Archive for July, 2008

DIY Friday: Solar Death Ray

Friday, July 18th, 2008

It’s another lazy, hot summer weekend…what to do to pass the time?

Crochet a new bathing suit? Nah.

Make a beaded pull for the ceiling fan? No thanks.

Craft some sunglasses out of popsicle sticks and tinted saran wrap? Maybe next week.

I’m looking for something a bit more bold to shake up the summer doldrums: A SOLAR DEATH RAY.

You may have seen the “#1 solar death ray on the Internet” here. But that model was so 2006.

Yes, the competitive world of solar death ray construction has moved well beyond that.

This guy, inspired by the success of the original, bought himself a c-band antenna and made a device capable of generating 13,000 watts. He calls it the “light sharpener” and you can find full instructions on his site to make your own.

The only question is, to what end will you direct the power of your very own light sharpener? The answer, clearly, is remaking the classic American cook-out.


Of course, Really Rocket Science was ahead of the curve on this one…but we have to admit that his is bigger.

GPS Beats Speeding Ticket

Friday, July 18th, 2008


Rocky Mountain Tracking‘s device is accurate. So good, in fact, it beat a police radar in court:

Eighteen-year-old Shaun Malone has a few people to thank for being able to plead "Not Guilty" to a speeding offence – his parents, who installed a GPS device in his car, and Rocky Mountain Tracking, the service provider of that device.
"Because of our GPS tracking data, Malone and his parents can protest the imposition of an unfair speeding ticket," says Brad Borst, Founder and President of Rocky Mountain Tracking, and who is also a former Police Officer.

A police radar had found Malone driving at 62 mph in a 45-mph zone. However, Malone’s parents, who had installed the Rocky Mountain Tracking GPS device in his car to monitor his driving, found that the device tracked him driving at, and not above, the speed limit.

The most telling testament to the accuracy of the Rocky Mountain Tracking Rover GPS tracking device came, ironically, from a GPS expert who originally helped find Malone guilty in a trial-by-affidavit. Dr. Stephen Heppe, the expert, had written a report affirming that, going by the GPS data, Malone had to have been traveling faster than 45 mph.

Read their blog for more detail. And Hot Hardware gets more from the expert:

While the police clocked him going 62-mph, the GPS’s data in fact showed him driving at the 45-mph speed limit. In an initial trial-by-affidavit, Malone was found guilty of speeding. GPS expert, Dr. Stephen Heppe wrote a report that essentially said that the GPS data was not accurate enough to contest the accuracy of the radar gun. Malone appealed the decision and had his day in court. At trial, things played out differently:

"However, when he took the stand to begin his testimony, Dr. Heppe corrected that written report, saying that the Rocky Mountain Tracking device was "very" accurate, to within a couple of meters on location and to within 1 mph on speed. Dr. Heppe also pointed out that the GPS device released instantaneous data, and not data averaged over a distance."

Needless to say, with Dr. Heppe’s revised testimony, Malone was found innocent of speeding.


Teenagers. Some learn about the danger of speeding the hard way, some know better before they start driving. Check out this kid in Kentucky:

Landon Wilburn, 11, grew tired of speeders zipping through his subdivision, so after growing hoarse shouting at them, he decided to take matters into his own hands.

The youngster, who used to shout at speeders to slow down as they drove through the Stone Lakes subdivision in Louisville, now has taken matters into his own hands.

Dressed in a reflective vest, wearing a bicycle helmet and armed with an orange Hot Wheels brand radar gun, he points and records the actual speed of passing traffic.

Landon also carries a flashlight with a built-in siren.

"When I saw it happening, I got the biggest kick out of it," said resident George Ayers, 61. "People were locking up their brakes when they saw him."



You can hack these toy radar guns, or you could really have some fun as-is.

SOCOM: Moving With Satcom

Thursday, July 17th, 2008




Carl von Clausewitz once famously observed that war is the extension of politics by other means.

So it seems fitting, at least in the sense that truisms are true, that the satcom-on-the-go platform that has been bringing the American people live coverage of the presidential election (which we blogged about here) is now being used by U.S. Special Forces in the Middle East.

We’re speaking, of course, of the ArcLight Mobile Satellite Communication System by ViaSat. We’ve written before about how the broadcast networks use the system in moving vehicles, and how the same platform is being used by AMERICOM and KVH for maritime mobile broadband

Now comes a press release announcing that ViaSat Airborne Broadband Ku-band satcom is being deployed by U.S. Special Forces for real time data and video communications: 

The system is already in use in the Middle East and coverage areas will expand as more terminals and hubs are delivered. This new operational capability, an extension of the ArcLight® mobile broadband system, is installed on C-130 aircraft, primarily for sending high resolution video back to higher command authorities for further analysis and identification.

