics with Terrible Implements of Space-borne Pain and Death, you know what to do – though I dare say he’d just as rather you bought some of his books. If, however, you’d rather fund a slightly more peaceful TubeSat deployment, you might be interested in taking a look at Drake Pool’s “Space Now” Kickstarter project.

Drake emailed earlier this week to say that he spotted the TubeSat story here at Futurismic a few months back, and it inspired him to get a project together. Not surprisingly, he can’t just rustle up eight grand out of nowhere, so he’s doing a crowdsourced microfunding drive whereby you can buy small chunks of the available payload space. And he doesn’t really mind what you do with it, though he suggests using the capability to broadcast a signal to a particular geographical section of the planet:

… in polar orbit the satellite will cover a vast amount of the earth’s surface. This means you will be able to broadcast your message to a geographically relevant region of the planet. With the power of mathematics, we can determine where the satellite will be at a given time. Think of the possibilities!

  • Say hello to your friend in Sweden!
  • Play 80s speed metal for people in Australia!
  • Send your PGP key to Spies in China!

I’m sure there is hundreds of things you can do with this. I can’t wait to see.

I’m sure playing 80s speed metal at people who aren’t expecting it qualifies as a “cruel and unusual punishment”in some countries… but hey, that’s your lookout. Drake suggests you could also send very small objects up on the satellite, so if there’s somethign lurking around the house (or even your body) that you feel deserves to go out in the ultimate blaze of glory and burn up on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, dig it out and get clicking.

Whether you decide to invest or not, kudos to Drake for going that one step further than the rest of us who just thought “wow, what could you do with one of those?” and forgot about it. That’s the entreprenurial spirit, right there. 🙂


Your own satellite aloft for $8,000

Paul Raven @ 03-08-2009

TubeSatIf SpaceX are out of your budget range, and you’re not willing to wait for laser propulsion to mature to commercially viable levels, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you were bang out of affordable options for launching your own satellite into orbit.

Not so – thanks to Interorbital Systems, you can buy a TubeSat 750-gram microsatellite and launch space for it on one of the company’s Neptune rockets… for just $8,000.

Since the TubeSats are placed into self-decaying orbits 310 kilometers (192 miles) above the Earth’s surface, they do not contribute to any long-term build-up of orbital debris. After a few weeks of operation, they will safely re-enter the atmosphere and burn-up. TubeSats are designed to be orbit-friendly.  Launches are expected to begin in the fourth quarter of 2010.

[…]

Each TubeSat kit includes the satellite’s structural components, safety hardware, solar panels, batteries, power management hardware and software,  transceiver, antennas, microcomputer, and the required programming tools. With these components alone, the builder can construct a satellite that puts out enough power to be picked up on the ground by a hand-held HAM radio receiver. Simple applications include broadcasting a repeating message from orbit or programming the satellite to function as a private orbital HAM radio relay station.

Sounds pretty limited in scope, doesn’t it? But then so do many generic technology platforms, right up until the point where hackers and other inventive types start testing their limits… and $8,000 isn’t a completely unreachable investment for a small clade of geeks with a big idea, or for an organisation with less savoury motives. If nothing else, we may see some sort of orbital-broadcast pirate radio revival… [via SlashDot; image courtesy Interorbital Systems]


Eye in the sky – commercial satellites trace Sudanese arms purchases

Paul Raven @ 08-07-2009

Europe seen from space at nightWell, maybe ubiquitous global surveillance isn’t all bad. Remember that big load of tanks and armaments that Somalian pirates scored from a Ukranian cargo ship and subsequently ransomed back? Well, two magazine reporters used commercial imaging satellites to chase down their final destination, proving in the process that they were en route to the breakaway government of South Sudan:

Images captured by DigitalGlobe satellites in March 2009 showed 33 tanks parked at Kahawa Barracks northeast of Nairobi. In parallel, satellite imagery captured from southern Sudan showed tracked vehicles, parked under camouflage, at a Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) compound northeast of Juba, the capital of South Sudan. Jane’s observed that SPLA attempts to conceal the location “were deliberate and masterful, but dimensional analysis, tracked-vehicle scarring and the staging of three vehicles in a tactical perimeter established the concealed vehicles as tanks.”

It’s not particularly good news – governments tooling up for nasty regional conflicts never is – but it’s the sort of news we’re better off having than not. Maybe the UN should be funding more similar satellites so as to keep an eye on governments who are somewhat economical with the truth about their military build-ups? [image by woodleywonderworks]

Maybe we could use them to keep Obama and Medvedev honest with regards to their nuclear disarmament agreement… provided the whole thing isn’t a carefully orchestrated publicity play in the first place, natch.


GPS FAIL?

Paul Raven @ 20-05-2009

lost personGot a GPS in your car? Well, I hope you’ve not become too reliant on it and totally lost the ability to use old-fashioned road maps, because GPS service could start getting patchy next year, when the ageing satellites that make up the system’s infrastructure start falling out of orbit before their replacements can be set up.

Seems like someone’s been blowin’ the boondoggle blues and letting the maintenance schedule slip behind:

The warning centres on the network of GPS satellites that constantly orbit the planet and beam signals back to the ground that help pinpoint your position on the Earth’s surface.

The satellites are overseen by the US Air Force, which has maintained the GPS network since the early 1990s. According to a study by the US government accountability office (GAO), mismanagement and a lack of investment means that some of the crucial GPS satellites could begin to fail as early as next year.

“It is uncertain whether the Air Force will be able to acquire new satellites in time to maintain current GPS service without interruption,” said the report, presented to Congress. “If not, some military operations and some civilian users could be adversely affected.”

The report says that Air Force officials have failed to execute the necessary steps to keep the system running smoothly.

Ouch. As pointed out in the Guardian article, it’s highly unlikely that the USAF will let the system degrade totally – it’s too useful, not just to them but to a lot of people the world over – but just as we have to accept with other ubiquitous services like Google, outages may occur, and there’ll be no one to complain to; it’s all there in the small print, man. [image by Larsz]

That said, it’s a free market, and you can always shop around for alternatives – apparently Russia, China and India are all working on their own equivalent systems, which is probably even more upsetting to the USAF than the possibility of flakey service from their own kit.


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