Category Archives: Space

Mining the Moon: The First Mover Advantage

The US government is starting to lay down the groundwork for diplomacy on the moon. On 15 May, 2020 NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine released a set of principles that will govern the Artemis Accords on the exploration of the moon. The accords are named after NASA’s Artemis programme, the US initiative to explore the moon, with a planned launch of astronauts to the lunar surface in 2024. Other countries are also increasingly turning towards the moon, which is concerning when a landing on the moon can send up clouds of potentially hazardous dust that travel a long way across the surface and even into orbit…

At the moment, there is little practical international law governing activities on the moon. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 deals with general space exploration, while the more specific Moon Agreement of 1984 states that “the moon and its natural resources are the common heritage of all mankind”, prohibiting the ownership of any part of the moon or any resources from the moon….However, no nation capable of human space flight has signed the Moon Agreement, effectively rendering it moot. In fact, in April 2020, US president Donald Trump issued an executive order supporting moon mining and taking advantage of the natural resources of space.

The Artemis Accords aim to protect historic locations like the Apollo landing sites but encourage mining in other areas. They also promote transparency and communication between nations, requiring signatories to share their lunar plans, register any spacecraft sent to or around the moon and release scientific data to the public.  That transparency requirement might be a stumbling block for potential parties to the accords, says Forczyk. “I really don’t know how much countries are going to be willing to share some of their more delicate, sensitive information,” she says. “

The rest of the stipulations of the Artemis Accords are about safety: nations will be able to set “safety zones” to protect their activities on the moon, they will have to work to mitigate the effects of debris in orbit around the moon and they will agree to provide emergency assistance to any astronauts in distress.

Rather than attempting to put together an international treaty, which could be difficult to negotiate before NASA’s next crewed launch to the moon, the US will sign bilateral agreements with individual countries.

Excerpts from Leah Crane, NASA’s Artemis Accords aim to lay down the law of the land on the moon, New Scientist, May 20, 2020

Our Cold War Roots: Weaponizing China’s One Child Policy

The elite US special operations forces are ill-equipped for high-tech warfare with China and Russia, experts warn, as the Trump administration pivots from the “war on terror” to a struggle with geopolitical rivals. Special operations, known for kicking down doors and eliminating high-value targets, number 70,000 personnel, cost $13bn a year and have carried much of the burden of the war on terror. But it is unclear what role they will play as the Pentagon moves to redeploy troops from Afghanistan to the Indo-Pacific to counter China’s regional ambitions.

General Richard Clarke, commander of special operations command (Socom), told an industry conference this week that the US needed to develop new capabilities to “compete and win” with Russia and China. He added that Socom must develop cyber skills and focus on influence campaigns rather than “the kill-capture missions” that characterised his own time in Afghanistan after the September 11 2001 attacks. Socom’s fighters include US Navy Seals, Army Green Berets and Marine Corps Raiders. Defence officials say China has raised military spending and research with the aim of exploiting American vulnerabilities, while Russia has tested out new technology during combat in Syria. “Maybe we are further behind than we know,” Colonel Michael McGuire told the annual Special Operations Industry Conference

McGuire highlighted US vulnerabilities in cyber security, and soft-power tactics by America’s enemies that could “drive fissures through some of our alliances”. He proposed shifting focus to defence over attack.   “You could have hundreds and thousands of engagements every single day in a fight against China. We are just not fast enough, dynamic enough or scaleable enough to handle that challenge,” said Chris Brose, chief strategy officer at Anduril…. He added “Most of the US-China competition is not going to be fighting world war three,” he said. “It’s going to be kicking each other under the table.”….

US special operators have for years had the run of the battlefield. But they face very different conditions in any fight against China, which has developed an arsenal of missiles, fighter jets, spy planes and other eavesdropping and jamming techniques that would make it hard for America to conceal troops, transport and communications. Special operations forces are not ready for operations against a near-peer foe, such as China, in a direct engagement… He called for a return to their cold war roots. “Vintage special operations forces is about stealth, cunning and being able to blend in — they were triathletes rather than muscle-bound infantrymen with tattoos,” said the former officer. 

