Archive for February, 2008

DIY Friday: Spacecraft

Friday, February 29th, 2008

So, you’re sitting at your desk thinking about the sci-fi movie you watched last night or a fantasy outerspace adventure. If you can’t wait for the weekend to make your futuristic dreams a reality (sort-of), start by building an Office Supplies Starship Enterprise. From your employer’s supply cabinet, grab one wall clip, two small paperclips, one large paperclip, one small pinch clip, some tape, and a black Sharpie. With a little ingenuity, you have a passable replica for some afternoon day-dreaming.

Now, for tomorrow’s task – build a cardboard spaceship out of two washer/dryer boxes. With a little paint it sure can look good — too bad it can’t fly.

Alfie Carrington, a construction worker from Michigan is a little more ambitious:

The construction worker spends his free time inside a rented storage garage in Clinton Township, Mich., where he broods over a 14-foot-wide, carbon fiber, fiberglass vessel.

Thirty years ago, when Carrington was 27 and obsessed with science fiction, he set out to build a UFO look-alike. Despite his lack of engineering experience, Carrington pored over books, magazines and studies about aviation and spent nearly $60,000 for some of the materials needed for this saucer.

Carrington does it because he believes he has discovered a simple design for an aircraft that aeronautical engineers have spent countless millions trying to build.

Carrington has two patents on the design and a company called Vertex Aerospace. His work caught the attention of NASA, which invited him to a conference in the mid-1990s where engineers scratched their heads when he confessed he knew nothing about computers.

His own version of Anti Gravity Technology Propulsion: His idea is to fire up the vessel with a rotary engine to stimulate a magnetic levitation system to rotate the ship’s two discs. The discs would draw air into propeller blades.

A (very entertaining) video of the project is below. But before you take up a similar design, a word of warning:

“Things spinning at those speeds are worrisome because of the stress from centrifugal force,” explained Cornelis van Dam, professor of mechanical and aeronautical engineering at the University of California-Davis, a leading aviation school. “If it’s not properly designed and built, it will rip itself apart. I wouldn’t want to stand next to it when it gets up to speed.”

If you’re a little timid about centrifugal destruction, maybe we should keep the saucer on the ground. For the kids, build a saucer fort built from two discarded microwave transmitter dishes and $75 bucks worth of supplies. And if you want more than a little tree-house, you should buy this house in Tennessee. You can see it from space:

View Larger Map

If the static house isn’t good enough and you’re still scared of Alfie’s saucer, buy an individual flying vehicle for a pricey 50k. Or, better yet, just fake it:

Fractionated Spacecraft

Thursday, February 28th, 2008

Orbital was awarded a contract for the initial development of an advanced space technology for the Department of Defense:

Orbital Sciences Corporation (NYSE: ORB), a world leader in smaller-sized civil government and national security satellites, announced today that it has been selected by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Arlington, VA, to develop a Phase 1 concept for System F6 (Future Fast, Flexible, Fractionated, Free-Flying Spacecraft united by Information eXchange). DARPA is the central research and development organization for the Department of Defense (DoD).

They could only come up with six "F’s"? Come on.

To simplify (sort-of), the concept is called "fractionated spacecraft," which is described in this 2006 paper (pdf):

We note that the everlarger monolithic spacecraft of today are notoriously unresponsive. We then suggest a novel architectural paradigm, which we call fractionated spacecraft, whereby a satellite is decomposed into a set of similar or dissimilar component modules which interact wirelessly while in cluster orbits.

How is fractionated spacecraft more responsive than their larger, monolithic mainstays? (link)

According to DARPA such a virtual satellite effectively constitutes a "bus in the sky" – wherein customers need only provide and deploy a payload module suited to their immediate mission need, with the supporting features supplied by a global network of infrastructure modules already resident on-orbit and at critical ground locations. In addition, there can be sharing of resources between various "spacecraft" that are within sufficient range for communication.DARPA said the within the F6 network all subsystems and payloads can be treated like a uniquely addressable computing peripheral or network device.

