Category Archives: Space

Space Junk Removal

RemoveDebris

The first experiment designed to demonstrate active space-debris removal in orbit reached the International Space Station on April 4, 2018 aboard SpaceX’s Dragon capsule.    The RemoveDebris experiment, designed by a team led by the University of Surrey in the U.K. as part of a 15.2 million euro ($18.7 million), European Union (EU)-funded project, is about the size of a washing machine and weighs 100 kilograms (220 lbs.).

It carries three types of technologies for space-debris capture and active deorbiting — a harpoon, a net and a drag sail. It will also test a lidar system for optical navigation that will help future chaser spacecraft better aim at their targets.

“For this mission, we are actually ejecting our own little cubesats,” Jason Forshaw, RemoveDebris project manager at the University of Surrey, said last year. “These little cubesats are maybe the size of a shoebox, very small. We eject them and capture them with the net.”

“We are testing these four technologies in this demonstration mission, and we want to see whether they work or not,” said Forshaw, referring to the harpoon, net, drag sail and lidar. “If they work, then that would be fantastic, and then these technologies could be used on future missions.”

Some 40,000 space objects — the vast majority of which are defunct satellites and fragments from collisions — are currently being tracked by the U.S.-based Space Surveillance Network. It is estimated that some 7,600 metric tons (8,378 tons) of junk hurtle around the Earth at speeds of up to 17,500 mph, threatening functioning spacecraft, according to a statement from the University of Surrey….

[T]hese same means of capturing debris could easily be used to destroy or otherwise interfere with functional orbital assets [i.e, a functional satellite], most of which are not equipped with a rapid means of evasion or any other form of defense. To a harpoon, net, or drag sail, there is little difference between an out of control hunk of Soviet era rocket and an operational communications or reconnaissance satellite.

Excerpts from BY ALEX HOLLINGS, SpaceX delivers prototype space junk collector to the ISS, but the experiment has serious defense implications, SOFREP.com, Apr. 6, 2018;This Space Junk Removal Experiment Will Harpoon & Net Debris in Orbit, Space.com, Apr. 6, 2018

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The First to Shoot…from Space

image from NASA.

North Korea’s preparations to launch a more advanced reconnaissance satellite with a high-resolution scanning capability threaten to push Asia’s space race deeper into the military theater.  The Kwangmyongsong-5 Earth-exploration satellite, likely to be packaged with a separate communications satellite, will technically allow North Korea to transmit data down to the ground for the first time, thus offering real-time intelligence for potential ballistic-missile strikes.

This is well short of the technological capacity needed to deploy orbital weapon systems, but will cause some unease among Asian power-brokers China, Japan and India as they pour money into the last strategic frontier of outer space.  Space programs in Asia have largely been driven by competition for the US$300 billion global commercial transponders market, which is expected to double by 2030 if demand holds.

A shift toward miniature satellites of less than 20 kilograms, mostly used by governments and smaller companies, has drawn nations as diverse as Singapore, Pakistan, Vietnam and South Korea into a field led by Japan and China, with India a more recent player.

Japan placed two satellites in different orbits for the first time on December 2017, displaying a technical edge aimed at reducing launch costs for commercial clients. India announced this week that it had successfully tested a GSLV Mark III rocket that can lift a 4-ton satellite into orbit. In 2017, it managed to launch 104 satellites of varying sizes in just one operation. China has loftier ambitions, including a lunar landing some time in 2018, after sending a roving module down a steep crater on the moon in 2013. About 40 Chinese launches are likely in 2018, mainly to boost communications.  India and Japan are both locked in undeclared space races with China that go well beyond commercial rivalries and have muddied the debate over North Korea’s shadowy aims….

