Civilians in Abandoned McDonald’s Seize Control of Wandering Space Satellite
by Jack Smith IV / 8/08/14

For the first time in history, an independent crew is taking control of a NASA satellite and running a crowdfunded mission. They’re doing it all from a makeshift mission control center in an abandoned McDonald’s in Mountain View, CA, using old radio parts from eBay and a salvaged flat screen TV. “If I could come up with another absurd detail, I would,” Keith Cowing, the project’s team lead, told Betabeat. The ISEE-3 is a disco-era satellite that used to measure space weather like solar wind and radiation, but went out of commission decades ago. Now, a small team led by Mr. Cowing have taken control of the satellite with NASA’s silent blessing. Mr. Cowing is a former NASA employee, and now runs a handful of space news sites, like NASA Watch and SpaceRef. Sitting out in the desert one night after a documentary shoot, Mr. Cowing asked Bob Farquhar, an old NASA researcher who worked with the ISEE-3 in its glory days, what it would take to bring the satellite out of retirement. The satellite’s battery has been dead for over 20 years, but it had solar panels to power 98 percent of the satellite’s full capabilities. In its heyday, it ran missions around the Moon and Earth, and flew through the tail of a comet. But technology gets old, and everyone happily let the successful satellite go, knowing it would be back in Earth’s orbit someday — namely, 2014.

Since the satellite went offline, the team had retired, the documentation was lost and the equipment was outdated. They could still hear the satellite out there talking, but they’d need to build the equipment to talk back. But the satellite had been built for longevity with very simple technology. To get it back would simply be like trying to make concrete with the original Roman recipe. In other words, they’d need a few outdated parts, but it could definitely be done. “What’s so hard about that?” Mr. Cowing remembers asking. Two weeks later, they began a crowdfunding campaign that would beat its $125,000 goal and go on to raise $160,000. Within another six weeks, a small team was in Puerto Rico, running around Arecibo Observatory running tests, hoisting a transmitter into place with a helicopter, ready to make contact.

At the outset of the crowdfunding campaign, they brought the idea to NASA, but there was no precedent on which to base an agreement. No external organization has ever taken command of a spacecraft, but NASA didn’t want to say no, so they asked the team if they needed any help. To start, they needed space for their control center. The neighborhood near Ames Research Center in Mountain View, once a teeming hub of activity in the days of the space race, had become a shell of its former self. “There were a few abandoned buildings — one was a barbershop, and one was an abandoned McDonald’s,” Mr. Cowing said. “Someone hit the barbershop with a truck, so we took the McDonald’s.” Their new control center, dubbed “McMoon’s,” fit all of the criteria they needed: the doors locked, and it was free. For their console, they pulled a broken flatscreen TV from a government dumpster and fixed the power supply. The other pieces are from eBay, including a Mac laptop and some radio parts. With just those bare-bones pieces, they were able to MacGyver a computer-radio hybrid that made contact with the ISEE-3. Once they were able to communicate with the satellite, they established a new orbit around the Sun, slightly larger than the Earth’s orbit. It’ll remain close enough to the Earth for a while, allowing the crowd-sourced community to run tests for a long time. But for how long? “No idea,” Mr. Cowing said. “It’s been on for 36 years, so another 36? Nobody knows. A long time.” In the mean time, they’ll be constantly taking in solar weather data — and then sharing it with everyone.

An Open Source Satellite
Until now, when NASA wanted to conduct research, they’d collect data and disappear with it for a few months before publishing. But the data from ISEE-3 is going to be available to anyone who wants access to it. It’s a spacecraft funded by the public, and available for the public. “We’re allowing anybody who is interested and has a computer to be able to do something with the data,” Mr. Cowing said. Google has been helping them build a site which will open up the data to the world. Everything coming from the satellite will be available in different formats and packages so that anyone can dig in. The appeal of opening up the data is clear: if anyone can access the firehose, the crowd can bring back fresh new results and observations that a small academic research team might overlook. Open data and hackathons are a growing trend in staid industries like energy and infrastructure that are in desperate need of innovation, but were previously reluctant to open their doors to the masses. “Space people have a sort of arrogance” Mr. Cowing said. “I used to be that way, but now I’m revolted by the thought that people without a pocket protector and calculator feel like they can’t be involved.” The world will get the first taste of what it’s like to crowdsource data from outer space this weekend. On Sunday at 2:16 a.m EST, the ISEE-3 will fly close to the moon in the first “Interplanetary Citizen Science Mission” ever undertaken. The data collected by the satellite will stream live, and there will be a Google Hangout at McMoon’s for anyone who wants to participate. Between now and then, the team — a handful of space-age codgers and the few 20-somethings that have come aboard — will be at McMoon’s preparing their disco-era satellite for its first mission in decades.

