Archive for July, 2007

Sirius/XM Merger Update

Tuesday, July 31st, 2007

It has been while since we’ve discussed the XM-Sirius merger announced in February. For two companies that had combined losses nearing two billion last year, they are understandably anxious for action.

Whether you favor the merger or not, there has been progress. On the most recent XM earnings call, it was noted that four out of every five comments filed with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) were in favor of the merger. Twice elaborates:

XM chairman Gary Parsons said that overall the company “feels pretty good” that the merger will pass regulatory hurdles. “We didn’t go to great lengths to generate [public comments to the FCC] and it was 4 to 1 for the merger. And a strong constituency of groups who felt underserved by radio came out positively for this and that’s pretty impactful. And the announcement of the various pricing plans is by any measure a bold and pioneering move” that will add support for the merger, he added.

Sirius adds their take in today’s second-quarter report (link):

"Momentum for the pending merger with XM continues to build," said CEO Mel Karmazin. "Support from our customers, suppliers and other groups representing a diverse cross-section of Americans clearly demonstrates the public interest benefits and enhanced competition that will come from the merger. We continue to work with the [Federal Communications Commission] and the [Department of Justice] to make the case that the merger offers more choices, including a la carte offerings, and lower prices for subscribers, and we continue to expect that the merger will be completed by year-end."

Recognizing this momentum, XM’s CEO, Hugh Panero, has announced he will leave XM, apparently to make room for the merged company:

Noting that Sirius CEO Mel Karmazin would lead the proposed merged Sirius/XM, and that Nate Davis, XM, president and COO had taken over much of the day-to-day operations at XM, he added, “My role was to do strategy and work with bigger partners and I’ve helped with the merger. I felt the merger had progressed and was hitting a number of milestones … And understanding there would be one CEO at the end of it, I felt it was time to move on.”

The 10-year XM veteran told analysts, “When I first came to XM it was merely a PowerPoint presentation and many were skeptical that anyone would pay for radio,” Panero said, noting that now satellite radio has 14 million subscribers.

The companies also laid out their plans for future subscription plans, mimicking content tiers offered by cable and satellite television providers:

Satellite radio providers Sirius and XM said Monday they could offer a variety of subscription packages that cost as much as 46% less than current plans if their merger is approved.

In a bid to allay concerns among lawmakers that their merger would raise prices and limit programming choices, the companies announced several new packages that they say offer subscribers more choice than they can individually.

Under one package, customers could pick 50 channels on either Washington-based XM Satellite Radio Holdings Inc.’s or New York-based Sirius Satellite Radio Inc.’s systems for $6.99 a month. Additional channels could be added for 25 cents apiece. Currently, subscribers of either system pay about $13 a month for more than 100 stations.

"We need to build the subscription business base of satellite radio to strengthen our business and better leverage our high fixed costs," Sirius Chief Executive Mel Karmazin said in Washington. "We are confident that a lower price point [and] more programming choices will help us do just that."

Rolling Out the Big Gun

Monday, July 30th, 2007

If you ever read Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, you’ll recall that it’s the story of three wealthy members of a gun club who build a huge cannon and shoot themselves to the moon.

In writing the novel, Verne did a number of calculations to determine how a space gun would work. Although his figures proved to be surprisingly accurate, space guns have since been ruled as a means of manned space flight because the accelerating forces (up to 2,000 Gs!) are too powerful for any living thing to survive.

But now, a group of graduate students and academics hopes to use a similar concept to launch low-cost satellites into orbit.


Space Review reports: 

Ben Joseph, a 25-year-old aerospace engineering graduate of MIT, and a team of students and professors are resurrecting [the space gun idea… with] a radically new kind of impulsive launch technology known as the “ram accelerator.”

Joseph and his colleagues have formed a company called Ballistic Flight Group, with the goal of commercializing the space gun launch concept for satellites:

A typical artillery weapon uses a large explosive force at the base of a gun to propel a shell down a rifled metal tube, which is angled to provide the projectile with its trajectory.

