Archive for October, 2006

Set Your Watches: New Break Through in Atomic Clocks

Monday, October 16th, 2006

"Most technical systems that employ satellites, including GPS technology, make use of atomic clocks; these technologies can now operate much more accurately," thanks to a recent breakthrough in understanding errors in atomic clock technology, ScienceDaily reports:

Andrei Derevianko, Kyle Beloy, and Ulyana Safronova [of the University of Nevada, Reno] sat down six months ago and began work on a calculation that will help the world keep better time….

Associate physics professor Andrei Derevianko and his team isolated and explained a significant portion of the error in atomic clock output….

In its research, the University team was able to isolate and explain a significant portion of the error in atomic clock output. The portion of error that the team studied has now been cut to one-fiftieth of its original size. The team’s research was based solely on calculations, many of which were conducted on high performance computers…

In 2004, an Italian research team found some convincing evidence that suggested that atomic clocks were less accurate then previously thought. This evidence concerned the scientific community and gave the theory behind atomic clocks renewed international attention….

Atomic clock technology is based on the fact that atoms emit a fixed frequency. Lasers, which also have operating frequencies, can be calibrated so that their frequencies match that of a given atom. Since atomic frequencies are constant, syncing a laser with an atom and counting the laser’s oscillations will always provide a steady measurement of time….

The new findings are also paving the way for all kinds of new scientific experimentation. Extremely accurate measurements are required to make estimations about the behaviors of the universe. The extra time-keeping precision will allow scientists to explore hypotheses about the big-bang theory. The improved technology might even be accurate enough to provide evidence related to the controversial theory that universal constants, as in the amount of charge in an electron, are changing.

So how does one tune in to the more accurate atomic clock? Why, with an atomic clock receiver, of course:

A radio system is available in North America set up and operated by NIST – the National Institute of Standards and Technology, located in Fort Collins, Colorado. NIST operates radio station WWVB, which is the station that transmits the time codes. WWVB has high transmitter power (50,000 watts), a very efficient antenna and an extremely low frequency (60,000 Hz). For comparison, a typical AM radio station broadcasts at a frequency of 1,000,000 Hz. The combination of high power and low frequency gives the radio waves from WWVB a lot of bounce, and this single station can therefore cover the entire continental United States plus much of Canada and Central America. The time codes are sent from WWVB using one of the simplest systems possible, and at a very low data rate of one bit per second. The 60,000 Hz signal is always transmitted, but every second it is significantly reduced in power for a period of 0.2, 0.5 or 0.8 seconds: • 0.2 seconds of reduced power means a binary zero • 0.5 seconds of reduced power is a binary one. • 0.8 seconds of reduced power is a separator. The time code is sent in BCD (Binary Coded Decimal) and indicates minutes, hours, day of the year and year, along with information about daylight savings time and leap years. The time is transmitted using 53 bits and 7 separators, and therefore takes 60 seconds to transmit. A clock or watch can contain an extremely small and relatively simple antenna and receiver to decode the information in the signal and set the clock’s time accurately. All that you have to do is set the time zone, and the atomic clock will display the correct time.



Nice Launch: Ariane 5 ECA

Monday, October 16th, 2006

Mission réussie pour Ariane 5 ECA

Dans la nuit du vendredi 13 au samedi 14 octobre 2006, Arianespace a mis en orbite de transfert géostationnaire le satellite DIRECTV 9S pour l’opérateur américain DIRECTV et le satellite OPTUS D1 pour l’opérateur australien OPTUS. Grâce au plateau ASAP 5, le lancement emportait également le réflecteur expérimental LDREX-2 pour l’agence spatiale japonaise JAXA.

Arianespace placed two satellites into geostationary transfer orbit: DIRECTV 9S for the U.S. operator DIRECTV Inc., and OPTUS D1 for the Australian operator OPTUS. The Ariane 5 ECA launcher was also fitted with the ASAP 5 platform, allowing it to deploy the LDREX-2 experimental reflector for the Japanese space agency JAXA.