Orbital is pretty excited:

“F6 has the potential to be a game-changing event in the history of military space systems in the same way that the internet revolutionized data communications,” stated Mr. Gregg Burgess, Orbital’s Vice President for National Security Systems in the Advanced Programs Group. “DARPA and Orbital have had a long and productive partnership leading to major innovations such as the Pegasus launch vehicle and numerous advanced small satellites. System F6 could transform today’s military space architecture to create a truly networked system of systems in space.”

Host My Payload

Wednesday, February 27th, 2008


Very interesting news from California this morning about Space Systems/Loral and Northrop Grumman’s Space Technology division getting together to go after U.S. government business. Building spacecraft for fully-funded government projects can be more profitable than going after commercial projects. Sounds like a simple agreement:

"The agreement with Northrop Grumman will allow SS/L to cost-effectively add capacity to address increased near-term commercial satellite opportunities," said Pat DeWitt, chief executive officer, Space Systems/Loral. "The agreement will also streamline the process for our companies to collaborate on providing the world’s best satellites for both civil and defense applications."

"The resulting strategic agreement will be important to increasing our competitiveness. These initiatives will present win-win opportunities for both companies and our U.S. government customers," said Alexis Livanos, corporate vice president and president of the company’s Space Technology sector. "For some of our mission areas, we believe that assured access to SS/L’s 1300 bus and bus subsystems would improve our cost and delivery schedule competitiveness. In addition, hosted payloads hold the promise of providing us greater ability and flexibility to rapidly respond to our government customers’ evolving needs."

Some of these new opportunities included "hosted payloads" where specialized instruments or entire subsystems can be added on to a satellite bus whose primary mission is paying most of the build cost. Given the importance of the role space plays in today’s C4ISR systems (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance), and the expected ends-of-life of the spacecraft currently in orbit, we’ll need a bunch of new launches in the short term. Factor in programs being behind schedule — with some going way over budget —  and you might conclude we have a problem, Houston. Intelsat General is going after this market, too.

Northrop Grumman is involved in a new moon mission for NASA, the LCROSS (Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite):


HBO on YouTube

Tuesday, February 26th, 2008

HBO today seems like an old familiar standby, but the channel has a strong history of being the first to adopt new technologies to expand its audience reach.

Way back in 1975, HBO went national using the Satcom 1 satellite, leading in a direction that the rest of the cable programming industry would soon follow: 

On September 30, 1975, HBO, affectionately known colloquially as "Home Box", became the first TV network to continuously deliver signals via satellite when it showed the "Thrilla in Manila" boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. On December 28, 1981, HBO expanded its programming schedule to 24 hours a day, seven days per week. (Cinemax was 24/7 from the day it signed on, and Showtime and The Movie Channel went 24 hours earlier.) In January 1986, HBO also became the first satellite network to encrypt its signal from unauthorized viewing by way of the Videocipher II System and in 1993 became the world’s first digitally transmitted television service. In 1999 HBO became the first national cable TV network to broadcast a high-definition version of its channel.

Fast forward 33 years, and its no surprise to see HBO is among the first networks to start its own channel on YouTube. We’ve seen in the presidential race the incredible reach that YouTube has when quality, entertaining content is made available to users. The pro-Obama music video Yes We Can, for example, has reached more than twice the viewers of the last presidential debate.

Al Gore’s Current TV channel, of course, has been at this nexus between the internet and television for several years, and has embraced its ancillary of user generated content. UGA is likely to further transform the media landscape, especially as the promise of IPTV opens up the possibility of millions of channels — and each of those channels will need to be fed fresh content.

Until then, you can watch the Sopranos at work, which we think is a good thing. 


Satellite 2008 Updates

Monday, February 25th, 2008


Scoring at the Satellite show in Washington? Maybe at Sunday’s hockey game (the New Jersey Devils beat the Washington Capitals in overtime).

While formally beginning tomorrow, today’s "preday" schedule at the Satellite 2008 conference in DC is chock full of panels and presentations.

As the conference website says, Satellite 2008 is "where the most prominent experts, C-Level executives and thought leaders" in the satellite industry "join forces for YOU."