In the space gun launcher being promoted by BFG this cannon type of firing is merely the first step in the process. The main step is the ram accelerator, a technology invented and developed by faculty and staff at the University of Washington in Seattle, where Ben Joseph studied as an undergraduate. After a pre-launcher gun (e.g., light gas or gunpowder propelled) accelerates the projectile up to speeds of over 500 meters per second, the projectile enters the ram accelerator by passing through a breakable diaphragm and entering another tube, this one filled with a more volatile propellant, such as oxygen and methane. Because the projectile enters this second tube at supersonic speeds, it interacts with the tube wall to produce a ramjet–like effect inside the barrel. This ramjet effect forces the projectile to combust the fuel behind it, increasing its acceleration through the tube. The projectile exits the barrel with a muzzle velocity of around 8 kilometers per second. An upper stage rocket would circularize the trajectory of the payload (approximately one third of the projectile’s 2,000-kilogram mass) to a low Earth orbit of around 800 kilometers….

So that’s the technology, as envisioned. What about the cost? 

What makes the ram accelerator so appealing is its economic potential. BFG estimates that the accelerator could be built for an estimated $157 million, a price tag that includes the launch tube and its supports, the pre-launcher gun for initial acceleration, and propellant handling system for the oxygen, hydrogen, and methane gases for the ram accelerator portion of the launch system. This price tag is astonishingly low—cheaper than some expendable rockets—and it could be fired hundreds or thousands of times. Depending on the gun’s final muzzle velocity, prices for payloads could drop to nearly $500 per kilogram, a drastic reduction from current market prices…

During Joseph’s presentation on the commerce track of the International Space Development Conference, he concentrated on the most obvious markets for the ram accelerator: commercial satellite launches. BFG has taken particular interest in the Iridium and Globalstar constellations, which were financial failures but technically viable. Those satellites are nearing the end of their service life, and the ram accelerator would reduce the costs launching new satellites to nearly one tenth of their projected value. At those prices, a large LEO constellation becomes financially competitive with a high-bandwidth satellite chain in geosynchronous orbit. This does not change the economics of human spaceflight, but it does represent the order-of-magnitude cost improvement NASA and the private sector has sought for over 20 years.

Whether a space gun or BFG’s efforts can deliver on the dream of low(er) cost satellite launches remains to be seen. We’ll keep you posted. 


DIY Friday: Installing a Satellite Dish

Friday, July 27th, 2007

On Monday, YouTube took over the Democratic Debate. Today, YouTube takes over DIY-Friday. Thank you, user generated content.

The first video explains how to mount a satellite dish using a simple satellite signal meter available for $15 bucks here.

A more detailed installation guide (although some of the connectors are a bit out-dated):

Not working right? Call a professional or just blow it up:

The Internet is Dead

Thursday, July 26th, 2007


Satellite and Cable systems now have the upper hand. According to Mark Cuban, via Television Week:

Forget the Internet, the Future Is the ‘Intranet’

At CTAM: HDNet Founder Mark Cuban on Why VOD Will Rule

By Andrew Hampp, AdAge

You can’t have a Mark Cuban speech without at least one contrarian statement. In the past year alone, the HDNet founder has sounded off on everything from YouTube ("A million people watching three-minute clips of Lonelygirl is critical mass?" he said during Advertising Week) to local newspapers ("They’re trying to grow like they’re internet companies in 1999," he told Esquire). His latest target? The web. Did you hear? It’s dead.

Speaking at the Cable Telecommunications Association for Marketing (CTAM) Summit in Washington yesterday, Mr. Cuban declared "the Internet is dead" in an otherwise subdued panel that included executives such as ESPN President George Bodenheimer and Time Warner Cable CEO Glenn Britt.

‘Neighborhood feel’
The real growth medium is the "intranet," otherwise defined as the on-demand and digital video-recording platforms provided by cable companies. "There’s less restriction on the intranet, it’s like your own corporate network for all the cable networks and even wireless," he elaborated in an interview after the panel. "It’s all locally driven anyways. It has a true neighborhood feel. If I’m in Dallas and I’m on Time Warner Cable, I want localized content."

