Archive for July, 2006

The Birds and The Bees Meets the Mile High Club

Monday, July 24th, 2006

Biology and space flight have been closely intertwined ever since the Soviets first launched Laika into orbit in November of 1957. The unique environment of space presents an incredible laboratory environment for biologists to study biological processes, and literally thousands of experiments have been undertaken in the last 50 years.

Now the Chinese government, following in Mendel’s footsteps, is taking genetic and biological research in space one step further — launching the country’s first seed satellite — specifically designed for seed breeding– this coming September:

Shijian-8 is expected to carry at least 2,000 varieties of plant seeds in nine categories, including grains, cash crops and forage plants, as well as seeds of fungi and molecular biomaterials that have been sequenced.

Sun Laiyan, chief of the China National Space Administration, said the "seed satellite" will enable scientists to try and cultivate high-yield and high-quality plant varieties.

Exposed to special environment such as cosmic radiation and micro-gravity, some seeds will mutate to such an extent that they may produce much higher yield and improved quality, said Sun.

Space experts said 40 per cent of mutated space seeds can be used in space breeding experiments.

Since 1987, nine Chinese satellites and several of China’s six Shenzhou spacecraft have carried seeds for experiments and a number of new species of plant seeds have been bred in space, but never before has the country launched a satellite exclusively for seed breeding.

Space-bred seeds are big business:

Liu Luxiang, director of the Centre for Space Breeding under the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, said that between 2001 and 2004, space-bred rice and wheat varieties developed by his centre had been planted in about 566,600 hectares, producing an additional 340,000 tons of grain.

Experiments have shown that the vitamin content of vegetables grown from space seeds is 281.5 per cent of that of ordinary vegetables; and microelements of ferrum, zinc and carotene are also higher than normal.

The planting of space tomatoes and green peppers in Southwest China’s Sichuan Province, which started in 1999, has raised average yield by 10 to 20 per cent, with the fruits bigger and of better quality, according to earlier newspaper reports.

Space tomatoes! But are they organic?

DIY Friday: Disguise Your Dish

Friday, July 21st, 2006

Let’s face it: no matter how cool it may be to have a satellite dish, they make terrible lawn ornaments. Only the most hardy space nut finds the local neighborhood array a thing of beauty– and many homeowners associations have introduced covenants prohibiting the use of large dishes.

But for $900 bucks or so, Clearsat has a DIY solution that will please those who don’t like looking at your dish:

Most Home Owners Associations (HOA’s) have agreed that if the dish is adequately disguised, they will allow it. The ClearSat Umbrella Style Dish Cover will comply with most reasonable HOA’s by covering both the front and back, and when coupled with a set of chairs and table, can actually function as a patio set.

One or two persons can install the umbrella cover in about 15 minutes. It does not require any drilling or modification to the dish whatsoever. Once the fiberglass rods are inserted between the hub and end socket, the cover springs into shape. You simply rest the end sockets on the edge of the dish and zip up the back panels.

The shade provided is not to be overlooked as an added benefit — especially this week, when most of North America is blistering under a scorching heat wave. 



Looking for the Killer WiMAX App

Friday, July 21st, 2006

Rumors have been going on for months about the two big U.S. satellite TV providers (DirecTV and EchoStar) merging. The buzz grew louder earlier this week after the Los Angeles Times quoted EchoStar CEO Charlie Ergen at the Allen & Company annual media-mogul-fest in Sun Valley, Idaho saying that combining the two largest satellite TV providers could save $3 billion in expenses.

The comment set off a renewed flurry of press speculation of a potential merger. The Rocky Mountain News (EchoStar is based in Englewood, CO) reported yesterday:

EchoStar Communications Corp. shares were raised to "buy" from "sell" at Citigroup Inc. because of an increased chance that the No. 2 satellite television provider may combine with rival DirecTV Group Inc….

"It reflects our belief that there is a greater chance that EchoStar and DirecTV may attempt to merge," Bazinet said
of his rating change.

A merger is more likely since EchoStar and DirecTV formed a joint venture to bid for wireless spectrum in an auction next month, Bazinet said in the note. Satellite TV companies are also facing rising competition from cable companies such as Comcast Corp. as well as from telephone companies such as Verizon Communications Inc. that are starting TV services.