“Militarization” refers to any systems that enhance the capability of forces in a conventional setting, such as intelligence, communications and surveillance. “Weaponization” is the physical deployment of weapons in outer space or in a ground mode where they can be used to attack and destroy targets in orbit.  The United Nations Treaty on Outer Space prohibits the deployment of weapons of mass destruction in space, but the US has blocked efforts to ban space weapons outright. In 2007, Washington said it would “preserve its rights, capabilities, and freedom of action in space.”

Excerpts from  ALAN BOYD,  Asia’s Space Race Gathers Pace, Asia Times, Jan. 6, 2017

A Vacuum Cleaner for Space

Catching a rogue satellite. image European Space Agency (ESA)

A Singapore-based venture company aspiring to enter the space business unveiled a life-sized model of a satellite that would retrieve space debris, with which the company plans to conduct a test run in orbit in 2019 and to make commercially viable by 2020.  “Space is filled with trash, and if things continue as they have, space exploration will no longer be sustainable. …

Most orbital debris is old satellites and satellite components. Around 750,000 pieces of space debris at least 1 centimeter in diameter are said to be in near-Earth orbit, and are interfering with countries’ and companies’ efforts to place new satellites. Astroscale’s debris retrieval satellite closes in on dead satellites, and uses magnets to draw them in. The device then enters the atmosphere, bringing the out-of-commission satellite with it, and burns up on re-entry.

For example, in 2009 an out-of-commission Russian military satellite and a satellite launched by a U.S. corporation collided. The International Space Station (ISS) is frequently forced to change course or have its crew members evacuate from their posts. In 2007, China destroyed one of its own satellites with a missile, producing large volumes of orbital shrapnel and triggering international criticism.

Also in 2007, the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) drafted the Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines, which recommends that satellites that are past their usefulness promptly leave their orbits. However, satellites and satellite parts that have already become space debris have uncoordinated trajectories, and because there is no established method of retrieving such litter, various countries and companies have been searching for a solution.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is working on a plan to attach metallic string to space debris, through which it would pass electric currents and use the Earth’s magnetic field to slow down the debris, and then drop them into the atmosphere. Meanwhile, the RIKEN research institute announced in 2015 that it had devised a method of using high-intensity lasers to slow down “drifting” litter so that they would hurtle into the atmosphere.  Researchers both within and outside Japan have proposed various other ideas, including making space debris attach to operating satellites and catching space debris with nets.

Company to test space-debris-retrieval satellite in 2019, aim to commercialize by 2020, Mainichi Japan, July 15, 2017

Commercial Experimenting on Space

space robotics

Space News reported on May 17, 2017 that a top Pentagon research official said that satellite servicing offers an opportunity for the government to foster close relationships with industry that allow companies to lead development of new technologies, rather than requiring them to abide by DOD guidelines. DARPA is currently partnering with Space Systems Loral to develop the Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program, and DARPA Tactical Technology Office Director Bradford Tousley said that the arrangement illustrates how the Pentagon can leverage “robust commercial space base” for technology development.

Excerpts from Satellite servicing a chance for industry-first development, DoD official says , Space News, May 17, 2017

Answer Everything: satellites

Built by the Indian Space Research Organisation, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle threw itself into the sky at 3.58am GMT on February 15th, 2017 It took with it a record-breaking 104 satellites—88 of which belonged to a single company, Planet, a remote sensing business based in San Francisco. Planet now has 149 satellites in orbit—enough for it to provide its customers with new moderately detailed images of all the Earth’s land surface every single day.  The satellites Planet makes—it calls them “doves”—measure 10cm by 10cm by 30cm.

Providing daily updated images of the earth is not enough… Processing the images to answer pressing questions: what has changed since yesterday? Is that illegal logging? What does the number of containers in these ports suggest about trade balances? Planet will be providing more such analysis itself, but there are also third parties eager to play. SpaceKnow, a startup which focuses on turning satellite data into analysis the financial community will pay for, has just raised $4m….