It’s also a great place to see the formal lifting of the curtain on new technology. Some highlights from a round of press releases provides a virtual stroll through the display booths:

  • Hughes Network Systems  "will showcase the power of broadband services as it highlights its advanced fixed and mobile satellite offerings…Visitors to the booth can experience these services first-hand through interactive demos. From digital signage, to distance learning, to emergency communications and continuity of operations, Hughes is leading the way in bringing broadband to governments, enterprises, small businesses and consumers. Hughes executives will be presenting on several panels throughout the conference, addressing topics ranging from government solutions and hybrid networks, to Ka-Band opportunities and top satellite markets of the next half-decade."
  • iDirect, which recently tested the commercial version of its DVB-S2 Evolution platform simulating a live customer environment, will have a booth where users can try out the platform’s VoIP, Web browsing and other capabilities. iDirect’s Evolution platform comprises a new line of DVB-S2 remotes and line cards as well as advanced operating and network management software, according to their press release. "During the tests, the platform’s Adaptive Coding and Modulation (ACM) feature successfully enabled iDirect’s Evolution series remote to maintain optimum coding and modulation schemes, operating at 16-APSK during fair weather conditions and shifting to more robust modulation and coding schemes during a simulation of link fade conditions."
  • MorganFranklin and GATR Technologies will be at booth #1600. "GATR will display its transportable, inflatable, high-bandwidth satellite antenna system (GATR-Com). Its unique inflatable design allows it to be carried into locations where a high-bandwidth (large aperture) dish is required and a satellite truck or trailer cannot be deployed. MorganFranklin will provide the reliable communication infrastructure (satellite, RF and IP network integration) that completes the connections (IP-based phone, Internet, broadcast video/audio and/or data) as needed for challenging communication situations such as mobile emergency communications, remote news gathering and broadcasting, and military applications."
  • Newtec, a world-leading innovator in the satellite and communications industry, will be displaying ‘Point&Play’, "an innovative capability involving an antenna pointing tool, combined with advanced satellite modem software, which allows the installer, be it a professional installer or the end user, to easily position the antenna correctly. It does not require any computer pointing software, provides correct satellite identification and gives feedback on both signal quality and correct satellite lock."

Undoubtedly, there will be other displays of interest at Satellite 2008. What are you seeing that fires your imagination?


DIY Friday: GPS Tracking

Friday, February 22nd, 2008

GPS systems appear to be the newest must-have gadget. They were flying off the shelves in December:

Personal navigation devices are a hot gift to give this holiday season. Unit sales of GPS systems rose 488% over last year, according to the latest point-of-sale information from market research firm NPD Group.

And GPS providers are not planning to sit on this past year’s successes. list GPS chipsets as one of five "emerging technologies" of 2008:

GPS chipset provider, SiRF Technology Holdings is the company to beat in the personal navigation device space, with over 50% market share. The company is one of several gearing to battle it out for a piece of the next-generation cellular handset market.

Mobile phones are only starting to emerge as a high-growth market for GPS chipsets, which include the basic radio-frequency (RF) and GPS base-band chips. True, most handsets already incorporate the technology, but it goes largely unused because most network operators have been slow to roll out location-based services with broad consumer appeal.

The other reason GPS chipset suppliers have ignored the current generation of mobile handsets is Qualcomm, which has been packaging GPS capability into its mobile phone chips for the last seven years. The industry, however, is shifting from today’s global system for mobile communications and CDMA network standards toward 3G, or W-CDMA standards, and next generation-compatible handsets are forecast to see a compound annual growth rate of 22% over the next five years.

But you don’t need to wait for the market to marry GPS and cell-phone handsets. Turn your cell-phone into a GPS tracking device:

DIY GPS tracking with "disposable" phones – Mod a GPS enabled Nextel and fauxjack yourself…or your car, or your kid, or a big dog, or an elephant. We really, really want to track an elephant. Mologogo is a free service that will track a "friends" GPS enabled cell phone from another phone(gps not required) or on the web. It currently works on pretty much any Nextel phone with Java and GPS – even a $60 no-contract Boost Mobile phone.

Using any GPS-enabled phone with java and a supported provider (Nextel, Sprint, or Boost), you can install a free service called Mologogo and turn your phone into a tracking device.

What can Mologogo do?

From your phone or the web, Mologogo shows you where you and your friends are at any moment. If you are on the go, Mologogo can alert you when friends are close, search around for points of interest, and keep you updated with local traffic and weather. Mologogo even supports mobile chat, so you can reach out to your nearby friends instantly. If you are on your PC, you can see all of your friends – locations, sign up new friends, bookmark locations, and show your Mologogo location on your own web page or blog.