Can This 1970s Spacecraft Explore Again?
by Mika McKinnon  / 4/15/14

The countdown is on to rebuild communications with a spacecraft before it drifts past this summer. The craft has functional instruments, but NASA has no budget to reactivate the program. It’s up to private donors and dedicated volunteers to recapture the abandoned spacecraft. Launched in the 1970s, repurposed & renamed in 1980s, the ICE/ISEE space explorer still had 12 of 13 functional instruments in the 1990s. Now it’s flying past the Earth, beeping out its willingness to chat, but we ripped out the Deep Space Network antenna array in 1999, and no longer have the ability to respond. An international team of engineers is working on a private solution, but needs funds to rebuild the past and send new commands to slide the spacecraft into a new orbit.

In 1978, a triplet of spacecraft were launched as the International Sun-Earth Explorers (ISEE 1, 2, and 3). Their purpose was to investigate Sun-Earth interactions at the very edge of the Earth’s magnetic field, examine the solar wind and shock wave at the interface, investigate how the plasma sheets impacted motion and mechanical function, and to continue investigation of cosmic rays and solar flares. In 1982, one of the spacecraft (ISEE 3) split off to see how solar winds impacted cometary tails. In 1985, it intercepted Comet Giacobini-Zinne, and earned a new name, the International Cometary Explorer (ICE). In 1986, the brave little explorer maneuvered between the sun and Comet Halley, adding to observations made by its satellite-kin Giotto, Planet-A, MS-T5, and VEGA. Finally, it was rerouted to a heliocentric orbit with an an aphelion of 1.03 AU, a perihelion of 0.93 AU and an inclination of 0.1 degree: ever-so-slowly creeping up on the Earth.

By 1987, the ISEE 1 and 2 satellites re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere, ending their missions, but ICE/ISEE 3 kept on its stable orbit, ever-so-slowly finding its way home. When ICE/ISEE 3 was going strong in 1991, NASA redirected it yet again, sending it to stare at the sun to record coronal mass ejections, keep observing cosmic rays, and occasionally peek at the Ulysses spacecraft. In 1995, the spacecraft was resigned to a low-duty cycle, sharing costs with Ulysses. In 1997, operations were officially terminated. We stopped talking, but the little spacecraft kept on going.

In 2008, we realized that when we said goodbye, we forgot to tell it we weren’t calling back.ICE/ISEE 3 had been faithfully awaiting our next conversation. Shocked and impressed, NASA engineers looked into what it would take to reclaim the satellite and send it off on whole new adventures. By Valentine’s Day this year, they reluctantly conceded that since the Deep Space Network transmitters were torn out in 1999, we could listen, understand, but not talk to ICE/ISEE 3. Regretfully, they concluded that on August 10, 2014, the little explorer that lasted far longer than we anticipated, would pass the Earth and continue on its orbit alone with no new instructions. Imagine the heartbroken wailing and the cries of denial. Insert the demands to find out just how much it would cost to rebuild the antennas in time, and the blank stares when told even $1 was outside of NASA’s limited budget. Soon, the inevitable idea emerged: crowdfund our way back into communication with the little spacecraft. The idea isn’t as crazy as it sounds. While the Deep Space Network ripped out the necessary antenna, Morehead State University has an antenna that is successfully picking up ICE/ISEE 3 transmissions. If they can track down the old commands, and built a software emulator for the old hardware, that same dish can theoretically be used to send new commands. But it’s a short timeline: they only have until late May or early June to send ICE/ISEE 3 on a new orbit. If they succeed, the spacecraft will skim past the moon at less than 50 kilometers altitude, and the flyby will boost it along a new, twisting trajectory that will make the most of its limited fuel to continue its mission of collecting all the data it can with its mostly-functional instrument load.

Lifting the power amplifier.

Installation complete, ready to hook up RF input and power on

NASA’s Lost Satellite Just Made First Contact With Earth in 17 Years
by Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan / 5/29/14

It’s official: ISEE-3, the 36-year-old satellite that NASA left for dead over a decade ago, is back in touch with humankind. This afternoon, a group of citizen scientists who raised almost $160,000 to fund the process of taking control of ISEE-3 announced that two-way contact has been established with the little satellite that could. So what’s next? “Over the coming days and weeks our team will make an assessment of the spacecraft’s overall health and refine the techniques required to fire its engines and bring it back to an orbit near Earth,” explained the Reboot team in a triumphant comment released today. Contact was made at Arecibo Radio Observatory in Puerto Rico, where scientists collaborated with a worldwide network of like-minded space fans to fund and engineer the project.

The ISEE-3, (later ICE), undergoing testing and evaluation

NASA Is Letting Citizens Commandeer a Long-Lost Satellite

Yesterday evening, NASA officially granted permission to a group of scientists and enthusiasts who want to do what NASA can’t afford: Make contact with a 36-year-old satellite called ISEE-3 that’s still capable of taking directions for a new mission. It’s the first agreement of its kind—and it could hint at where the space industry is going. So, a little back story. As our sister site io9 explained last month, ISEE-3 was launched back in 1978 to study the relationship between the Sun and Earth. It enjoyed many more missions over the next three decades, but NASA officially cut the cord in 1997. Still, ISEE-3 kept on trucking. It wasn’t until a decade later that NASA discovered she was still at it, despite the lack of commands from her benefactors at NASA. Why not send her on a new mission? Well, that’s the trouble: We have no way of communicating. The antenna used to contact ISEE-3 had been removed. Enter the group of scientists including SkyCorp, SpaceRef, Space College Foundation, and others. They want to use a different antenna, at Morehead State University, to contact ISEE-3. “Our plan is simple: we intend to contact the ISEE-3 spacecraft, command it to fire its engines and enter an orbit near Earth, and then resume its original mission,” said Keith Cowing, a former Nasa engineer and owner of Nasa Watch, told the Guardian.

Sounds good, right? Well, it’s not so simple. The group, which calls itself ISEE-3 Reboot, needs to essentially rebuild the entire software used to communicate with ISEE-3 back in the 70s. That means digging through archives to find the original commands, then recreating them. With zero funding available from NASA and only a month or two until the little satellite makes a close pass in mid-June. The technical challenges are huge: We need to initiate a crash course effort to use ‘software radio’ to recreate virtual versions all of the original communications hardware that no longer physically exists. We also need to cover overhead involved in operating a large dish antenna, locating and analyzing old documentation, and possibly some travel.

But, the creators of the project explained in their pitch letter on Rockethub, “if we are successful it may also still be able to chase yet another comet.” If there was any doubt about whether modern Americans were still enamored with space, the results of their crowdfunding campaign squash it. The group blew through their $100,000 goal, and are currently getting close to a $150,000 stretch goal. There are only two days left to donate—and you should—but the fact that they’ve raised so much money in so short a time is remarkable.

The ISEE-3 Reboot mission patch

Yesterday, NASA announced it has signed an agreement with the group called a Non-Reimbursable Space Act Agreement (NRSAA), which is a contract it signs with its external partners to describe a collaboration. It gives the group the green light to go ahead and make its attempt at taking control of ISEE-3—it essence, it gives Skycorp the right to take over the operation of a satellite that NASA built almost 40 years ago. Here’s what astronaut John Grunsfeld had to say about the agreement: The intrepid ISEE-3 spacecraft was sent away from its primary mission to study the physics of the solar wind extending its mission of discovery to study two comets. We have a chance to engage a new generation of citizen scientists through this creative effort to recapture the ISEE-3 spacecraft as it zips by the Earth this summer. It’s an incredible development—and it tells us something about where space travel and research is going. NASA and other state-funded research entities are being strangled by downsized budgets, but the push into space amongst independent scientists, engineers, and citizens is booming. As Elon Musk sues to let commercial space companies compete for government contracts, students and scientists are launching their own satellites. Over the next few decades, plenty of other NASA-built spacecraft will begin to age—just like ISEE-3. And unless something drastic changes about NASA’s budget, it may not have the cash to keep them up. Imagine a future in which craft built by NASA in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, are inherited by independent groups of scientists and space companies who take over operations, just like Skycorp is. The privatization of space might not be so far away—and NASA might play a heavy role in its creation.