Provisional parameters at injection of the cryogenic upper stage (ESC-A) were:
Perigee: 249.4 km for a target of 249.5 km (±3)
Apogee: 35,940 km for a target of 35,946 km (±160)
Inclination: 6.98 º for a target of 7.0 degrees (±0.06º)

DIRECTV 9S was built by Space Systems/Loral in Palo Alto, California, and will be positioned at 101 degrees West. Weighing approximately 5,530 kg at liftoff, DIRECTV 9S is fitted with 52 high-power Ku-band transponders and 2 Ka-band transponders. It will provide direct TV broadcasts using digital compression technology. DIRECTV 9S will give American TV viewers a greater choice of broadcast services, while prefiguring tomorrow’s multibeam satellites for multimedia applications. Design life is about 15 years.

OPTUS D1 was integrated by American manufacturer Orbital Sciences Corporation in Dulles, Virginia, based on a Star-2 platform. OPTUS D1 will weigh about 2,300 kg at launch. Positioned at 160 degrees East, it will provide direct TV broadcasts, Internet links, voice and data services for Australia and New Zealand. Its design life is 15 years.

LDREX-2 (Large-scale Deployable Reflector Experiment 2), launched on behalf of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), is a small-sized partial model representing the large deployable antenna to be used on the ETS-8 technology satellite, which will be launched in December 2006.

DIY Friday: Installing C-Band at Home

Friday, October 13th, 2006

So you’ve made the decision to get a C-Band receiver at home, so you can watch (what else?) NASA TV and other free to air channels from around the globe.

Now, you think, it’s DIY Firday — and how the heck do you hook the thing up to your dish? offers a set of standard instructions and diagrams to help you get started. 


There are several places online where you can get C-band receivers and antennas. Sadoun Satellite sales offers the Fortec Star FC6D. Mechtech and RPS Satellite offer several models, as does Global Communications.

What other sources do readers turn to for their antenna and receiver needs? Let us know in the comment threads — or if there are other DIY Friday topics you’d like to see us cover. 

Arianespace to Launch DirecTV Satellite Tomorrow

Thursday, October 12th, 2006

Among those who aren’t suspicious of undertaking major endeavors on Friday the 13th, you can include both Arianespace and DirecTV.

The Ariane 5ECA rocket is scheduled to launch tomorrow afternoon between 4:56 and 5:56 pm, U.S. Eastern time. The launch will take place from the ESA spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.

The launch will service three customers and deploy three satellites: DirecTV’s 9S, Optus’ Optus D1, and JAXA’s LDREX-2.  

The 9S satellite "will be capable of providing up to 54 transponders for high-quality local and national digital video service broadcast into 27 beams. In an alternate configuration, the satellite will be capable of providing up to 44 transponders broadcast into 30 beams."

Want to know what to expect from the launch, second by second? Check out Spaceflight Now’s cool launch cue card

Dust Devils on Mars

Wednesday, October 11th, 2006

This morning we stumbled across this article in the Columbus Dispatch (written under contract by NASA), and we were reminded again of one of the cooler images to come from our solar system in the last few years.

The image is of a dust devil moving across a Martian plain on a hot spring afternoon a year ago:


The image was caught by NASA’s ‘Spirit’ Mars Rover in April, 2005. 

Both rovers (Spirit and Opportunity) have recently been upgraded with new software that enables them to better understand when a dust devil is moving across the martian surface, and to begin snapping pictures when they sense that movement:

NASA’s Space Technology 6 mission, or ST6, had already proven this "artificial intelligence" software in space. ST6 used it to help an Earth-orbiting satellite take pictures of erupting volcanoes on Earth. So NASA knew the software would help Spirit and Opportunity capture images of dust devils.

ST6 is part of NASA’s New Millennium Program, whose job is to test new technologies in space before putting them on NASA missions of discovery.

Other images and video from Mars can be found on NASA’s Mars Exploration Program website. 

Labrador Internet Connections At Risk

Tuesday, October 10th, 2006

Sailing from England with one vessel, the Matthew, on 20 May 1497, John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto) and a crew of 18 reached what some historians now believe was Labrador on 24 June 1497. He went ashore to take possession of the land, exploring the coast for some time and departing on or about the 20th of July.