You control who can see your location – anything from the entire Mologogo community to a few select friends. The applications for this are endless: track your kid; use an old phone and a prepaid data plan to track your car or a package; see where friends are in a city; or track mobile employees. (I’m smelling a good marketing opportunity for a quick-delivery pizza chain.)

If you don’t have a Mologogo-capable phone, you can buy one for $80 bucks, maybe less. And, unlike some stand-alone commercial tracking solutions, the service is free (as long as your cell-phone has a data plan).

And the locator works very, very fast, as one MAKE commenter explains:

As for the phones: The reason you get GPS lock so quickly (which might make you think it’s fake) is that the tower gives the phone a breath-of-life packet, containing the current satellite almanac and possibly even the position of the PRN sequences, so the GPS chip can achieve lock almost instantly.

You can test this by taking the phone to an area with no Nextel towers (Montana and Mississippi work well) and telling it to acquire a GPS fix. It’ll take much longer (30-50 seconds typically), just like your Garmin, because it’s not getting help from a tower. But even in the complete absence of towers and service, the phone’s GPS chip does work just fine, and will happily feed NMEA 0183 data over the serial cable for your laptop’s mapping software.

Lunar Eclipse APOD

Friday, February 22nd, 2008

Great image from the Astronomy Picture of the Day:

 Total Lunar Eclipse

Virginia is for Launches

Thursday, February 21st, 2008

In a big boost to Virginia’s aeronautical and space industries (and economy), NASA has awarded a contract to Northern Virginia’s Orbital Sciences Corporation to resupply the International Space Station.

The federal space agency on Tuesday said it will provide Orbital Sciences Corp. as much as $170 million to demonstrate its capability to resupply the space station.

Orbital officials say they plan to team with NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility and the state’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport to demonstrate a new launch rocket in late 2010. If they succeed, the Eastern Shore could become a key outpost for commercial space operations, bringing jobs and investment to the region.

"This is a real opportunity to see that happen," said Billie Reed, executive director of the Virginia Commercial Spaceflight Authority and head of the spaceport, known as MARS. "This is significant."

Since December 2006, the fledging spaceport has hosted two successful launches into low-Earth orbit for Pentagon customers, and both featured a Minotaur I rocket developed by Orbital.

This isn’t just a boom for Orbital; it could mean significant investment in Virginia’s space industry and its Wallops infrastructure:

To handle cargo missions to the space station, Orbital is developing a much bigger rocket, called the Taurus II. It would be the largest rocket ever launched from Wallops, said Barry Beneski, an Orbital spokesman.

Because of that, the launch facilities at MARS would have to be upgraded to accommodate the larger vehicle. If those improvements aren’t made, Orbital would have to look elsewhere, probably in Florida, for a launch site, Beneski said.

"We’re supporters of Wallops, and we’re supporters of developing the space industry in Virginia," Beneski said, "but infrastructure development is really the key."

Reed said state leaders plan to meet with Orbital executives this week to discuss the needs. "It’s not a show-stopper," he said, adding that the spaceflight authority is empowered to issue bonds to finance improvements. "We can find ways to do this."

NASA Wallops provides mission control and logistics support to MARS. The Eastern Shore launch site is considered ideal. Its latitude is aligned to the space station’s orbit, reducing fuel expenses, and rockets quickly travel over the ocean, limiting risks to populated areas.

"This shows the industry that what we have to offer here is real," said Keith Koehler, spokesman for the flight facility. "We’re excited."

Besides NASA’s investment, Orbital plans to pitch in $150 million of company money to the effort, known as COTS, for commercial orbital transportation services. NASA’s aim is to contract with private aerospace companies to resupply the station after the agency retires the space shuttle program in 2010.

Orbital is still flying high after the announcement. Shares are up more than 50 cents and profit is expected to rise by as much as 25 percent.

Lunar Eclipse Tonight!