The ‘extended urbanization’ of space
by John Metcalfe  /  May 22, 2014

Right now, there are about 1,100 satellites whizzing above our heads performing various functions like observation, communication, and spying. There are roughly another 2,600 doing nothing, as they died or were turned off a long time ago. How did each of these satellites get up there? And what nations are responsible for sending up the bulk of them? The answers come in the form of this bewitching visualization of satellite launches from 1957 – the year Russia debuted Sputnik 1 – to the present day. (The animation starts at 2:10; be sure to watch in HD.) Launch sites pop up as yellow circles as the years roll by, sending rockets, represented as individual lines, flying into space with one or more satellites aboard. “The operationalization of outer space hinges upon specific, highly concentrated terrestrial infrastructures.” The lines are color-coded to show where the rockets delivered their payloads. White is for low-earth orbit (the home of observation and spy satellites and space stations), red for medium-earth orbit (navigation and communications satellites), purple for geosynchronous orbit (communications satellites), and blue for high-earth orbit. The latter was the work zone of the now-defunct Vela satellites, designed to monitor for secret nuclear explosions and a remaining source of intrigue due to the mysterious Vela Incident, which conspiracy theorists claim was a joint South African/Israeli nuclear test. Chris Bennett, a 30-year-old architect from Chicago, made this digital cartography for a course in urban theory at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. “The course was part of the Urban Theory Lab, which is rethinking the nature of urbanization beyond the traditional boundaries of cities,” he emails. “Themes of the lab course focused on locations of ‘extended urbanization’ as a way to understand the broader landscapes that support urban life and are in turn transformed by urbanization. The operationalization of outer space hinges upon specific, highly concentrated terrestrial infrastructures (launch sites), and my semester’s research explored those themes.”

Bennett points out how different launch sites are sometimes associated with certain orbits – relatively few have done high-earth, for instance (including exactly one in Antarctica) – as well as themes that emerged over the years. “It was interesting to see how different intensities of satellite launches make patterns over the time line, i.e., the intensity of the Soviet Union and then the fall of their launches that coincides with the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union,” he says. It’s also clear that two countries are responsible for the majority of history’s launches: Russia and the United States. Watch the animation to the end for the huge installations in these superpowers responsible for sending up the most rockets, the Russian-managed Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan:

Cape Canaveral in Florida:

Images courtesy of Chris Bennett


“According to the CS Monitor, ‘Thousands of small satellite dish-based computer systems [VSATs] that transmit often-sensitive data from far flung locations worldwide – oil rigs, ships at sea, banks, and even power grid substations – are at high risk of being hacked, including many in the United States, a new cyber-security report has found.’ Dr. Jason Fritz said, ‘Vulnerabilities exist at all nodes and links in satellite structure. These can be exploited through Internet-connected computer networks, as hackers are more commonly envisioned to do, or through electronic warfare methodologies that more directly manipulate the radio waves of uplinks and downlinks.'”


A swarm of small satellites set to deliver close to real-time imagery of swathes of the planet is launching today. San Francisco-based Planet Labs, founded in 2010 by three former NASA scientists, is scheduled to launch 28 of its ‘Doves’ on 9 January. Each toaster-sized device weighs about 5 kilograms and can take images at a resolution of 3–5 metres. Meanwhile Skybox Imaging plans to launch a swarm of 24 satellites, each weighing about 100 kilograms, which will take images of 1 meter resolution or better. Skybox launched its first satellite on 21 November (and captured the first HD video of the world from space) and plans to launch another this year, followed by the remainder between 2015 and 2017. In a first — at least for civilian satellites — Skybox’s devices will also stream short segments of near-live high-resolution video footage of the planet. So, too, will UrtheCast, a start-up based in Vancouver, Canada, whose cameras will hitch a ride on the International Space Station. Because the swarms are still to be launched, scientists have yet to fully assess the quality of the imagery. But the satellites’ spatial resolutions of 1–5 metres are much higher than those of most scientific satellites. Landsat, NASA’s Earth-observation workhorse, for example, has a resolution of 15–100 metres depending on the spectral frequency, with 30 metres in the visible-light range.”

Mini-Satellite ‘Space Cops’ Could Control Satellite Traffic And Help Prevent Collisions
by Philip Ross  /  January 25 2014

There are approximately 3,000 satellites currently operating in Earth’s orbit. Keeping them from slamming into one another is an increasing concern for scientists. With all those unruly satellites buzzing around above our heads, it’s about time someone stepped in to police all that space traffic. Or, at least provide a more accurate portrait of a satellite’s trajectory. Researchers from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California have developed a system of “space cops” – mini-satellites designed to track and refine a satellite’s path – that are better equipped to monitor low-orbit satellites and prevent collisions. The program, called the Space-Based Telescopes for Actionable Refinement of Ephemeris, or STARE, can predict a satellite’s trajectory to within less than 50 meters, according to initial tests. “Eventually our satellite will be orbiting and making the same sort of observations to help prevent satellite-on-satellite and satellite-on-debris collisions in space,” Lance Simms, lead author of a paper appearing in an upcoming edition of the Journal of Small Satellites, said in a statement. According to United States Space Surveillance Network, there are about 3,000 satellites currently operating in Earth’s orbit. Additionally, there are approximately 5,000 other man-made objects over 10 centimeters in diameter circling our planet. That’s not to mention the millions upon millions of pieces of “space junk,” ranging in size from 10 centimeters to less than 1 centimeter, also whizzing around our planet, most of it traveling at speeds of up to 18,000 mph.

