Tag Archives: unmanned space vehicle

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

The Space Belongs to Drones

high altitude platform image from wikipedia

Zephyr– high-altitude “pseudo-satellite” ( HAPS) —  is actually an unmanned, ultra-light, solar-powered, propeller-driven aircraft. But it is designed, just as some satellites are, to hover indefinitely over the same part of the world. With a 23-metre wingspan and a weight of only 50kg, it is fragile and must remain above the ravages of the weather and the jet stream both by day and by night. It therefore flies at an altitude of around 21km (70,000 feet) during daylight hours, and then glides slowly down to around 15km when the sun is unavailable to keep it aloft….

The main uses for satellites are observation and communication. Both are appealing markets for HAPS. Hovering drones could act as relays for telephone calls and internet traffic in places that do not have good enough infrastructure on the ground. And there is never a shortage of customers who would like to snoop on various parts of the Earth’s surface, whether for commercial or military reasons.

By satellite, such snooping is done from an altitude of about 800km. Zephyr flies at one-fortieth of that, so the optics its needs to take pictures are far less demanding. (Just as well, of course, for it is unlikely to be able to carry a huge payload.)

Airbus is not alone in the HAPS game. Google and Facebook are involved as well—and with similar customers in mind—though Google will also be its own customer, since keeping its Google Earth imagery up to date is a demanding task. Paul Brooks, spokesman for Airbus’s HAPS programme, says he does not see these firms as competitors, but rather as collaborators in proving the idea of endurance flight and promoting the changes in regulations needed to permit its safe use. Once this has happened, and the world’s aviation authorities have agreed common operating standards, HAPS should prove a cheap and reliable alternative to blasting things into orbit.

Excerpts, Pseudo-satellites: The west wind blows afresh, Economist, Aug. 30, 2014

Just Hit Seeme; the new military satellites of DARPA

Seeme Program Image from DARPA website

The Seeme Program from DARPA website:

DARPA’s SeeMe (Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements) program aims to give mobile individual US warfighters access to on-demand, space-based tactical information in remote and beyond- line-of-sight conditions. If successful, SeeMe will provide small squads and individual teams the ability to receive timely imagery of their specific overseas location directly from a small satellite with the press of a button — something that’s currently not possible from military or commercial satellites.

The program seeks to develop a constellation of small “disposable” satellites, at a fraction of the cost of airborne systems, enabling deployed warfighters overseas to hit ‘see me’ on existing handheld devices to receive a satellite image of their precise location within 90 minutes. DARPA plans SeeMe to be an adjunct to unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology, which provides local and regional very-high resolution coverage but cannot cover extended areas without frequent refueling. SeeMe aims to support warfighters in multiple deployed overseas locations simultaneously with no logistics or maintenance costs beyond the warfighters’ handheld devices.

The SeeMe constellation may consist of some two-dozen satellites, each lasting 60-90 days in a very low-earth orbit before de-orbiting and completely burning up, leaving no space debris and causing no re-entry hazard. The program may leverage DARPA’s Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) program, which is developing an aircraft-based satellite launch platform for payloads on the order of 100 lbs. ALASA seeks to provide low-cost, rapid launch of small satellites into any required orbit, a capability not possible today from fixed ground launch sites.

From the DARPA Website

Raytheon Company was awarded a $1.5 million Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) contract for phase one of the agency’s Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements (SeeMe) program. During the next nine months, the company will complete the design for small satellites to enhance warfighter situational awareness in the battlespace.  Raython News Release, Dec. 13, 2012

The “Mystery” of X-37B

Very few people know the purpose behind the Air Force’s X-37B, even while it continues to orbit close to a Chinese space lab.The military’s mysterious, experimental unmanned space plane is doing such a good job that its mission has been extended indefinitely–if only anyone knew what its mission was.  Details on the mission involving the X-37B are virtually nonexistent. The official U.S. Air Force fact sheet says the vehicle is being used as an “experimental test program to demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the U.S. Air Force.”

In November, the Air Force announced that the X-37B’s mission was being extended beyond its planned 270 days. At a breakfast with reporters Thursday, General William Shelton, head of the Air Force Space Command, said the mission, whatever it is, has been extended indefinitely.”We don’t have an exact re-entry date for it, but we’ve had a successful mission and we’re very happy with its performance,” he said. “That vehicle is performing a great service.”

Asked to give adjectives for the X-37B, he offered up “spectacular,” and “game-changing.”  In January, Spaceflight magazine reported that the vehicle is closely following the orbit of China’s spacelab, Tiangong-1, leading the magazine to suspect that the X-37B is spying on that satellite.  “Space-to-space surveillance is a whole new ball game made possible by a finessed group of sensors and sensor suites, which we think the X-37B may be using to maintain a close watch on China’s nascent space station,” Spaceflight editor David Baker told the BBC in January. China is expected to send manned missions to Tiangong-1 later this year.Other experts have refuted Baker’s claims, speculating that the X-37B could be used to covertly deploy smaller satellites, while conspiracy theorists have wondered if the X-37B could deliver weapons from space.

Here’s what is known about the X-37B: The 29-foot ship was built in a Huntington Beach, Calif., lab by Boeing. It looks like a miniature, solar-powered version of a space shuttle, and it’s the second “orbital test vehicle” the military has launched into space–the first was launched in 2010. The Air Force calls it the “newest and most advanced re-entry spacecraft,” and it has the ability to land autonomously. Technologies being tested “include advanced guidance, navigation and control, thermal protection systems, avionics, high temperature structures and seals, conformal reusable insulation, lightweight electromechanical flight systems, and autonomous orbital flight, reentry and landing.”

Beyond that, the X-37B has been shrouded in secrecy–from its mission to its budget. Thursday, Shelton repeatedly dodged questions about what the military is up to with the ship.”I think there’s a good reason to keep [the budget of the X-37B] as quiet as we possibly can,” he said. “If you reveal budgets, you sometimes reveal the capabilities, the amount of technology inserted into a program. It’s a good, strategic national security decision

Jason Koebler, Military’s Secret ‘Space Plane’ Mission Extended Indefinitely: Very few people know the purpose behind the Air Force’s X-37B, even while it continues to orbit close to a Chinese space lab,chicagotribune.com, May 26, 2012