Wednesday, February 20th, 2008


Here’s one of the many fabled stories of how lunar eclipses have influenced history:

A lunar eclipse bailed Christopher Columbus out of a jam in Jamaica in 1504. Stranded there, ships damaged on a follow-up voyage to what would be called the Americas, Columbus and crew were starving because the natives refused to trade food for trinkets. The wily explorer consulted an almanac and learned a lunar eclipse would occur on Feb. 29, 1504. On that day, Columbus told the natives that God frowned on their lack of hospitality and would remove the moon from the sky if they didn’t cooperate. The eclipse made good on the warning. The spooked natives promptly offered food if Columbus would bring back the moon, which natural events did for him. Well-supplied, Columbus and crew ultimately made it back to Europe.

While unlikely to improve relations with your neighbors, it’s worth stepping out to see tonight’s lunar eclipse. USA Today ran a great viewing guide yesterday. Some highlights:

  • Nearly a billion people in the Western Hemisphere, more than 1.5 billion in Europe and Africa, and perhaps another half-billion in western Asia will be able to watch — weather permitting…
  • The only problematic area will be along the Oregon and northern California coast, where the first partial stage of the eclipse will already be underway when the moon rises…
  • This eclipse comes with a rare bonus. The planet Saturn (magnitude +0.2) and the bright bluish star, Regulus (magnitude +1.4) will form a broad triangle with the moon’s ruddy disk….this upcoming double event will be the only one of its kind occurring within the next millennium!

The European Space Agency and NASA both have viewing information, as well. For those in North America, this map tells you the time the eclipse will begin in your location. The short of it: 10:01 pm Eastern.

NASA also explains the color change during totality: 

During an eclipse the moon changes color, going from a light gray color to an orange or deep red shade. This is totality. The moon takes on this new color because indirect sunlight is still able to pass through the Earth’s atmosphere and cast a glow on the moon.

The exact color that the moon appears depends on the amount of dust and clouds in the atmosphere. If there are extra particles in the atmosphere, from say a recent volcanic eruption, the moon will appear a darker shade of red.

I can’t think of any recent volcanic eruptions, do dark red may not be in the picture. 

The next lunar eclipse will be on Dec. 21, 2010.

Ready, Aim

Tuesday, February 19th, 2008


We’ve been following this story for a few weeks now, and it is astounding how much attention has been paid to it. A top-secret U.S. observation satellite that’s out of control is set to be shot out of the sky precisely so it brings no harm to the public. Over the Pacific Ocean, for example, would be a good location. Now the U.S. Navy has issued a "notice to airmen," signaling just that:

02/062 (A0038/08) – AIRSPACE CARF NR. 90 ON EVELYN STATIONARY RESERVATION WITHIN AN AREA BNDD BY 3145N 17012W 2824N 16642W 2352N 16317W 1909N 16129W 1241N 16129W 1239N 16532W 1842N 17057W 2031N 17230W 2703N 17206W SFC-UNL. 21 FEB 02:30 2008 UNTIL 21 FEB 05:00 2008. CREATED: 18 FEB 12:51 2008

The Register explains what this means:

A "CARF" (Central Altitude Reservation Function) designation indicates a NOTAM intended to keep commercial and private flights clear of military operations, and SFC-UNL means the height band of this warning zone reaches from the surface to "unlimited" altitude – in other words all the way into space. The UTC time referred to is the same as UK time, so the zone exists from 0230 to 0500 on Thursday morning for British readers.

As will be evident, the barred area is a cool 1,400 miles long and nearly 700 miles wide at the surface, giving the US Navy plenty of elbow room to fire their interceptor missiles up into the descending spacecraft’s path.

Reports have it that three US Aegis air-defence warships, the cruiser Lake Erie and the destroyers Decatur and Russell, will be waiting for the satellite west of Hawaii. Each ship carries a specially modified Standard SM-3 interceptor, originally intended for defence against lower-flying ballistic missile warheads. The three interceptors are on separate ships in case of a technical issue with the Aegis radar and fire-control system.

As it passes over the firing area, the satellite will be approximately 3,000 miles and ten minutes out from the western coast of Canada, the next land it will pass over. The satellite has much more mass than the soaring "exo-atmospheric kill vehicle" it will smack into, so this gives some idea of the onward track the wreckage might follow in the event of a hit.

Google Earth kmz file by Alan Clegg is worth a look.

What can we expect on Thursday? Take a look at this Japanese test from last December: