Tag: satellites

Russia Will Spend $2 Billion on a Space Drone to Tidy up Orbit

By Jennifer Welsh | November 30, 2010 4:33 pm

space-junkYesterday, the Russian space agency Roscosmos confirmed news from last week that they are pursuing plans to spend $2 billion cleaning up space debris. In a striking contrast to the secrecy that once cloaked space programs, the confirmation came via an announcement on Roscosmos’s official Facebook page:

Russia will build a special orbital pod that would sweep up satellite debris from space around the Earth.The cleaning satellite would work on nuclear power and would be capable to work up to 15 years. Energia said in a statement that the company would complete the cleaning satellite assembly by 2020 and test the device no later than in 2023.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Technology

Close Encounters of the Worrisome Kind? Chinese Satellites Meet in Space

By Andrew Moseman | September 1, 2010 2:56 pm

SpaceJunkFor two years, the Chinese science satellite SJ-06F flew solo orbits around the Earth (or, as solo as a machine could be in the expanding haze of space junk in orbit). But now it has a partner: Last month China executed the delicate maneuver of aligning another satellite launched this year, SJ-12, with its older counterpart.

Only the United States had executed such a satellite rendezvous before this, and it shows off China’s advancement in satellite sophistication. Three years ago the country blew one of its satellites to smithereens in a practice test—a test that created thousands of additional chunks of debris in orbit. The satellite meet-up is a more elegant trick, and one whose implications could be sinister or benign. Let’s explore both possibilities.

Don’t Worry

China’s game of catch-up, which has its space program closing in on America’s abilities in orbit, strikes fear into the hearts of some politicos. But malfeasance need not be the aim of the satellite maneuver.

“This set of skills serves a whole lot of purposes,” says Dean Cheng, a Chinese policy expert with the Heritage Foundation, a think tank in Washington DC. The most immediate application, Cheng says, may be testing sensors and control systems to help pave the way for docking procedures to be used with China’s first space station module, Tiangong-1, which is set to launch in 2011. “This sort of thing may very well be consistent with wanting to test drive the hardware and software before you test it on your space laboratory,” Cheng says. [New Scientist]

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Technology

NASA Satellites Use Lasers to Map the World’s Tallest Forests

By Andrew Moseman | July 21, 2010 12:02 pm

forest-mapIt’s not just the sequoias—the towering firs, hemlocks, and other trees of the Pacific Northwest make its forests the tallest in the world, matched only by those in Southeast Asia. That’s according to a study by NASA, which has completed the first survey of the heights of forests throughout the world.

The map, created by NASA’s ICESat, Terra, and Aqua satellites, does more than give bragging rights to West Coast residents. For one thing, it could help scientists who are trying to predict while wildfires might strike, as well as those who want to determine what kind of forests make the best carbon sinks.

The map could also provide a means of monitoring the effects of climate change and deforestation on the world’s forests. Deforestation and land change use is responsible for 20 percent of the world’s emissions, and 48 percent of the world’s deforestation occurs in Brazil, according to a 2008 report by the World Resources Institute [The Independent].

Michael Lefsky and colleagues spent years compiling the data, which they describe in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

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Two New Eyes in the Sky Will Keep Watch on Earth's Climate

By Andrew Moseman | April 9, 2010 11:44 am

Global HawkFor the better part of a decade, the Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle has coasted through the stratosphere, surveilling vast panoramas of land below for the U.S. Air Force and Navy. Now the plane’s broad reach will serve science. NASA announced this week that it had completed the first test flight of a Global Hawk retrofitted with monitoring equipment to help scientists study the the oceans, the atmosphere, and more.

“We can go to regions we couldn’t reach or go to previously explored regions and study them for extended periods that are impossible with conventional planes,” said David Fahey, co-mission scientist and research physicist [CNN]. From the comfort of their offices in Dryden Flight Research Center in the Mojave Desert, pilots flew the plane 14 hours up to the Arctic Ocean on this test run. Though this flight lasted about 14 hours, the Global Hawk can stay aloft for 30, and reach altitudes of 60,000, or twice as high as your last commercial airline flight attained.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Space

Tiny "CubeSail" Could Ease the Clutter of Space Junk in Earth's Orbit

By Andrew Moseman | March 30, 2010 10:36 am

CubesailEvery time a space shuttle or the International Space Station has a near miss with a piece of space junk, we’re reminded just how much of the stuff litters the area around our planet—millions of total pieces amounting to more than 5,500 tons. The orbital debris includes everything from old rocket stages to shed paint flakes, and the situation worsened last year when two satellites collided, sending forth showers of debris. It’s a problem that grows steadily worse without an apparent solution, but now University of Surrey scientists say they’ve developed a possible solution: a tiny clean-up device with sails.