In sum: There’s a lot of stuff up there moving really, really fast. The 2009 satellite collision above Siberia between two intact satellites is testament to how destructive a high-speed space crash can be (the satellites collided at a total speed of 26,170 miles per hour – neither satellite survived.) Satellite collisions, both with each other and with the surfeit of space debris currently orbiting Erath, are becoming increasingly problematic. As Earth’s satellite channels get clogged with junk, scientists must find better, more accurate ways to measure the trajectories of satellites traveling at thousands of miles per hour. According to Science Recorder, current technology can pinpoint a satellite’s location to within 1 kilometer. That level of uncertainty leads to about 10,000 false alarms for every confirmed collision, meaning satellite operators rarely follow up on collision warnings – until one actually occurs. Violent collisions are one thing, but experts also fear that space debris could at some point interfere with global positioning systems, international phone connections and television signals. Researchers from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California hope to remedy that problem by sending a team of nano-satellites into low orbit to better monitor satellite traffic. The STARE mission aims to reduce the 1 kilometer window of uncertainty down to about 100 meters or smaller. Developers of the program hope to significantly reduce the number of meters. In the case of the Livermore team, they were able to reduce the uncertainty to 50 meters, well below the 100-meter goal.

Amateur Astronomers Scour the Sky for Government Secrets
by Jim Nash / May 1, 2012

Earlier this year Iran’s defense minister put the world on notice: His nation had developed the ability to “easily” watch spacewalking astronauts from the ground. The announcement was largely ignored, in part because it made the minister sound like a James Bond villain. The boast was also a bit anticlimactic, given that even amateur astronomers are already recording in detail what happens in low Earth orbit. Both the technology involved and the techniques used to observe satellites and even the occasional astronaut perched outside the International Space Station (ISS) are improving, much to the presumed chagrin of governments looking to keep certain on orbital activity confidential. In a development harkening back to the earliest days of desktop computing, highly skilled stargazers are hacking together optics, electronics and software to create sophisticated observatories of their own. In fact, one French astrophotographer, Emmanuel Rietsch, has begun selling software and hardware that make it possible for backyard astronomers to track and record satellites. High-end consumer telescopes resting on motorized, programmable mounts that match Earth’s rotational speed to keep the scope pointed at stars and planets as they cross the sky have long been standard equipment. Rietsch’s innovation, developed at the request of Thierry Legault, a friend and fellow French astrophotographer, is hardware and software that pushes the mount to operate many times faster in order to keep up with comparatively speedy satellites. Legault and Rietsch use Prism and Adobe Premiere to improve the clarity of the images they capture and VirtualDub to convert the images for use online. With the hacked-together system, Legault produced “the first useful images I have seen” of last year’s doomed Russian Mars probe Phobos–Grunt as well as spy satellites, veteran backyard astronomer Ted Molczan says.

Together, Reitsch and Legault “have advanced the amateur state of the art by combining high-quality optics and cameras with an automated tracking system built by Rietsch,” adds Molczan, himself well-known for observing man-made satellites in orbit and posting information about them to the Web. This includes the American military satellite USA 193, which malfunctioned after little more than a year and was shot down by a U.S. warship in 2008. In fact, amateur astronomers were the first to report publicly, late last year, that as Russia’s Phobos–Grunt sat helplessly inert in Earth orbit—the spacecraft initially was in a fixed orientation relative to the sun. The news gave some space science boosters (short-lived) hope that the mission could be salvaged. It wasn’t the first time stargazers had successfully tracked objects in space, but it was the first time they were able to report in such detail. And the number of objects being cataloged is increasing: A backyard spotter in Ontario, Kevin Fetter, won notoriety for sighting among other things an errant NASA tool bag and, last fall, China’s Tiangong 1 space station test vehicle. Fetter captured the spacecraft on video with a static, comparatively low-powered telescope, yielding little more detail than could be seen with the unaided eye. Other experienced backyard trackers have also gained notoriety for spotting spy satellites, in particular the National Reconnaissance Agency’s (NRO) highly secret Lacrosse 5.