Upon his return to England, Cabot was well rewarded (a pension of 20 pounds a year), and a patent was written for a new voyage. In 1498, he sailed for America with 5 ships. One of the ships became distressed and diverted to an Irish port. Nothing was ever heard of the other — or John Cabot — ever since.

Will the same happen to Internet connections in Labrador today? The CBC reports that’s what might happen if Industry Canada’s Community Access Program (CAP) cuts funding. In a town like Black Tickle, where dial-up service became available only recently, people see the need:

The cut may mean the closure of 21 internet sites in Labrador. In many coastal communities, the only efficient way to connect to the internet is via satellite.

Brenda Roberts, principal of St. Peter’s school in the southern Labrador community of Black Tickle, said CAP sites are used broadly. Students use the connection for research, and the school’s administration depends on it.

"Our fee for this internet connection to [the] satellite system is around $220 a month, so basically, if you compare it to a human body, well, we’re going to die of heart failure in January," Roberts said.

Residents in the community rely on satellite-based CAP sites for everyday things, including commerce and filling out government forms.

"We’ve got no bank here now and it’s easier to get a piece of gold nugget here than cash, so being able to bank online is all right," she said.

Who will step in to help? Will it be Canada’s dominant satellite operator, Telesat? Perhaps this is the type of situation where Telesat’s new competitor, Ciel Satellite, saves the day? There are other options, of course: resellers such as Barrett Xplore, who use satellites operated by Intelsat.

Korean Ping-Pong

Tuesday, October 10th, 2006

As the debate rages in the press as to whether Pyongyang’s 60-year obsession came to fruition on Sunday — or, if, as Drudge is reporting, the North Korean blast was a  "dud" — it’s worth taking a moment to ask: how do we come to conclusions about what really happened?

To do so, it’s worth recounting how the United States learned about the blast.  

Our initial warning that the nuclear test was about to take place came not from a high-tech gizmo, but in a phone call from the Chinese:

The White House said Monday the United States received word from China of North Korea’s intent to conduct a nuclear test minutes ahead of the reported event.

According to spokesman Tony Snow, North Korea had called its ally China to advise them on the imminent explosion at about 9 p.m. EST Sunday. China in turn notified the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, which relayed the message to Washington.

Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice received notification about 9:45 p.m. and notified national security adviser Stephen Hadley. Hadley called President George W. Bush at about 9:52 p.m.

South Korean authorities said they felt the seismic tremor from an apparent explosion in North Korea in about the same time frame of Hadley and Bush being notified.

 In addition to indications on the ground in South Korea, there was the on-the-air announcement in North Korea:


Soon thereafter, the USGS and other agencies began to analyze the seismic data to locate the epicenter and identify the magnitude of the tremors that were registered on seismic monitors. In this case, the magnitude was 4.2, and the location was pinned down (though not literally, of course) on the map.

NOAA’s NESDIS satellite likely played a key role in communicating the scientific (non-intelligence) data, and satellite telemetry helped pinpoint the location of the tremor. 

The result? So far, a good deal of doubt on behalf of the West in regards to North Korea’s claims of success:

U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that seismic readings show that the conventional high explosives used to create a chain reaction in a plutonium-based device went off, but that the blast’s readings were shy of a typical nuclear detonation.
"We’re still evaluating the data, and as more data comes in, we hope to develop a clearer picture," said one official familiar with intelligence reports.
"There was a seismic event that registered about 4 on the Richter scale, but it still isn’t clear if it was a nuclear test. You can get that kind of seismic reading from high explosives."
The underground explosion, which Pyongyang dubbed a historic nuclear test, is thought to have been the equivalent of several hundred tons of TNT, far short of the several thousand tons of TNT, or kilotons, that are signs of a nuclear blast, the official said.

The official said that so far, "it appears there was more fizz than pop."

Without satellites and seismic monitors, however, it would be impossible to say whether it was fizz, pop, or outright propaganda on the part of North Korea.