To help tidy up Earth’s orbit, the device could be attached to any piece of space-going technology. The CubeSail, which would measure more than 16 feet square when unfolded, is packed into a compartment that measures 4 inches wide and deep, and a foot long. When the sail is deployed, metal strips that are wound up inside the container straighten out and pull the sail flat. Despite its small size, the system could deorbit an object of up to 1,100 pounds, Surrey scientists say. CubeSail works by pulling against the small amounts of atmospheric gases present at orbital heights. Although the density of air molecules is low, it’s enough to make the sail act like a parachute, slowing it down, dragging the dead satellite to a fiery reentry much sooner than it would have done otherwise [Discovery News].

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GPS Tracks Brutus the Wolf on Marathon Hunts Around the Arctic

By Brett Israel | December 30, 2009 3:07 pm

Brutus_spaghettimap-400-webA lone wolf named Brutus is helping U.S. Geological Survey scientists study Arctic wolf migrations in remote regions of Canada. These migrations can traverse hundreds of miles in 24-hour winter darkness at temperatures that reach 70 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

There’s no way humans can physically follow the wolves under these brutal conditions, so Brutus is sporting a GPS collar that beams his coordinates back to a satellite every 12 hours. As it turns out, the wolves are covering a lot of ground, as can be seen in the map above. Now, the fjords visible in the summer image above have frozen and can be crossed on foot. In one trip, the wolf and his pack traveled 80 miles from Ellesmere Island to Axel Heiberg Island and back in just 84 hours. Just through November 30, Brutus has traveled 1,683 miles [Wired.com].

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MORE ABOUT: Arctic, satellites, wolves

Gravity Satellites Show a Huge Groundwater Loss in California

By Andrew Moseman | December 16, 2009 12:37 pm

CaliforniaSat220Groundwater levels around the country have been sinking as wells for drinking water and irrigation pull water out of aquifers faster than they can naturally recharge. Now, using gravity-measuring satellites, NASA and California researchers have documented the extent of water loss in California’s Central Valley, and the results aren’t good.

The measurements show the amount of water lost in the two main Central Valley river basins within the past six years could almost fill the nation’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead in Nevada [AP]. The total is about 30 cubic kilometer; one cubic km contains more than 264 billion gallons of water.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology

A Hot Piece of Hardware: NASA's New Orbiter Will Map the Entire Sky in Infrared

By Andrew Moseman | December 8, 2009 3:44 pm

NASAWISE425Stars and other astronomical phenomena radiate across the electromagnetic spectrum, on both sides of the puny band of visible light that the human eye can pick up. NASA‘s newest toy, set for a Friday launch into space, will map the infrared portion of that radiation—and do it across the entire sky.

The Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, has been under construction since 2006. The satellite will spend six months mapping the entire sky in the infrared, after which it will make a second, three-month pass to further refine the mapping [Universe Today]. Stars, galaxies, comets, and other objects will fall under the explorer’s purview.

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Private Space Co. SpaceX Launches Its First Commercial Satellite

By Eliza Strickland | July 14, 2009 12:57 pm

At least one start-up space company is finally getting off the ground. SpaceX, the company founded by Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk, had its first successful test launch last fall, and late last night it followed up with its first commercial space shot. The company’s Falcon 1 rocket took off from an atoll in the Marshall Islands and launched a Malaysian satellite into orbit. The spacecraft has black-and-white and color cameras to take high-resolution pictures of agricultural lands, forests, urban centers and other targets in Malaysia for commercial and government customers [Reuters].

The achievement is an important validation for SpaceX, which had three launch failures before getting its first test rocket into orbit in September 2008. Last year, SpaceX won a contract to supply the International Space Station after the shuttle retires, and this launch stands as the first physical proof that SpaceX can get the job done. To further develop their space delivery capability, SpaceX plans to follow this launch up later in the year with a launch of their larger rocket, Falcon 9 [Popular Science]. That rocket will be capable of carrying a cargo vehicle, called Dragon, to the low-Earth orbit where the space station resides.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Technology

Lost in Space: GPS System May Soon Begin Deteriorating

By Rachel Cernansky | May 21, 2009 8:17 pm

sat.jpgThe U.S. government has announced increasing concern over the quality of its Global Positioning System (GPS), which could begin to deteriorate as early as next year, resulting in regular blackouts and failures – or even dishing out inaccurate directions to millions of people worldwide [The Guardian]. The possibility that new satellites would not be launched in time was announced in late April, but the warning was stepped up this week in a government statement that recognized cost over-runs of defence department space programmes [Nature] as part of the problem.

The functioning of GPS relies on a network of satellites that constantly orbit the planet and beam signals back to the ground that help pinpoint your position on the Earth’s surface [The Guardian]. GPS service cannot maintain its level of precision if old satellites wear out before new satellites are launched as replacements, and the ability of the system to provide full coverage could dip below 95% between 2010 and 2014, when the Air Force plans to begin replacing the current block of satellites with a newer generation [Nature], warned the report by the Government Accountability Office.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Technology
MORE ABOUT: NASA, satellites

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