Soon after the craft was launched in 2005, amateur astronomers reported its “disappearance trick.” Apparently alone among all of the U.S.’s space spy fleet, the Lacrosse 5 periodically disappears from view for seconds before reappearing. It is the opposite of a flare, in which a satellite reflects a brief glint of sunlight. A much-discussed murky video shows a glowing, distinctly oblong object, said to be Lacrosse 5, quickly dimming before brightening again. The discovery was a sensation in satellite-hunting circles, inspiring some of the conspiratorially minded peepers to wonder if the U.S. could actually hide orbiting equipment from them. There may be implications for national security. Spy satellites are the original battlefield reconnaissance drones, and they remain unparalleled treasures for any nation capable of getting one into orbit. The NRO builds and launches spy satellites, and would prefer people know as little about them as possible. When contacted in March, the NRO refused to comment on whether sophisticated hobbyists are compromising security when they catalogue spy satellite passes, much less publish and puzzle over Lacrosse 5’s disappearance trick. It is unlikely that scores of enthusiasts will buy or build systems to spy on the spies, though. No astronomical component–makers sell complete, soup-to-nuts systems enabling amateur astrophotographers to peer into and capture detailed images as distant as low Earth orbit, defined by NASA as ranging from 80 to 2,000 kilometers in altitude. The hardware and software needed to record the wallflower Lacrosse 5 costs between $20,000 and $30,000, and it demands a lot of skill using telescopes, of course, but also mounts, custom software, mathematics and cameras. The following list of parts is by no means complete. Precision, motorized mounts, which swing the telescope tube about, can run about $13,000. A 20-centimeter telescope costs about $2,600. A fast monochrome digital video camera runs from $600 to $1,200. Software needed to track and record objects runs on any standard PC laptop (no Macs), but the computer has to have enough memory to be able to digest 100 images per second or more without choking. In addition to the growing cost and complexity of equipment, there is always the question of whether amateur astrophotographers like Legault and Rietsch might someday attract too much attention for their work, earning them a visit from certain three-initial government agencies. Legault, who is also known for having captured the image of astronaut Steve Bowen outside the ISS, laughs off the prospect. Rietsch also makes light of such a possibility: “I am not working right now,” he says. “If an agency comes to my door, I’m happy! I’ll make electronics for anybody.”


“No matter how painstakingly we choose the materials to build satellites, once a mission is over they are just so much junk. But what if one day they could be recycled in space for future missions – perhaps as construction material, fuel or even food? As part of its Clean Space initiative, ESA is looking for new ideas on materials that could be recycled or converted into different, useful resources for other processes. It costs a lot to put anything into space – a payload typically costs its own weight in gold – and the further it travels out into the Solar System the more valuable it becomes. So recycling or converting space hardware for follow-on missions could bring significant added value. The idea is inspired by the sustainable ‘cradle to cradle’ approach explored by terrestrial industry in recent years, where all the raw materials in a product can be later reused for another product, or consumed as food, with no waste residue and no loss in quality. Adapting this approach to space, future planetary probes or satellites might become sources of fuel, water or other raw materials considered scarce for the exploration missions that come after them. Examples might include grinding down metal alloys into powder to serve as raw materials for manufacturing new hardware by 3D printing. Mission development Organic materials could be separated by heating for subsequent reuse of the resulting gases. Leftover solid rocket fuel might be broken down for reuse. Biodegradable materials could be harnessed as biological nutrients in a life-support system, such as ESA’s Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative, MELiSSA, a long-term effort to create artificial closed-loop life support serving future manned missions, based on microbes and higher plants. But to enable such a widespread use of sustainable materials, future spacecraft might end up very different.

ESA’s new invitation for ‘Sustainable Materials Concepts’ is seeking companies to study various concepts of this approach, including considering the kinds of materials that could be reused as biological or technical nutrients – serving as resources for new other processes. Also under consideration: what sustainable materials might replace current space-grade materials such as titanium and aluminium alloys or carbon-fibre epoxy resins? And how might the use of materials as biological or technical nutrients work in practice? What level of energy might be required for such conversion processes? Would ‘slow manufacturing’ following the example of nature be a way forward? For more information check the invitation package, accessible via ESA’s Electronic Mailing Invitation to Tender System (EMITS).”

Pentagon’s Zombie Satellite Program Comes to Life
by / 06.26.12

The Pentagon’s intergalactic black-magic plot is getting ready to raise the dead. Dead satellites, that is. Last year, Darpa, the military’s blue-sky research agency, kicked off a programdesigned to harvest parts from unused communications satellites still orbiting the Earth, and then turn those bits and pieces — antennas in particular — into an array that operates as a low-cost “communications farm” for troops on the ground. Now that program, called Phoenix, is entering a new phase. First, Darpa last week issued a bid to commercial satellite owners, asking for “a candidate satellite” that’ll act as a space-based guinea pig for initial evaluations of the technology requisite for the initiative. And today, the agency hosted a conferenceon “sustainable satellite servicing” — attended by academics, private companies and military experts — to discuss everything from the program’s regulatory challenges to more technical “operational considerations” necessary to revive dead satellites.