Mr. Cuban views the TV as the real computer, citing the decline in sales of desktop computers as a direct result of where media consumption is moving. "All that [content] is moving to the TV. What’s the difference between a PC and a TV? Nothing." Social networking and user-generated content are all the rage for Web 2.0, but there’s "nothing on the horizon" from a content perspective, he said (apparently glossing over the looming launches of NBC and News Corp.’s NewCo web-video venture and Joost). Broadband video, according to Mr. Cuban, has "stopped growing."

"Before the internet, people were doing whatever they were doing, thinking this was the end-all, be-all. I thought by 2007 the pipes would be so huge [for the web], you could do HD content and all that. And everything just didn’t turn out. I was wrong," he said.

Premium price for TV ads
Advertising for TV will also come with more of a premium price tag in the future, Mr. Cuban said. "There will be fewer commercials that cost more. The bang for your buck will become the same."

But not everyone was quite as bullish as Mr. Cuban is on the growth of TV. Debora Wilson, CEO of the Weather Channel, listened to Mr. Cuban’s internet rant and interjected a few thoughts of her own on what she still considers to be a viable medium.

"The internet is still in day two; there’s so much flexibility," she said. "The other opportunities on TV are still in a slow phase. I’ve been in the market for 15 years and we’re still waiting for that tipping point."


A little more detail, via Multichannel News:

Cuban: The Internet Is Dead

HDNet Chairman, Mavericks Owner Who Made Fortune from Web Speaks at CTAM Summit Closing Session

By Tom Steinert-Threlkeld — Multichannel News, 7/25/2007 7:35:00 PM

Washington — The archetype of the Internet-bred billionaire Wednesday declared, “The Internet’s dead. It’s over.”

The speaker was Mark Cuban, who sold to Internet portal Yahoo in 1999 for $5.7 billion. He is currently the owner of the National Basketball Association’s Dallas Mavericks and HDTV programmer HDNet. He is also considering buying Major League Baseball’s Chicago Cubs, out of his pocket, for about $1 billion.

The venture that made his fortune,, was the outfit that legally streamed programming from 420 radio stations and networks; 56 TV stations and cable networks; and game broadcasts and other programming for more than 450 college and professional sports teams over the Internet.

And Cuban made his comments to operators of a set of high-bandwidth alternatives to the Internet, known as cable systems.

Speaking on the closing panel of the CTAM Summit here, Cuban declared, “The Internet’s for old people.”

His basic point: The Internet has gone stagnant. The only “new application” on the World Wide Web of recent vintage was, in his view, YouTube — which, unlike Cuban’s, ripped off the creative content of intellectual-property owners to build its video-based business.

Sour digits aside, Cuban’s view, as repeated in a group interview after the panel with Multichannel News and CableFax Daily, is that cable and satellite networks are now superior to the Internet as platforms for building complex, interactive services.

This is in direct counterpoint to his contention, when he built a decade ago, that the Internet would — in 10 years’ time — have the bandwidth that would make it a superior home for the development and distribution of video programming.

“I was wrong,” he said.

Networks built by telephone companies, like Verizon Communications, and cable companies, like Comcast, do not easily talk to each other, stymieing development of services (like HD video) that require smooth, seamless transport of lots of digital stuff, he said.

By contrast, so-called clustered collections of cable networks provide an enclosed environment that allows high-bandwidth, complex applications to thrive. Developers will figure this out and develop applications to match. If, for instance, a developer wanted to build suites of office applications, he said, the better environment would be servers on local cable systems. Users would have faster response and better experiences. Such developers could “outgoogle Google,” in effect.

Google, the dominant search engine, is developing and providing a series of office applications for writing and making calculations that operate on the open Internet.