Planet is not the only company using small satellites to produce big data; the launch on February 15th also carried up eight ship-tracking satellites owned by Spire, just a couple of streets away from Planet. The companies hope that, as more and more customers come to see the value of an endlessly updated, easily searchable view of the world, insights from satellites will become ever more vital to the data-analysis market. The more normal their wares start to seem, the more spectacular their future may be

Excerpts from  Space Firms: Eyes on Earth ,Economist, Feb. 18, 2017

The Wild West of Fear: how states scare each other in space

image from NASA

It was May 2014 when a small team of American airmen monitoring a Russian satellite launch saw something they had never seen before. An object the team thought was a piece of debris from the launch suddenly came to life.  “The one object that we assumed was a piece of debris started to maneuver in close proximity to the (rocket) booster,” recalled Lt. Gen. David Buck …at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Buck… said the deliberate maneuvers the mystery object made close to the rocket’s booster were a red flag. Getting that close to another object in space is a complex feat, as objects can move as fast as 17,500 miles per hour….[W]hat the US military was witnessing was not debris at all, but instead a satellite with a dangerous capability, one that could allow it to cozy up next to another satellite and potentially destroy it….

The Russian satellite is officially known as Kosmos 2499 but it has been given a more daunting nickname: “kamikaze,” a spacecraft expressly designed to maneuver up close to another satellite to disable or destroy it. In other words, it’s a satellite that could go on the attack.Retired Gen. William Shelton, the former commander of Air Force space command, likened the satellite to a space Trojan horse. “You could have something on orbit that, for all intents and purposes, looks like a communications satellite, when in actuality, it is also a weapon,” said Shelton.

Kosmos 2499 is far from the only threat. In September 2014, just a few months after Kosmos was placed in orbit, Russia launched an additional satellite named Luch with both maneuvering and spying capabilities.  “This satellite has been maneuvering through geosynchronous space … cozying up close to various communications satellites, listening to what traffic is flowing over those,” said Paul Graziani, CEO of civilian satellite tracker Analytical Graphics, Inc. (AGI).
Over the course of a year, Graziani’s team has watched as Luch parked itself next to three US commercial satellites and one European satellite. The Russians flew the satellite close enough to collect both civilian and, possibly, sensitive military information.  Graziani was charged with delivering the bad news to US-owned commercial satellite company Intelsat…

“If the operators of this spacecraft so chose, they could direct it to actually hit another spacecraft,” said Graziani.  Like Kosmos, Luch’s ability to maneuver has the potential to make it into a satellite killer.

 Launched in 2013, the Shiyan, meaning “experiment” in Chinese, was “experimenting” shadowing the smaller satellite, according to AGI. But then something unexpected happened: The smaller satellite repeatedly disappeared and then reappeared on their screens.“We saw the approach, we saw the larger spacecraft come close to the smaller spacecraft, and then we no longer saw the smaller spacecraft,” said Graziani.
The only reasonable explanation, experts say, is that the Shiyan has a robotic arm that was repeatedly grabbing and then releasing its smaller partner.  The Chinese government acknowledged the satellite’s robotic arm, saying the satellite is “mainly used in space debris observation,” according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

But space watchers like Graziani see a more sinister application.  “You could grab and hold of a satellite and maneuver it out of its mission,” said Graziani  If true, it would be a new threatening capability, allowing the Shiyan to essentially kidnap another satellite….

Lasers:  “You can aim a laser at a satellite’s sensor and try to make it hard to see,” said Laura Grego, a scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Like someone shining a flashlight in your eyes.”With power dialed up high that same laser could permanently fry the satellite’s sensor. But “very expensive and important satellites should have shutters” to block this kind of threat, said Grego, who considers these types of activities more of a nuisance than a space attack.