Once fully realized, Darpa envisions the Phoenix program, which the agency wants to fully demonstrate by 2015, working something like this. First, a servicing satellite — complete with mechanical arms and other “unique tools” designed specifically for the program — would be launched into geosynchronous orbit (GEO). After that, the agency wants to launch an array of what they call “satlets” — wee, bare-bones satellites — to meet up with, and be stored by, the program’s primary satellite. From there, the satellite posse would transfer to what’s known as GEO’s “graveyard” orbit — where non-functioning satellites linger — and start picking off antennas and other useful parts. Once an antenna is removed from its former satellite, it would be affixed to a satlet, which’d act as a controller to move the antenna into position as part of a zombified array of recycled satellite parts.

The program is “definitely ambitious, and some might call it crazy,” according to Brian Weeden, a former officer with the U.S. Air Force Space Command who moderated a panel at today’s event. First, there are a host of technical hurdles for the agency to overcome. Even if they do, Darpa will also need to address “regulatory challenges” before Phoenix can get up and running, Weeden emails Danger Room. On a technical level, the agency needs to develop new robotic tools capable of delicate, highly specific satellite work — namely, pulling apart satellites without damaging key parts — in space. Such “intensive robotic operations […] nearly 37,000 km away, will likely require a level of autonomy not seen before,” Weeden notes. And Darpa’s plan to use satlets to transform antennas into functional space vessels is also treading untested waters. “To my knowledge,” Weeden writes, “this is something that has never been done before.” Darpa plans to evaluate those primary technical challenges using the candidate satellite they’re after, which should be “a geosynchronous satellite ending revenue-generating operations.” In particular, the agency wants to “demonstrate dextrous manipulation robotics,” including the removal of an antenna, and prove that the envisioned combination of a servicing satellite and satlets can “rendezvous and dock” with a candidate in-orbit. Assuming the agency’s able to finesse those techniques to perfection, they’ll still grapple with logistical hurdles. Parking a new satellite in orbit requires two-pronged approval from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU): an orbital slot, and a frequency reservation. The process, however, is wrought with heavy international competition and administrative red tape. According to an ITU reportreleased earlier this year, backlogs mean it might soon take up to three years for a satellite — after it’s been approved for GEO orbit — to be granted a specific slot and frequency. Despite the challenges, Darpa is clearly intent on moving ahead. In fact, the agency last week also awarded their first contract under the Phoenix program: $2.5 million to NovaWurks Inc., a California-based division of Northrop Grumman dedicated to “rapid innovation in several areas, including space,” company director Talbot Jaeger tells Danger Room. Jaeger declined to offer more details on the contract before our deadline, but NovaWurks was last year involved in the development and testing of Mayflower, an inexpensive microsatellite that seems akin to Darpa’s “satlet” aspirations. Of course, if Darpa does pull off the Phoenix program, it’d mean huge savings for the Pentagon’s satellite programs. Right now, launching a single satellite runs around $10,000 per pound of material. With an estimated $300 billion in dead satellites currently orbiting the GEO graveyard, recycling their functional parts “would dramatically lower the cost…of satellite missions for Defense Department needs,” according to Phoenix program manager Dave Barnhart. In fact, Phoenix is only one part of a larger Darpa push to save money in space. In the past year alone, the agency’s appealed for research into cheap, easily deployable satellites to offer quick footage for soldiers on the ground, launched a program to replace ground-based satellite launchpads with subsonic airliners … and kicked off the Galileo program, which seeks enhanced telescopic imagery to better evaluate dead satellites that might make good candidates for cannibalism. And even after all that effort — not to mention a budget that, for the Phoenix program alone, is currently pegged at $36 million — Darpa’s galatic zombies will likely serve the Pentagon’s bidding alone. “I don’t think it is likely that they will be able to replace the modern satellite,” Weeden writes. “But [these arrays] could be a useful compliment.”