In effect, Cuban said, cable networks are “intranets,” which, by their nature, operate more efficiently than the Internet. Cable-system operators can control the quality of service they supply and the amount of bandwidth that developers can use. Plus, there is no friction in transporting services and data within their networks.

His contention harkens back to @Home, the ill-fated offspring of the cable industry that tried to create a “private” Internet that operated at higher speeds and with greater quality than the “open” Internet, which made “best-efforts” attempts to transfer information, whether text or video or other.

Using standards such as the OpenCable specifications and cooperative efforts to interlink their networks, cable-system operators, he added, could create a high-bandwidth nationwide alternative to the Internet that would attract developers of applications that needed and took advantage of greater capacity and speed of transmission.


GSM Satellite Backhaul

Thursday, July 26th, 2007

Remote regions and developing nations are seeing a massive expansion in their GSM networks. Nigeria, for example, has only 1.25 million landline phones, but more than 30 million mobile subscribers. This presents a number of challenges: foremost, how do you expand a network to remote places that lack the infrastructure for conventional GSM networks?

The solution: satellites, of course! In Papua New Guinea, SES NEW SKIES signed a contract with the national telecom company, Telikom Papua New Guinea, to provide GSM backhaul services using its NSS-5 spacecraft. Details from Cellular-News:

The NSS-5 satellite capacity will allow Telikom PNG to expand its GSM services into new regions and provide telephone services over mountainous terrain by providing GSM backhaul between a large number of sites around the country back to the capital Port Moresby.

States Scott Sprague, Senior Vice President Global Sales of SES NEW SKIES: "The ubiquitous coverage of the NSS-5 satellite allows Telikom Papua New Guinea to significantly increase its GSM service area across the rugged geography of Papua New Guinea. SES NEW SKIES is proud to assist the country’s premier telecommunications provider to offer vital communications services to widespread, mainly rural populations and across terrains that make it difficult to develop even basic transportation infrastructures."

Remote deployment is only one use of satellite backhaul services. As satellite modem manufacturer Radyne expains, two other uses could prove critical: temporary installations during disaster recovery (when the broadband infrastructure has been damaged) and when a rapid deployment is required.

Communications technology giant Cisco hasn’t ignored this developing industry (abbreviations in description have been expanded):

At the cell site, GSM traffic is compressed and aggregated with [Universal Mobile Telecommunications Service (UMTS)] traffic by the [mobile wireless router]. The result is lower bandwidth aggregated traffic that is routed to the satellite modem and transmitted to the other side. Depending on actual T1/E1 link utilization for both GSM and UMTS, Cisco RAN Optimization can reduce the bandwidth required on the satellite link up to 50 percent, providing significant savings in [operating expenses].

Phoenix & Mars Are All Right

Wednesday, July 25th, 2007


Great animation, via Phoenix Mars Mission, which launches next week:

Rough-Cut Launch, Entry, Descent, and Landing Animation Developed in the summer of 2004, this animation visulaizes launch in August 2007 and entry, descent, and landing of the Phoenix Mars Mission in May 2008. Currently the animation is in the rough-cut phase and is being modified as the spacecraft develops. The animation was created by Maas Digital under the direction of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Solar System Visualization Project.



Darpa Goes “Deep Green”

Tuesday, July 24th, 2007

When it comes to battlefield planning and execution, a crystal ball would certainly make a field commander’s life a whole lot easier.

That’s exactly what DARPA — the research and development arm of the Department of Defense — hopes to create (sort of) with the "Deep Green" program.


DARPA describes the requirements for Deep Green in its call for ideas (PDF here):

Deep Green will build a battle command decision support system that interleaves anticipatory planning with adaptive execution. Deep Green must be capable of addressing the full spectrum of joint and combined arms capabilities available to the modular brigade commander, drastically increasing the option and future space. This will allow the commander to think ahead, identify when a plan is going awry, and help develop alternatives “ahead of real time.” The commander (and his support staff) is involved in essentially two major asynchronous functions: generating options and making decisions. The goal of this program is to create a commander-driven system to assist the commander and his support staff in generating options or Courses of Action (COAs).

