Quick Takes (08-29-2016)

To speak, or not to speak?

That is the question the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine examines in a newly released report that sheds some much needed light on an ongoing debate in U.S. national security circles: how much should the United States talk about threats to its satellites? The report, National Security Space Defense and Protection, says the U.S. has an “urgent need” to develop new policies — for dealing with the threats themselves and deciding how openly to talk about them with allies, adversaries and the general public.

The report, an unclassified summary of an outside assessment Congress requested under the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, breaks down the argument into two camps:

REMAIN TIGHT LIPPED?

Some fear that greater discussion would create more headaches — at home and overseas.

“More frank talk about U.S. national security space objectives will create more opposition, both at home and abroad, which will inhibit development of the space programs the security community seeks to advance,” the report says. “According to this view, public resort to blunter language about space security and offensive or active defensive capabilities would do more to provoke adverse reactions from other space actors than the good it would do in terms of facilitating coordination among U.S. space security and military decision makers.”

OR

TALK MORE?

Greater openness would lead to an improved public understanding of space and space threats.

“Reasoned openness in public discourse would ease barriers among elements of the U.S. bureaucracy working (and funding) space programs.”

Misunderstandings about space hinder policy, operations and training, as well as complicating investment decisions. “Uninformed understanding of space … can be a particular challenge for the U.S. military, which seeks to have public support for the policies and actions ordered by its civilian leadership.”

EITHER WAY

The national security space community suffers from overclassification, the report says. “Of course it is essential to protect true national security secrets, but overclassification imposes costs and foregoes important benefits. Secrecy impedes robust cecil-haney-SMD-2016-08-16_retouchedprofessional debate and publication; inhibits public diplomacy; and degrades cross-domain synergies, such as between air and space programs.”

THE THREAT

U.S. Navy Adm. Cecil Haney, the head of Strategic Command, said Aug. 16 at the Space and Missile Defense Symposium in Huntsville, Alabama,  that space will only grow more contested:

“We can expect an increase in the number of nations who may wish to deny the peaceful use of space. Adversaries, and potential adversaries, are developing, and in some cases demonstrating, disruptive and destructive counterspace capabilities perhaps to exploit what they perceive as space vulnerabilities to vital national, civil, scientific and economic benefits to the United States and to the global community at large.”


Falcon 1 on Omelek Island in September 2008. Credit: SpaceX

Falcon 1 on Omelek Island in September 2008. Credit: SpaceX

DARPA can’t always get what it wants

In 2005, Elon Musk was having trouble finding a launch site to test the SpaceX Falcon 1 rocket, when the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency offered support.

“We helped lease a site near Kwajalein, his own island, so he could deal with certification and clearance of flight,” said Brad Tousley, director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office.

Although SpaceX’s first three launches failed, the Falcon 1 flew successfully in September 2008 on its fourth attempt and sent a satellite into orbit on its next try in 2009.

DARPA helped SpaceX because the agency saw the Falcon 1 as a low-cost launch vehicle that, if successful, could help drive down the cost of sending payloads into orbit, Tousley said Aug. 16 at the Space Technology and Investment Forum in San Francisco. “Elon said thank you very much, I want to build a Falcon 9 and go bigger. Things don’t always work out the way you intend them to.”


Israeli satellites, Australian money

Former Israeli air force pilot Meir Moalem was looking for Israeli backers for a constellation of narrowband communications satellite, when an acquaintance introduced him to a group of Australian investors.

Sky and Space Global CEO Meir Moalem. Credit: SSG photo

Sky and Space Global CEO Meir Moalem. Credit: SSG photo

Although its seemed like an unlikely match, the Australian investors helped Sky and Space Global (SSG) list shares on the Australian stock exchange in May and raise more than $4 million, Moalem, SSG founder and chief executive, said Aug. 17 at the Space Foundation’s Space Technology and Investment Forum in San Francisco (see page 22 for more news from the event).

With the funding, SSG is paying GomSpace of Denmark to build three cubesats each weighing about three kilograms for a mission designed to demonstrate to customers and investors the narrowband services it can offer, including communications for ships and aircraft.

SSG plans to launch the miniature satellites in the spring of 2017 on an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle into a sun synchronous low Earth orbit at an altitude of approximately 500 kilometers. SSG is patenting technology designed to help satellites function autonomously and handoff data from one satellite to another, Moalem said.

Once SSG’s demonstration constellation proves its merit, the firm plans to raise approximately $150 million to build a constellation of 200 satellites weighing roughly six to seven kilograms to provide narrowband communications to customers within 15 degrees of the equator.

“We will give people the opportunity to talk with each other, transfer data and send instant messages,” Moalem said.

SSG signed a letter of intent in June with Virgin Galactic to begin sending its constellation of 200 nanosatellites into orbit on LauncherOne in 2018. Sat Space Africa Ltd., a firm based in Mauritius that relies on fiber optic, satellite and wireless networks to provide communications services to 27 African countries, plans to provide the ground infrastructure for Sky and Space Global’s three-satellite demonstration constellation and purchase all available communications bandwidth at market prices, according to an agreement the two firms announced in March 2016.


Significant Digits

$3 billion

The size of the pile of cash EchoStar plans to invest in one or more global satellite projects. Company execs say the cash reserves, boosted by the sale of $1.5 billion in bonds, would be used to support unnamed satellite projects and for “pursuing other strategic opportunities.”

$67 million

NASA’s Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory-B. Credit: NASA

NASA’s Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory-B. Credit: NASA

The value of SpeedCast International’s latest acquisition: Eutelsat’s majority stake in maritime satellite communications provider WINS.

690

The number of days NASA was out of contact with STEREO-B until the prodigal spacecraft phoned home Aug. 21 from the farside of the sun.

2 (that we know of)

The number of the U.S. Navy’s MUOS mobile communications satellites the Air Force has acknowledged sending its Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program spacecraft to check out after MUOS-3 and MUOS-5 (which launched some 18 months apart) encountered problems on orbit.