Propelling the talk is the growing awareness that IPTV will fundamentally change the media landscape and the balance of power between satcom- and telco-delivered content, as well as growing evidence that Rubert Murdoch’s News Corp is set to receive approval for a project that could create a national WiMAX network. As The Hollywood Reporter writes:

Approval is imminent for the project that could take at least two years and $2 billion, providing News Corp. and DirecTV a valuable wireless interactive broadband loop with consumers to directly sell content, advertising, goods and services. WiMax is a wireless a broadband technology often referred to as "WiFi on steroids" with a much wider 30-mile range than the more limited access offered by WiFi services. WiMax, which is short for World Interoperability for Microwave Access, also promises to provide more security and speed than traditional wireless connections.

"If we can pull something off … there is no reason why that shouldn’t link in with everything," News Corp. chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch said in a recent interview….

High-level sources say the unprecedented undertaking will involve strategic equity partners that bring WiMax spectrum, equipment and other expertise to the mix. In one of the most likely scenarios, News Corp. and DirecTV have been in advanced talks with Clearwire Corp., a WiMax venture of Craig McCaw, in which chipmaker Intel Corp. and equipment manufacturer Motorola Inc. recently invested $900 million.
McCaw has been amassing one of the largest stables of licensed radio spectrum to build his own national wireless WiMax network. Intel, which has a vested interest in the commercial success of WiMax, particularly for PC users, has been one of Clearwire’s partners from the start….

Some sources say that EchoStar could join DirecTV in providing a united domestic satellite-backed WiMax alternative to cable and to telephone competitors such as Verizon, Cingular and Sprint Nextel. Sprint Nextel is working with a consortium of cable operators including Comcast and Time Warner to assist them with a much-needed wireless out-of-home extension.

Still, not everyone is convinced that the coming WiMAX wars will lead to consolidation on the SatCom side. Al Lewis in the Denver Post says that "anybody who believes EchoStar and DirecTV are about to merge should remember the forgotten tome "The Essential Guide to the Echo- Star/DirecTV Deal:"

Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch had his team of lobbyists canvass Washington with this 123-page diatribe in 2002.

It argued, in exhaustive detail, why Douglas County-based EchoStar should not be allowed to acquire DirecTV from Hughes Electronics….

In October 2002, the Federal Communications Commission [sic– it was the FTC] blocked Ergen’s deal. The Justice Department blocked it too.

Then Murdoch’s News Corp. acquired a controlling stake in DirecTV for $6.6 billion…

And now – four years later – there are continuing rumors that DirecTV, the nation’s No. 1 satellite-TV provider, will acquire EchoStar, No. 2.

EchoStar and DirecTV are working on several joint projects that involve the two-way transmission of voice, video and data. But if Murdoch were to bid on EchoStar, he’d have to argue against his previous arguments. Or he’d have to argue that the satellite-TV business has changed significantly over the past four years.

The results of the August auctions for additional WiFi spectrum will give observers a clue as to who is coming out ahead in the inevitable rush to bring WiMAX to market. And whether the DirecTV and EchoStar rumors are just rumors or not, we’d expect to hear more talk of consolidation on both sides as emerging technology further alters the old divisions between cable, satcom and telcos.


Pirates of the World Cup

Thursday, July 20th, 2006


The recently completed FIFA World Cup had many memorable moments. Some teams advanced further than expected, while some just fell to pieces. Win or lose, most people agree it was an achievement for a national team to make the trip to Germany to begin with – especially if you consider two years elapse before the qualifying rounds are completed.Zidane gets carded  

Some might remember how entire countries became “interupted” during teams’ matches. The people at eBay will never forget how online traffic and transactions slowed down when a match began, then resumed afterwards. Others will remember hearing rumors of less-developed countries’ plumbing systems losing all water pressure once a match’s first half ended.

Apparently, some bars in Hong Kong forgot it was against the law to broadcast matches without paying for them — and the folks at CASBAA are giving notice and are out to teach these pirates a lesson:  


“Although the industry reached out to the Hong Kong food and beverage industry in the run up to the World Cup, stating that pay-TV signal theft is not to be tolerated by government or industry, many bars blatantly screened unlicensed pay-TV broadcasts. We have had no choice but to take the matter to the courts,” said Simon Twiston Davies, Chief Executive Officer of CASBAA.

As an indication of the pay-TV industry’s commitment to the Hong Kong sporting community, Mr Twiston Davies noted that the plaintiffs and CASBAA would donate any proceeds received from the defendants after costs to local sports charities. CASBAA believes it is important to return the funds to where they belong – the support of sports development.