David Maxwell, a former Green Beret and military analyst, is among those who favour a shift towards political warfare.One such idea of his would involve a popular writer being commissioned to pen fictionalised war stories based in Taiwan intended to discourage Beijing from invading the self-governing island. He told a gathering of Pacific special forces operators in February 2020 that fictional losses could “tell the stories of the demise of Chinese soldiers who are the end of their parents’ bloodline”. He argued that Beijing’s former one-child policy could be weaponised to convince China that war would be too costly. But Mr Maxwell said such ideas have yet to catch on. He added that psyops officers lamented to him that it was “easier to get permission to put a hellfire missile on the forehead of a terrorist than it is to get permission to put an idea between his ears”.

Excerpts from Katrina Manson , US elite forces ill-equipped for cold war with China, FT, May 16, 2020

Cleaning Up Space Junk

A four-armed robotic junk collector will be launched into space by the European Space Agency in what it says will be the first mission to remove an item of debris from orbit. About 3,500 defunct satellites and an estimated 750,000 smaller fragments are orbiting the Earth at an average speed of 20,000km/h.  Unless a clear-up operation is mounted, the chances of collisions will escalate as thousands more satellites are put into orbit.

The ClearSpace-1 mission, scheduled for launch in 2025, will cost €120m and will grab a single piece of junk. But the agency hopes the mission will pave the way for a wide-reaching clear-up operation, with Esa’s director general calling for new rules that would compel those who launch satellites to take responsibility for removing them from orbit once they are retired from use.  “Imagine how dangerous sailing the high seas would be if all the ships ever lost in history were still drifting on top of the water,” said Jan Wörner, Esa’s director general. “That is the current situation in orbit, and it cannot be allowed to continue.”

The target for ClearSpace-1 is a piece of junk called Vespa, which was left in an orbit around 800km above the Earth by ESA’s Vega launcher in 2013. Vespa weighs 100kg – around the size of a small satellite – and was selected because it has a simple shape and sturdy construction, which make it unlikely to fragment when it is grabbed. The “chaser” ClearSpace space probe will be launched into the target orbit where it will track down Vespa, grab it using a quartet of robotic arms and drag it out of orbit, with Vespa and the chaser both burning up in the atmosphere on the way down to Earth. A future ambition is to create a clear-up robot that could eject junk into the atmosphere, before continuing to capture and de-orbit other pieces of junk.

European Space Agency to launch space debris collector in 2025, Guardian, Dec. 9, 2019

The Ocean-Based Internet: Data Mining the Ocean

The U.S. Defense Department could one day place thousands of low-cost, floating sensors into the ocean to collect environmental data, such as water temperature, as well as activity data about commercial vessels, aircraft and even fish or maritime mammals moving through the area. But others also are dropping similar sensors in the world’s oceans, and defense researchers suggest many of those systems could be integrated into an even more comprehensive ocean-based Internet of Things.

The growing Internet of Things is mostly a land-based phenomenon, frequently in large cities with loads of sensors. But researchers at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) foresee a wide range of military and civil benefits from extending the Internet of Things out to sea.  The agency announced its Ocean of Things program in 2017. John Waterston, a program manager within DARPA’s Strategic Technology Office, says the sensors will float along the surface for at least one year, transmitting short messages via the Iridium satellite constellation back to a central location for analysis. “It’s a 280-byte in and 340-byte out message, so it’s a little bit more than a tweet. I like to say these things tweet about their environment,” he says.

The goal is to increase maritime awareness in a cost-effective way. Using existing systems to continuously monitor vast regions of the ocean would be cost prohibitive…. By coupling powerful analytical tools with commercial sensor technology, the agency intends to create floating sensor networks that significantly expand maritime awareness at a fraction of the cost of current approaches.

Waterston says one of the most interesting missions for the sensor might be to simply determine whether GPS signals are available in an area of interest for military operations. …The program also could help improve ocean modeling, which is important for forecasting weather, finding people who have fallen overboard or locating debris from a crashed aircraft. …The agency has yet to determine how many sensors it might eventually deploy, but they could number in the tens of thousands. To put that into perspective, DARPA officials compare the final density to placing a penny on the national mall, which Wikipedia says covers about 309 acres between the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial….

In addition, Argo, an international program, uses several thousand battery-powered, robotic floating devices to measure temperature, salinity and current for climate and oceanographic research. The floats mostly drift 10 days at a time below the ocean surface. After rising and transmitting their data to satellites, they return to depth to drift for another 10 days. The floats go as deep as 2,000 meters, according to the Argo website. 