Wired explains further: 

Deep Green has a half-dozen different interlocking components, including a "Sketch to Plan" program that reads a commander’s doodles, listens to his words, and then "accurately induces" a plan, "fill[ing] in missing details."  That allows an officer "to specify an option at a coarse level, then move on to the next cognitive task."  A related program, "Sketch to Decide" allows a commander to "see the future" by producing a "comic strip" to represent his possible options in a given situation.  That may "sound exotic," the Agency notes.  But "since the 1970s (and perhaps earlier), there have been novels and game books in which the reader is asked to make a decision and then is directed to a different page or paragraph, depending on the choice made."

To make these warzone versions of choose-your-own-adventure novels, Darpa proposes two pieces of software. "Blitzkrieg" will quickly model sets of alternatives, while "Crystal Ball" will take information currently coming into a headquarters to figure out which scenarios are the most likely to happen, and which plans are likely to work best.    Crystal Ball will use this estimate to nominate to the commander futures at which he/she should focus some planning effort to build additional options/branches.  Crystal Ball will identify the trajectory of the operation in time to allow the commander to generate options before they are needed.

 So why the name Deep Green? The Register snarkily explains:

The colour presumably alludes to the fact that – at least to start with – the robocommand package is intended to help US Army bird colonels handle their "modular brigade" battle groups. If the project were a British Army one, the project might be known as "Deep Brown" (Or there again, maybe not). As Deep Blue is already taken, future versions for the other US services will presumably be known as Deep Periwinkle (air force) and Actually Deep Blue (navy).

The R&D timeline is slated for just three short years, though that estimate is made without the benefit of a crystal ball, we presume.

Astronauts Toss Junk Overboard from ISS

Monday, July 23rd, 2007

At 6:24 am EDT this morning, two International Space Station crew members — Astronaut Clay Anderson and cosmonaut and station commander Fyodor Yurchikhin — stepped from the Quest Airlock to take out the trash.

Specifically, they had to get rid of a refrigerator-size ammonia reservoir and a supporting brace.

The Houston Chronicle explains:

After months of deliberation, NASA decided to throw away the coolant tank and a 218-pound brace. Normally, the no-longer-needed pieces of hardware would have been returned to Earth aboard a space shuttle.

However, NASA is planning only 12 to 14 more assembly and supply missions to the 210-mile-high orbital outpost before it retires the shuttle fleet in 2010. There won’t be enough room to bring the ammonia tank and the brace back, space agency officials said earlier this month.

The brace was occupying external stowage space on the station that will be needed to hold a new gyroscope that is awaiting launch aboard the shuttle Endeavour early next month.

But wait — we’ve written before about the dangers that space junk poses to satellites and the ISS. So how will the ISS avoid smacking into a 1,400 pound ammonia coolant tank? 

Late today, NASA plans to raise the altitude of the space station by several miles to lower the risk of a catastrophic collision with the space station. The two objects will be tracked by military radar so the operators of other spacecraft can be notified of a potential collision.

Even in a zero-G environment, of course, trash can be unwieldy. That’s why Cosmonaut Oleg Kotov stayed in the U.S. laboratory Destiny to operate the Canadarm2 and help the two spacewalkers with the morning chores:

Canadarm 2 is a larger and more sophisticated version of the robotic arm built for the space shuttle. Fully extended, the arm is nearly 18 metres long, three metres longer than the shuttle’s arm, and can handle loads up to 116 tonnes.

The new arm also has a hand on either end so one can latch onto the space station while the other end reaches out and picks up things that it needs. Then it can let go and grab on somewhere else.

The real talent in the new design is in its ability to move around where the astronauts most need the robot arm. The Canadarm 2 can crawl along the body of the space station on its two hands, end over end like an inchworm. The outside of the station has a number of sockets where the arm can plug in. As well, the arm can be fixed to a work platform that moves on rails from one end of the station to the other.