“The issue of intellectual property rights protection requires concerted efforts on all fronts between the government, industry, bar and club owners and the general public, especially as we run up to other global events such as the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and recurring high value events such as the English Premier League,” continued Mr. Twiston Davies. “The sports leagues who stage major events need a fair return on their investment.”


Only licensed pay-TV operators such as Hong Kong Cable, now Television and TVB Pay Vision are authorized to provide such programming. These pirate bars were receiving signals from satellites providing service to other countries.

Spammers and other nasties were at it during the World Cup, too. Hopefully, they’ll soon be forgotten or busted (preferred).

Happy Anniversaries

Thursday, July 20th, 2006

Pop quiz. Where were you 37 years ago today? Where were you 30 years ago today?

Moon Walk

In the first case, I’m not sure where I was, but I was probably learning how to sit up. Meanwhile Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were becoming the first humans to walk on the moon.

Viking I

Seven years later, I was walking, talking, and probably getting underfoot around the house when Viking I became the first spacecraft to land safely on another planet.

Via Respectful Insolence and MetaFilter.

Might As Well (Not) Jump

Thursday, July 20th, 2006

Remember that urban legend about how you can save your life in a plummeting elevator by jumping just before impact? According to the experts, it doesn’t work. But that doesn’t seem to be stopping some people from trying a similar trick to stop global warming today, on World Jump Day.

Apparently the jump was scheduled for 11:39:13 Greenwich Mean Time, so if you’re reading this you’ve already missed it, which is fine because apparently it’s a hoax.

But just for laughs, here’s how it’s supposed to work.

World Jump Day

Hans Peter Niesward, from the Department of Gravitationsphysik at the ISA in Munich, says we can stop global warming in one fell swoop — or, more accurately, in one big jump.

The slightly disheveled professor states his case on, an Internet site created to recruit 600,000,000 people to jump simultaneously on July 20 at 11:39:13 GMT in an effort to shift Earth’s position.

Niesward claims that on this day "Earth occupies one of the most fragile positions in its orbits for the last 100 years." According to the site, the shift in orbit will "stop global warming, extend daytime hours and create a more homogeneous climate."

And according to Phil, here’s why it wouldn’t work.

First, there’s the problem with mass. 600 million people sounds like a lot, but the Earth is big. Really, really big. Let’s say each person weighs 100 kilograms to make it easy (that’s 220 pounds, so we’re already being generous). 600 million people times 100 kg = 60 billion kilograms. That’s a lot of meat! But the Earth masses 6 x 1024 kg, or 6,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 kg. In other words, the Earth weighs (well, masses) 100 trillion times the total mass of all those people!

…The second problem is one of placement. Even if 600 million people could move the Earth, they’re located all over the world. The Earth being a ball, that means that people in, say, northern Spain will be perfectly canceled out by people in New Zealand. You’d need to get all 600 million people in one place on Earth to do this. Not only that, you’d have to find the right place so that when the Earth moved, it went in the right direction. Global warming won’t be stopped if you accidentally move the Earth closer to the Sun. That also means timing the jump perfectly, since the Earth rotates.

…Finally, there is another basic reason this won’t work, even if everyone on the Earth weighed 100 trillion times as much. The problem is that we’re a closed system. If we get everyone to jump up, they’ll fall back down. So even if we were able to push the Earth in one direction by jumping, when we come back down we’ll move the Earth back to where it was!

Are there more reasons it wouldn’t work? Anyway, it sounds like fun, and if my timing hadn’t been off I might have joined in. The physics of it all are a bit beyond me, and I’m willing to bet that’s true of most people. So, if I’d jumped how many people would have been jumping with me?

Return of the Flying Robots

Wednesday, July 19th, 2006

Remember those flying robots I mentioned earlier, and how I said they Europe has them already? Well, I didn’t know how right I actually was. Turns out Britain is shelling out big bucks to get a fleet of flying robots off the ground.

The British government plans to spend 16 million pounds–about $28 million–on the development of robot aircraft that could be used for police and fire surveillance.

The government said that development of unstaffed craft could "revolutionize" police and fire surveillance, as well as powerline and pipeline inspections–all of which currently rely on human-flown aircraft.

The investment will support a $57.9 million project called Autonomous Systems Technology Related Airborne Evaluation and Assessment, or Astraea.