Space drone: Moving further into the realm of science fiction, the US military has developed the first space drone, the X-37BBearing a striking resemblance to the space shuttle, the drone is officially a reusable spacecraft for carrying payloads into space…Its other missions are classified, but the drone’s maneuverability, payload space and ability to stay in orbit for hundreds of days have space watchers and countries like Russia and China wondering whether the X-37B would one day be used as a space fighter jet,

Excerpts from Jim Sciutto and Jennifer Rizzo War in space: Kamikazes, kidnapper satellites and lasers, CNN, Nov. 29, 2016

The Quiet Revolution in Space

Orbits around earth. Black dots indicate geostationary orbit (GEO) Blue color indicates low earth orbit (LEO). Image from wikipedia

National security critically depends on space, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)is focused today on creating the capabilities needed to help make that environment a real-time operational domain, DARPA Director Dr. Arati Prabhakar…

“The questions we ask ourselves at DARPA about the space domain … is what would it take to make the space domain robust for everything that we need militarily and for intelligence, and what would it take to make space a real-time operational domain, which it’s not at all today,” the director said, noting that many other nation-states now are active in orbit and space is a domain where conflict is becoming a real possibility.

Through a national security lens, she added, nothing needed from an intelligence or military perspective can be done effectively without access to space. Something as simple as navigation completely depends on GPS in nearly every part of the world and in every operating regime.

In an era of declining budgets and adversaries’ evolving capabilities, quick, affordable and routine access to space is increasingly critical for national and economic security. Today’s satellite launch systems require scheduling years in advance for a limited inventory of available slots and launches often cost hundreds of millions of dollars each. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency created its Experimental Spaceplane, or XS-1, program to help overcome these challenges and reduce the time to get capabilities to space. DARPA artist-concept graphics  “Because of the demands on launch, from the day you know you have to put an asset on orbit to the time you can plan on a launch today is still unacceptably long,” Prabhakar said.

Commercial capabilities will help, she added, “but if in a time of war we imagine if we could go to space not in a month or next week but tomorrow, think about how that would completely change the calculus for an adversary that’s thinking about [using an antisatellite] weapon to take out one of our satellites

”With that ambition in mind, DARPA is now starting Phase 2 of its Experimental Spaceplane, or XS-1.“It’s a reusable first stage that’s designed to be able to put 3,000 or 5,000 pounds into low earth orbit … at a very low cost point — a few million dollars — but very significantly the objective on the DARPA program is by the end of the program to fly that spacecraft 10 times in 10 days,” Prabhakar said, “something that’s inconceivable with any of the spacecraft we have today.”

A second piece of the puzzle is what can be done in orbit, she added, referring to low earth orbit, or LEO, an orbit around Earth whose altitude is between 99 and 1,200 miles.

“We’re doing some amazing work with geo[synchronous]-robotics and rethinking [geostationary Earth orbit]-architectures once you have an asset that would allow you to extend the life or do inspection or simple repairs at GEO, which is something you can’t do today.  GEO [geostationary orbit]is a stable region of space 22,370 miles from Earth.  And because GEO is a stable environment for machines — but hostile for people because of high radiation levels — DARPA thinks the key technology there is space robotics.  DARPA’s Phoenix program seeks to enable GEO robotics servicing and asset life extension while developing new satellite architectures to reduce the cost of space-based systems.

The program’s goal is to develop and demonstrate technologies that make it possible to inspect and robotically service cooperative space systems in GEO and to validate new satellite assembly architectures. Phoenix has validated the concept that new satellites could be built on orbit by physically aggregating “satlets” in space, according to DARPA.

Satlets are small independent modules that can attach together to create a new low-cost, modular satellite architecture, DARPA says. Satlets incorporate essential satellite functionality — power supplies, movement controls, sensors and others — and share data, power and thermal management capabilities. DARPA now is working to validate the technical concept of satlets in LEO [Low earth orbit an orbit around Earth whose altitude is between 99 and 1,200 miles.]

Excerpts from  Cheryl Pellerin Director: DARPA Space Projects Critical to Shifting Trajectories , US DOD News, Nov. 22, 2016