For all that sophistication, however, we are sad to report that the Canadarm2 still cannot open a can of beer. (See video.)

Video of this morning’s spacewalk can be seen here. Also check out this news report on astronaut Clay Anderson, who brought a football with him to the ISS in honor of his Nebraska roots.

DIY Fridays: Portable Satellite Radio

Friday, July 20th, 2007

Satellite radio is becoming somewhat commonplace while traveling: its a good move if you drive in rural places, many car rental companies offer XM or Sirius standard or as an upgrade, car dealerships throw in satellite radios as promotions, and even airlines are offering satellite content.

It’s even starting to show up in homes, with home receivers and antennas being stacked right next to amps, cd-players, and turntables.

But while iPod’s seem to be taking over, you rarely see someone sporting portable satellite radio. Why not enjoy Bluegrass Junction, XM Cafe, or Sirius Classic Soul in between car-trips and living room lounging? Of course, you could purchase a device, but that wouldn’t be any fun.

Make has the instructions (subscription only):

The basic prescription is to mount a Terk XMicro antenna on headphones and connect to a Delphi roady. There are a few complicated steps:

Modifying the antenna: You need to alter the antenna by…

removing the pink plastic connector shroud. I used a small screwdriver to get between the white and pink plastic and gently extracted the white plastic looking piece. Then I heat-shrank a "strain relief" over the top of the connector and the exposed wire from breaking. This rubber "shrinky dink" tubing will contract tightly over the wires once you apply heat from a hair dryer to it.

Create a power supply: Connect a battery-pack with five AA batteries to the Delphi using a RadioShack Adaptaplug "Type B" tip. This should generate six to nine volts.

Turning it on:

Using the power button to turn the unit on will turn on the display’s LEDs, eating up battery power. Instead, input the sequence "232" into the keypad and then push in the scroll wheel on the side.

Enjoy the tunes!


Cleveland Art Festival Utilizes IPTV for Digital Film Fest

Thursday, July 19th, 2007

Hello Cleveland!

Tonight marks the kickoff of the three-day Open Student Television Network (OSTN) / Internet 2 Film Festival, which is being run as part of the Ingenuity Festival at Cleveland State University.

OSTN features the only 24/7 worldwide IPTV channel devoted exclusively to student programming, and boasts 41 million subscribers at 4,500 universities in 36 countries. Internet 2 is a higher education research consortium delivering advanced networking capabilities to its members. And the Ingenuity Festival is 4 days of cool creativity — including "opera, theater, ballet, step dancing, breakdancing, contemporary dance," and "cutting-edge, art-and-technology collaborations and integrations" — in Cleveland’s Playhouse Square.

But here at Really Rocket Science, we’re particularly intrigued by the IPTV delivery of the OSTN/Internet 2 Film Festival:

The collaboration between the Open Student Television Network and Internet2 create the perfect mesh for the Ingenuity Festival, combining both technology and media in the ultimate medium – a premiere channel for student produced work. The Internet2 network acts as a backbone for the OSTN channel’s delivery to colleges and universities all over the country, and allows the channel to deliver streaming NTSC quality video through fiber. The OSTN Channel is available to Cleveland State University, Case Western Reserve University, John Carroll University, the University of Akron and other surrounding Intenet2 member schools.

The organizers have used IP at every stage of the festival:

The student directors and producers will use Internet2 technologies to both submit and screen their films, the organizers said. A variety of media formats will be showcased, including short films, documentaries and student television shows.

Digital programming from diverse sources will be shown, including the work of students the University of Southern California, Brown University, Duke University, Oberlin College, John Carroll University, and the University of Akron.

Not in Cleveland? No worries. Each night of the festival (which lasts from 7-9 pm Eastern) is being webcast (schedule here). You can check out the films being shown here. We’re impressed by the high quality of the submissions, with Feedback Fred (pictured above) of particular note — there’s something about it that perfectly captures the vibe of the Berlin art scene as we remember it  from a visit  to Germany nearly 18 years ago.