Recycling satellites  /  Jul 31st 2013

The Space Age produced lots of predictions about the future that never quite came true—moon bases, asteroid mining, giant orbiting habitats and sun-fueled orbital power stations, to name a few. But one way in which it did change the world was the introduction of the artificial satellite. Today satellites are used to carry TV signals, monitor the environment, for navigation and to allow rivalrous countries to spy on each other unimpeded. But there is one, small problem. Rocket launches are expensive, which means that satellites must be disposable. If something goes wrong, repair is (with a few exceptions) impossible, and a new satellite must be launched to replace the dead one. A small American firm called Skycorp hopes to change things. It has filed a patent for what is, in effect, a wheelchair for crippled communications satellites. Many such birds trace a special and precise path through the sky, 35,800km up. Known as a geosychronous orbit, it is designed to make the satellite’s speed through space exactly match the speed at which Earth rotates below it. From the point of view of an observer on the ground, in other words, the satellite will appear to hang motionless in the sky. This allows people on the ground to communicate with the satellite without having to constantly realign their dishes. But geosynchronous orbits (or indeed, any other kind of orbit) tend not to be stable. Gravitational tugs from the Moon and the sun, the pressure of sunlight on solar panels and even density variations within Earth itself can cause a satellite to drift off course. To get round this, many satellites have small onboard rocket engines with which to keep themselves in place. Eventually though, the fuel for those rockets will run out. When that happens, the satellite—which may be in perfect working order—quickly becomes useless. Rather than launch an entire replacement satellite, Skycorp reasoned, it is cheaper to launch just a new propulsion system and then fit it onto the old bird. Its Space Life Extension System is a flying set of solar panels linked to an ion engine, a super-efficient type of rocket that uses electrically accelerated ions to provide propulsion. The SLES would be launched on a rocket (possibly as a secondary payload alongside an alternative, primary mission), make its way to its helpless target, dock with it, and use its own engines to restore the satellite’s ability to control its orbit. The firm hopes that it could extend the life of geosynchronous communications satellites by up to a decade, saving operators the cost of a new launch. Nor is Skycorp the only player with plans for satellite servicing. DARPA, a gang of blue-sky thinkers working for the American military, has a similar idea of its own. Its Phoenix program is designed not to reinvigorate elderly satellites, but to recycle some of their parts. The idea would be to launch a grabber satellite, which would sever working parts from an otherwise-defunct target—solar panels or communications antennas being the most commonly cited examples. These would then be mated with separately-launched “satlets”, tiny satellites that can be flown as secondary cargo on rocket launches, to create entirely new orbiting satellites for less than the cost of a full-on launch. That, at least, is the official story. But sceptics wonder whether DARPA might have something else in mind. Solar panels and communications dishes tend not to be very expensive, meaning that the cost savings from recycling them are likely to be rather small. And the “D” in DARPA stands for “defence”, after all.

Meet the Flockers: ISS Launches Low-Cost Earth-Imaging Micro-Satellites
by Andrew Tarantola   / 2/12/14

Since the launch of the Landsat program in 1972, generating images of Earth from space has been the near-exclusive domain of enormous, multi-million dollar satellites sponsored by nations and major defense corporations. But these new micro-satellites, recently launched from the ISS, aim to make real-time imaging available for a fraction of the price.

Designed, built, and operated by San Francisco-based Planet Labs, the micro-satellite (aka “CubeSats”) system consists of 28 12- x 4- x 4-inch-tall imaging satellites, individually known as Doves, and collectively known as Flock 1. These CubeSats are constructed largely from low-cost, non-traditional components, which drastically reduces the cost of each unit. The Flock was first delivered to the ISS last December aboard Orbital Sciences’ robotic Cygnus vessel, and were released from the ISS using the station’s on-board cube cannon.

The fleet of Flockers, like the Landsat mission before them, capture imagery of Earth for humanitarian, environmental, and commercial projects—and make all of their data available, for free, for anyone who wants it. The system automatically handles the image capture, storage, and transmission processes, beaming them down to a Planet Labs ground station, which then processes the images and publishes them on the web. This makes them an ideal compliment to existing higher-resolution systems like UAVs, or conventional imaging satellites.

“We believe that the democratization of information about a changing planet is the mission that we are focused on, and that, in and of itself, is going to be quite valuable for the planet,” Robbie Schingler, co-founder of Planet Labs, told Discovery. “One tenet that we have is to make sure that we produce more value than we actually capture, so we have an open principle within the company with respect to anyone getting access to the data.”

Unlike the massive orbital prying eyes of earlier Earth Imaging satellites, each Dove only resolves down to 10 to 16.5 feet (3 to 5 meters)—enough to monitor deforestation rates or agricultural yields, or track the melting of the polar ice caps and seasonal natural disasters—but not strong enough to, say, track a human-sized target. “Things that were once the province of huge 10-ton satellites are now in these tiny things. That’s what enables us to generate a data set that is unprecedented in terms of coverage and cadence,” company co-founder and chief executive Will Marshall told Discovery News. And though the resolution isn’t as powerful as other systems, Flock 1 will provide continuous, always-on imaging of the planet between the equator and the 52 parallel. Google Earth is about to get some serious competition. [Citizens in Space – Space – Planet Labs – NASA]

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