Saab, Polish Navy Ink Surface to Surface Missile Deal

Monday, October 9th, 2006

Defense Industry Daily reports that Saab will be delivering RBS15 surface-to-surface missles — which use a combination of radar and GPS guidance to deliver stealth attacks — to the Polish Navy:

 On October 6, 2006, Saab Bofors Dynamics and the Polish companies MESKO and BUMAR signed a contract for production of the RBS15 Mk3 anti-ship missile. MESKO and BUMAR are procuring the RBS15 Mk3 on behalf of the Polish Ministry of Defence, and the contract value is EUR 110 million (about $140 million). The ordered missiles will arm Poland’s Project 660 Orkan Class corvettes, which are currently part of a broad fleet modernization effort via a 2001 upgrade contract with Thales Naval Netherlands. The RBS15 Mk3 is currently in service with Sweden and Germany (via partner Diehl BGT Defence in September 2005); Poland is the second NATO country to adopt it….

RBS-15 fire-and-forget missiles grew out of Sweden’s need for missiles that excelled in littoral warfare situations like Sweden’s fractured coastlines and innumerable bays. They have a longer reach and heavier punch than counterparts like the USA’s Harpoon, with a range up to 200 km (120 miles) but a weight of 800 kg (1,750 pounds) and corresponding size. A set of rocket boosters are used to launch the missiles, after which they use their turbojets until target impact. They can be fired from ships, land vehicles, or aircraft to hit ships or land targets as required, using a combination of radar and GPS guidance during an stealthy, terrain-hugging approach that includes programming for indirect attack vectors, evasive maneuvers, and re-attacks. Additional features like salvo launch, which allows several missiles to arrive at the same target simultaneously from different directions, increase the missile’s lethality.

The SAAB press release can be found here


PRC to Broadcast Folk Tunes from Moon, Raises Concerns

Friday, October 6th, 2006

Chinese news service, Xinhua, reports that government officials in the PRC have announced what songs will be broadcast back to earth from the country’s first lunar-probing during next year’s Mid-Autumn Festival. According to the Commission of Science, Technology and Industry for NationalPRC Flag Defense, the organization in charge of the lunar project:

"Most of the songs [will be] Chinese folk songs. The song [that] got [the] most votes was [the] folk song ‘My Wonderful Home Town’, followed by ‘I Love China’, ‘Singing Praises of Motherland’ and 27 others."

In other Chinese space-related news, the U.S.A. Today reported yesterday that U.S. defense officials are concerned tests China has been conducting of ground-based laser devices capable of jamming U.S. spy satellites over their country. Given the amount of money the U.S. has poured into developing satellites for intelligence gathering purposes, defense analyst with the Lexington Institute Loren Thompson suggests we have cause for concern:

"Space is a much bigger part of our military posture than it used to be, so any effort by the Chinese or anybody else to jam our satellites is potentially a big deal."

While these new devices merely jam the satellite signal over PRC territory, some are saying that it might be possible to disable satellites using lasers in the future… certainly something the U.S. is going to have to consider in spy satellite construction in the future.

The Years Fly By

Thursday, October 5th, 2006

MSNBC reports on the most recent Hubble exoplanet discovery:


WASHINGTON – A recently spied planet orbits so close to its star that a new year comes every 10 hours.

Called SWEEPS-10, the planet belongs to a newfound class of zippy exoplanets called ultra-short-period planets that have orbits of less than a day.

The Hubble Space Telescope recently spotted five ultra-short-period planets, all about the size of Jupiter, in a crowded star field near the galactic bulge of our Milky Way galaxy as part of an exoplanet survey called the Sagittarius Window Eclipsing Extrasolar Planet Search, or SWEEPS. A total of 16 planet candidates were found, all with relatively short orbital periods…

"These are the farthest planets detected so far around some of the faintest stars," study leader Kailash Sahu of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Maryland told reporters at a NASA press conference.

Extrapolated to the entire galaxy, the Hubble results suggest the Milky Way contains at least 6 billion Jupiter-sized planets, researchers say.

The findings are detailed in Thursday’s issue of the journal Nature.

More info and images can be found on the HubbleSite.