Here’s a video of the type of real-world situations that the ArcLight system can help commanders in-field and at the United States Special Operations Command address. It’s taken from an AC-130 Gunship observing insurgents in Iraq. (Warning: Video contains violence and may not be suitable for all viewers.)


 The C-130 satcom system is built around the advanced ArcLight modem and networking technology using a spread spectrum waveform to enable the use of mobile satellite antennas as small as 29 centimeters in diameter. The antenna is enclosed in a radome attached to a redesigned emergency escape hatch. In a few minutes, operators can configure an aircraft for their specific mission without any permanent aircraft alterations, then quickly return the aircraft to its normal configuration when the mission is complete, while maintaining safety-of-flight integrity. The U.S. Air Force-certified hatch-mount terminal enables secure access to Department of Defense wide area networks at raw data rates up to 10 Mbps inbound and 512 kbps outbound while airborne.

Russian Hide-N-Seek

Wednesday, July 16th, 2008


As Mark Twain said, "Always tell the truth. That way, you don’t have to remember what you said." The Russian Defence Ministry’s Information and Public Relations Directorate ought to make a note of it.

Back in April, Red Orbit reported they denied a major satellite malfunction:

"In connection with reports published in some mass media alleging that the Kosmos-2421 satellite has disintegrated, we would like to report that its planned flight programme has been fulfilled. After switching off its on-board equipment, the satellite was taken out of service in accordance with the established procedure", reads the directorate’s report received by Interfax-AVN today.

According to the Defence Ministry, "the Kosmos-2421 satellite remains in its orbit, the parameters of which correspond to the predicted ones, and is under steady observation by means of the national system of space control".

The ministry added that there are three more space objects in orbits close to Kosmos-2421. "One of them is a stage vehicle of a carrier rocket, and the other two – fragments of a launch [vehicle]", the report says. [Passage omitted on "a NASA website" report on the alleged disintegration of the satellite; background]

Originally published by Interfax-AVN military news agency website, Moscow, in Russian 1431 15 Apr 08.

Well, according to NASA’s Orbital Debris Quarterly News, that’s not entirely true:

Late in the first quarter of 2008, the U.S. Space Surveillance Network (SSN) detected a significant fragmentation of Cosmos 2421 (International Designator 2006-026A, U.S. Satellite Number 29247), which produced approximately 300 detectable debris (see ODQN, Vol. 12, Issue 2). Two more fragmentation events of the same spacecraft during April-June added another 200 or more large debris (greater than 5 cm) to the near-Earth space environment, once again raising questions about the peculiar nature of this satellite class.


You can count on our friends at U.S. Strategic Command’s Space Surveillance Network to keep an eye on them.



EchoStar XI Launch Update

Tuesday, July 15th, 2008

Set for tonight at 10:21pm PST via Sea Launch:

Long Beach, Calif., July 14, 2008 – The Sea Launch team arrived at the launch site in the Equatorial Pacific over the weekend and initiated a 72-hour countdown, in preparation for the launch of the EchoStar XI satellite on Tuesday, July 15. Liftoff is planned at 10:21pm PDT, July 15 (5:21 GMT, July 16), at the opening of a two-hour launch window.

Upon arrival at the launch site, at 154 degrees West Longitude, the team ballasted the Odyssey Launch Platform to launch depth. A final series of tests on all systems is now underway. Prior to fueling operations, the platform will be evacuated, with all personnel safely positioned on the ship, about four miles from the platform. One hour after liftoff, a Zenit-3SL vehicle will insert the 5,511 kg (12,150 lb) EchoStar XI satellite into geosynchronous transfer orbit, on its way to a final orbital location of 110 degrees West Longitude.

Built by Space Systems/Loral (SS/L), the powerful 20-kW spacecraft, carries a Ku-band payload that will support DISH Network’s direct broadcast television service for its customers throughout the United States. This spacecraft is designed for a 15-year service life on orbit. This is the 3rd mission Sea Launch is executing for DISH Network and the 8th mission with a spacecraft built by SS/L.

Check out a live still webcam from the platform here and here. If you’re going to stay up late, you can watch live coverage of the launch here. And Sea Launch has extensive coverage of the mission and satellite here.

With DISH Network promising 130 HD channels by the end of 2008, this satellite launch is, like all of them, very important. And this launch couldn’t be mre timely, as DISH just surpassed 100 channels just a few days ago. And this means that DISH may have just surpassed DirecTV.

Satellite Broadband Gets an Upgrade

Monday, July 14th, 2008

If thoughts of super-fast satellite link-ups from spy movies have you considering satellite broadband service, we have some news you’d like to hear.

WildBlue, one of the top satellite broadband providers in the US, is upgrading its capacity to allow for 150,000 new customers. How are they doing it? Rather than launching a new bird, they’re upgrading their transmission link hardware and software to allow 50 percent more information bits through the same existing radio link.