No word on whether these flying robots — unmanned aerial vehicles — will be outfitted with tentacles or not.

GeneBox on Board

Wednesday, July 19th, 2006

It turns out that private spacecraft launch I blogged last week wasn’t exclusively a private entrepreneurial affair. NASA was along for the ride in Bigelow’s balloon, in the form of an experimental micro-lab the agency calls a GeneBox.


The space agency sent up a so-called GeneBox, a micro-lab, with Bigelow Aerospace’s Genesis I last week, piggybaggying a ride on the commercial spaceflight test.

The Genebox is about the size of a shoebox and is attached to the internal structure of Bigelow’s 14-foot inflatable spacecraft, which the company launched from Russia as a demonstration of an affordable human space complex it hopes to launch by 2015. NASA’s GeneBox contains a miniature laboratory of sensors and optical systems that can detect proteins and specific genetic activity. In two weeks, the Bigelow ground control station in Las Vegas, Nev., will activate the GeneBox, and once its tests are complete, data from GeneBox will be relayed to the ground for analysis.

According to NASA, GeneBox will analyze how the near weightlessness of space affects genes in microscopic cells and other small life forms. "During this mission, we are verifying this new, small spacecraft’s systems and our procedures," John Hines, the GeneBox project manager at NASA Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, said in a statement.

More on XM v. RIAA

Wednesday, July 19th, 2006

A while back I posted about the RIAA lawsuit against XM Radio, claiming $150,000 in damages for each song that XM’s Inno device downloads from its satellite service. Well, now it looks like XM is stepping up and asking a federal judge to toss the case out of court.

XM Radio

XM Satellite Radio asked a U.S. federal judge Monday to throw out a copyright lawsuit by the recording industry over the company’s new iPod-like device that can store up to 50 hours of music.

XM Satellite said the 1992 Home Recording Audio act protects it from being sued over its $400 (U.S.) handheld "Inno" device. The law bans some copyright claims against equipment makers and consumers who make digital music recordings for private use.

… XM Satellite has compared its new device to a high-tech videocassette recorder, which consumers can legally use to record programs for their personal use. It also noted that songs stored on the device from its broadcasts can’t be copied and can only be played for as long as a customer subscribes to its service.

Sounds familiar. I’m probably giving away my age by saying this, but when I was a kid I spent lots of time listening to the radio, and when a favorite song of mine came on I’d hit the "Record" button on the cassette player, and record songs until I had a tape full of my favorites (though minus the beginning of the song in some cases). XM’s player sounds a lot like that. And, as I noted before, if XM subscribers want to have their favorite songs on other devices they can download them from pay services like Napster or iTunes, thus effectively paying for the songs twice — once as XM subscribers and again to download from a pay service.

Of course XM may be seeking to get the case behind them, since they’re about to launch Oprah’s radio show in August, but also because the competition is catching up with them. The Globe & Mail article notes that XM has balked at notion of having to buy expensive distribution licenses from the recording industry, but that Sirius has agreed to pay for those licenses to cover its own similar players. Meanwhile the buzz in the business world is that Sirius is closing in on XM’s subscriber numbers and that XM CEO Hugh Panero may have to work to get the buzz back in XM’s favor.

WaPo columnist Steve Pearlstein has more on the case of XM v. RIAA, and answered questions this morning in an online chat.

Space Chickens

Tuesday, July 18th, 2006

With all the talk about Katie Couric moving to CBS to anchor their evening news, which will be promoted on 35 millions eggs, I couldn’t help but notice a news item regarding Congressional testimony asking for help with some COOP.  Get ready for egg jokes.

But in this case, COOP stands for Continuity of Operations Planning and the testimony was all about satellite communications as the truly diverse communications path, with the unique ability to link remote locations to the Internet or other private or government network. Hey, if this helps bring down the cost of equipment, I’m all for it. Generally, the U.S. government prefers satcom for many applications, so maybe this is a good approach for  companies such as Hughes and Spacenet.

Now, back to the space chickens. The closest thing we’ve got are the endangered Attwater’s Prairie Chickens, many of whom were relocated to NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Once common in Texas, these birds are a part of indigenous culture. They’re the closest thing we have to space chickens, although they did appear as protagonists in the Muppets movie “Pigs in Space” in 1983. However, one should note the Chinese had the first (somebody had fun with this story).