Argo Floating Device

It is possible an ocean-based Internet could provide data on demand to a variety of customers inside and outside the Defense Department. If, for example, a government agency needs the water temperature in a given area reported every six hours, or a combatant command needs to know what’s happening in the Mediterranean, or NATO officials want information between Gibraltar and Sicily, or commercial fishermen need data on where the shrimp or tuna are, they could simply request it. “It’s about serving the end users. If you can use that data, we can generate it for you,” he offers. “It’s a little bit like floats-as-a-service or data-as-a-service.”

Argo’s Ocean Sensors

Another option is that other organizations could purchase and deploy the DARPA-developed sensors. “I hope people want to come up with their own sensors or want to buy these. I imagine a marketplace where you get many commercial people buying these. Everyone could buy 500 and then take advantage of the service provided by the thousands that are out there. I could imagine this as that foundational community,” Waterston suggests.

DARPA currently is working with three teams led by the Palo Alto Research Center, better known as PARC***, Areté Associates and Numurus LLC to develop the floats. Leidos, Draper Laboratory, SoarTech and Geometric Data Analytics are providing software for data visualization, performance prediction, float command and control and detection. 

Excerpts from George Seffers, DARPA’s Ocean of Things Ripples Across Research Areas, AFCEA.org, Nov. 1, 2019

***See also DARPA’s Vanishing Programmable Resources (VAPR) program. According to one scientist that works in the PARC’s disappearing electronics platform (called DUST) “Imagine being able to cover a large area, like the ocean floor, with billions of tiny sensors to ‘hear’ what is happening within the earth’s crust, and have them quickly disintegrate into, essentially, sand, leaving no trace and not harming the planet or sea life,  

The Traffic Congested Space: Collision Avoidance

On September 3, 2019, it was the first time that European Space Agence (ESA) performed a ‘collision avoidance manoeuvre’ to protect one of its spacecraft from colliding with a satellite in a large constellation,  a SpaceX satellite in the Starlink constellation.  Constellations are fleets of hundreds up to thousands of spacecraft working together in orbit. They are expected to become a defining part of Earth’s space environment in the next few years.  As the number of satellites in space dramatically increases, close approaches between two operated spacecraft will occur more frequently. Compared with such ‘conjunctions’ with space debris – non-functional objects including dead satellites and fragments from past collisions – these require coordination efforts, to avoid conflicting actions. 

Today, the avoidance process between two operational satellites is largely manual and ad hoc – and will no longer be practical as the number of alerts rises with the increase in spaceflight.
 “This example shows that in the absence of traffic rules and communication protocols, collision avoidance depends entirely on the pragmatism of the operators involved,” explains Holger Krag, Head of Space Safety at ESA.   “Today, this negotiation is done through exchanging emails – an archaic process that is no longer viable as increasing numbers of satellites in space mean more space traffic.”

ESA is proposing an automated risk estimation and mitigation initiative as part of its space safety activities. This will provide and demonstrate the types of technology needed to automate the collision avoidance process, allowing machine generated, coordinated and conflict-free manoeuvre decisions to speed up the entire process – something desperately needed to protect vital space infrastructure in the years to come.

Data is constantly being issued by the 18th Space Control Squadron of the US Air Force, who monitor objects orbiting in Earth’s skies, providing information to operators about any potential close approach.  With this data, ESA and others are able to calculate the probability of collision between their spacecraft and all other artificial objects in orbit. 

In August 2019, the US data suggested a potential ‘conjunction’ [collision] at 11:02 UTC on Monday, 2 September, between ESA’s Aeolus satellite and Starlink44 – one of the first 60 satellites recently launched in SpaceX’s mega constellation, planned to be a 12 000 strong fleet by mid-2020.  As days passed, the probability of collision continued to increase, and by Wednesday 28 August the team decided to reach out to Starlink to discuss their options. Within a day, the Starlink team informed ESA that they had no plan to take action at this point.**  ESA’s threshold for conducting an avoidance manoeuvre is a collision probability of more than 1 in 10 000, which was reached for the first time on August 29, 2019 evening.  An avoidance manoeuvre was prepared which would increase Aeolus’ altitude by 350 m, ensuring it would comfortably pass over the other satellite, and the team continued to monitor the situation.

On September 2, 2019, the commands triggered a series of thruster burns at 10:14, 10:17 and 10:18 UTC, half an orbit before the potential collision.  About half an hour after the conjunction was predicted, Aeolus contacted home as expected. This was the first reassurance that the manoeuvre was correctly executed and the satellite was OK.