Some are skeptical that these upgrades will actually lead to better service. But, if you live in an area where dial-up is your only other option, most reviews say jumping to satellite is worth it.

For those of us who live in urban areas and take it for granted that we can shop around for internet service, we should count ourselves lucky:

WildBlue estimates that there are over 11 million households in areas throughout the United States where DSL or cable broadband services are not available and that over 7.5 million of these households are still accessing the Internet through a traditional dial-up connection.

With WildBlue’s latest upgrades, they seem to be beating out their other major competitor in the satellite broadband space: HughesNet. In fact, in a Consumer Reports review of ISPs, HughesNet got the lowest possible rating in all categories. This customer seems to agree.

DIY Friday: Make Your Own Crickets

Friday, July 11th, 2008

No, this isn’t a biology project.

Let’s say you live in an urban environment like this.  And what you long for is the sounds of long-ago summers, and the relaxing sound of cricketsong.

Unfortunately, live crickets won’t make it very long on the mean streets of the big city. But you don’t need to pine away any longer, because today’s DIY Friday project is about making electronic crickets:

Is that too much work for you? You can always download a cricket ringtone to create that relaxing summer evening feeling whenever someone calls.

(For ourselves, we’ve already got an awesome ringtone, and we’re not parting with it.)


Water, Water Everywhere (Except Here)

Thursday, July 10th, 2008


We’ve all heard about the ice samples found by the Phoenix Mars Lander on the surface of Mars.

For the past several weeks, the Martian dirt and ice have been clutched in the scoop of the Lander’s robotic arm, in a sort of scientific Butoh dance, while NASA engineers and scientists have figured out a way to get the sample into the Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer (TEGA) — AKA the "analysis ovens:"

TEGA… heat[s] Martian soil so that any gases emitted can be analyzed. On its first test in mid-June, the oven being used developed a short circuit. [NASA] scientists stalled any further TEGA analysis while they were studying the problem. And now they’ve halted planned tests and moved a test of Martian ice up to the front of the line, according to Ray Arvidson, a co-investigator for the Phoenix Mars Lander’s robotic arm team and a professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

"Because of the possibility, even the remote possibility, that TEGA might go belly-up in the next sample, we wanted to go straight to ice," said Arvidson. "We cleared the pathway to get the next sample from the ice. The prudent choice is to go off and get the most important sample." 

Where did Mars’ water go, you ask? 

The two most likely possibilities are that the water was lost to space, or that it is now underground, as a huge amount of buried ice.

But Mars isn’t the only place in the solar system where evidence of water has (possibly) been found; a study published today in Nature reveals that researchers have found evidence of water molecules in pebbles retrieved by NASA’s Apollo missions on the moon, nearly forty years ago:

 Erik Hauri of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington had developed a technique called secondary ion mass spectrometry or SIMS, which could detect minute amounts of elements in samples. His team was using it to find evidence of water in the Earth’s molten mantle.

"Then one day I said, ‘Look, why don’t we go and try it on the moon glass?"’ Alberto Saal of Brown University, who helped lead the study, said in a telephone interview….

 What they found overturned the conventional wisdom that the moon is dry.

"For 40 years people have tried (to find evidence of water) and were not successful," Saal said.

"Common sense tell us there is nothing."

Saal’s team did not find water directly, but they did measure hydrogen, and it resembled the measurements they have done to detect hydrogen, and eventually water, in samples from Earth’s mantle.

The evidence shows that the hydrogen in the sample vaporized during volcanic activity that would be similar to lava spurts seen on Earth today.

It took the scientists nearly three years to get NASA to fund their project. The findings point to the existence of water deep beneath the moon’s surface — a radical change in the scientific understanding of our moon’s formation.

The pebbles analyzed were scattered by lunar volcanoes that erupted three billion years ago, when the moon was still a cooling hunk of magma cast into orbit by the collision of a Mars-sized asteroid with Earth, according to ABC News:

Though NASA’s Lunar Prospector appeared to have struck ice in 1999, its findings proved inconclusive. Had they been supported, scientists predicted that any water would have come from gases emitted by meteorites striking the moon….

Critically, telltale hydrogen molecules were concentrated at the center of samples rather than their surfaces, assuring Saal’s team that water was present in an infant moon rather than added by recent bombardment.

"That was not known," said William Feldman, a Los Alamos National Laboratory geophysicist who was not involved in the study.

If that water in fact came from the Earth, then planetary geologists can be certain that our planet contained water 4.5 billion years ago. That would change the dynamics of models of Earth’s formations….

Alternatively, water could have been added after the moon was ejected into space but before it cooled, raising new questions about the water’s origin.

"This opens up so many lines of study," said Saal.

More practically, the widespread presence of water beneath the moon’s surface could prove a boon to future lunar colonies, who could harvest it for breathable oxygen

Meanwhile, here on Earth, potable water is increasingly under short supply as droughts and population growth put a strain on our own water resources.

The solution increasingly is desalination plants, particularly in the Middle East, where the amount of fresh water available to each person could fall by half by 2050:

The UAE and other Gulf countries have traditionally responded to water scarcity by boosting desalination capacity. Most of the potable water in the region is produced via desalination, a process in which dissolved salts are removed from seawater.

However, earlier this year a UN official warned that GCC countries would find it increasingly difficult to continue building desalination plants at the current rate.

The region’s water consumption was so high that continuing in the same way would require significant financial investments and might prove impossible to sustain, said Dr Ahmad Ali Ghosn, the natural resources programme officer at the UN Environment Programme.

In Abu Dhabi, residents consume an average of 550 litres of water per day. If consumption levels remained this high, Gulf governments would have to spend up to US$35 billion (Dh129bn) in the next decade to finance the expansion of their desalination capacity.

In addition, water is heavily subsidised in the region, with end-users paying between five and 10 per cent of the cost. The UN estimates that GCC countries spend between US$1 and US$2 to produce a cubic metre of desalinated water.

Desalination unfortunately has several adverse effects on the environment. It is a very energy-intensive process, with desalination plants releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which contributes to global warming.

Perhaps a water pipeline from the moon is in our future? 

Canadian Innovation

Wednesday, July 9th, 2008

Some interesting news coming out of Canada recently, some of it satcom-related, and some not. Ciel Satellite received "approvals in principle" from Industry Canada to develop a half-dozen orbital locations over North America, right in the "sweet spot" for direct-broadcast satellite TV. Using the Ka-band for BSS spectrum (17/24 GHz) represents new capacity and will probably lead to more innovation. More HDTV channels? You better believe it.


We know RIM’s BlackBerry represents Canadian innovation at its finest, and the Canadarm contribution to the space program is well-known, but we couldn’t help but notice the news from Sky Hook International for a new transport system — using blimps:

A Calgary company will team up with aerospace giant Boeing to build a giant dirigible-like craft capable of lifting heavy loads for the oil and gas, mining and forestry sectors.

SkyHook International Inc. president Peter Jess said the companies plan to build two prototypes of the JHL-40 rotorcraft — a combination helicopter and blimp — before proceeding with a production run of 50 to 60 units.

According to company officials, there isn’t anything quite like it in existence and the prototypes will mark the commercial development of a whole new breed of aircraft.

"The list of customers waiting for SkyHook’s services is extensive and they enthusiastically support the development of the JHL-40."

The patented craft will be capable of hauling 40-tonne loads up to 320 kilometres in areas without basic infrastructure such as roads.

Jess said the first two initial craft would be deployed in the Arctic.

Formerly with Dome Petroleum, Jess said he came up with the idea decades ago while working in the Far North.

Boeing will build the prototypes at its manufacturing facility in Pennsylvania while SkyHook will own, maintain and operate the aircraft on a worldwide basis.

The JHL-40 has yet to be certified by aviation authorities in Canada or the United States and won’t come into service until 2012.

Innovation leads economic development in any business — especially satcom.


French, Indian Scientists Meet in Goa

Tuesday, July 8th, 2008

Now this is the place to have a conference. 

Between the trance music, the beaches, and the all-day-and-all-night parties….  well, we can understand why management never leaps at the idea when we propose a blogging retreat there at the beginning of each new quarter.

But if you’re actually doing business in India, Goa’s a nice destination, which is why the Joint Working Group of the Indian Space Research Organisation and the French Space Agency Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES) met there this past weekend to review the progress of their collaborative projects.

Top of the agenda (besides suntanning and dancing, we presume) was the status of Megha Topiques, an Indo-French collaborative satellite project scheduled for launch in 2009 for tropical weather monitoring:

 The french-indian MEGHA-TROPIQUES satellite is devoted to atmospheric research. The data collected by the satellite will … improve our knowledge on the water cycle contribution to the climate dynamic in the tropical atmosphere and our understanding of the processes linked to the tropical convection. CNES and the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) will share joint responsibility for the satellite and science missions, with CNES acting as prime contractor for some of the instruments.

Megha Tropiques carries four payloads– a microwave radiometer, a humidity sounder, a radiation measuring instrument and a radio occulation sounder for atmospheric studies. Key among its tools is MADRAS, a conical scanning microwave imager developed jointly by CNES and ISRO.


The Megha-Tropiques satellite will be launched by an Indian PSLV launcher on a 800 km orbit with an inclination of 20°. 

It will be identifiable by the glowsticks attached to the satellite upon launch. </snark>