Since the first satellite launch in 1957, more than 5500 launches have lifted over 9000 satellites into space. Of these, only about 2000 are currently functioning, which explains why 90% of ESA’s avoidance manoeuvres are the result of derelict and uncontrollable ‘space debris’.    In the years to come, constellations of thousands of satellites are set to change the space environment, vastly increasing the number of active, operational spacecraft in orbit.  This new technology brings enormous benefits to people on Earth, including global internet access and precise location services, but constellations also bring with them challenges in creating a safe and sustainable space environment.

This example does show the urgent need for proper space traffic management, with clear communication protocols and more automation,” explains Holger.  “This is how air traffic control has worked for many decades, and now space operators need to get together to define automated manoeuvre coordination.”  As the number of satellites in orbit rapidly increases, today’s ‘manual’ collision avoidance process will become impossible, and automated systems are becoming necessary to protect our space infrastructure.

**On August28th, 2019, SpaceX informed ESA via email that the company did not intend to move the Starlink probe.   At that time, the probability of collision was about 1 in 50,000, according to SpaceX, which is too low to require any preventive action.  The ESA contacted SpaceX daily about its evolving calculations, but the agency did not receive any additional replies after the original email response. SpaceX acknowledges that it failed to communicate due to a bug in its communication system and missed the emails about a higher probability of collision.

Excerpts from ESA Spacecraft Dodges Satellite Constellation, ESA, Sept. 3, 2019 &

A bug in SpaceX’s communication system kept the company in the dark about potential satellite collision, The Verge, Sept. 4, 2019

How to Change the World: Take Seeds to Space and Irradiate them with Cosmic Rays

With 19% of the world’s population but only 7% of its arable land, China is in a bind: how to feed its growing and increasingly affluent population while protecting its natural resources. The country’s agricultural scientists have made growing use of nuclear and isotopic techniques in crop production over the last decades. In cooperation with the IAEA and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), they are now helping experts from Asia and beyond in the development of new crop varieties, using irradiation.

While in many countries, nuclear research in agriculture is carried out by nuclear agencies that work independently from the country’s agriculture research establishment, in China the use of nuclear techniques in agriculture is integrated into the work of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS) and provincial academies of agricultural sciences. This ensures that the findings are put to use immediately.

And indeed, the second most widely used wheat mutant variety in China, Luyuan 502, was developed by CAAS’s Institute of Crop Sciences and the Institute of Shandong Academy of Agricultural Sciences, using space-induced mutation breeding. It has a yield that is 11% higher than the traditional variety and is also more tolerant to drought and main diseases.  It has been planted on over 3.6 million hectares – almost as large as Switzerland. It is one of 11 wheat varieties developed for improved salt and drought tolerance, grain quality and yield.

Through close cooperation with the IAEA and FAO, China has released over 1,000 mutant crop varieties in the past 60 years, and varieties developed in China account for a fourth of mutants listed currently in the IAEA/FAO’s database of mutant varieties produced worldwide.

The Institute uses heavy ion beam accelerators, cosmic rays and gamma rays along with chemicals to induce mutations in a wide variety of crops, including wheat, rice, maize, soybean and vegetables….Indonesia’s nuclear agency, BATAN, and CAAS are looking for ways to collaborate on plant mutation breeding

Space-induced mutation breeding
 
Irradiation causes mutation, which generates random genetic variations, resulting in mutant plants with new and useful traits. Mutation breeding does not involve gene transformation, but rather uses a plant’s own genetic components and mimics the natural process of spontaneous mutation, the motor of evolution. By using radiation, scientists can significantly shorten the time it takes to breed new and improved plant varieties.

Space-induced mutation breeding, also called space mutagenesis, involves taking the seeds to space, where cosmic rays are stronger, and these rays are used to induce mutation.  Satellites, space shuttles and high-altitude balloons are used to carry out the experiments. One advantage of this method is that the risk of damaging the plants are lower than when using gamma irradiation on earth.

Excerpts from How Nuclear Techniques Help Feed China, IAEA, Apr. 4, 2019

If You Control Space, You Control Everything: Space as War Domain

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is looking to classify space as a domain for warfare in an attempt to deter China’s growing military power.  If NATO’s proposal succeeds, the international alliance could move forward with the development and use of space weapons.  According to NATO diplomats, the international organization is preparing to release an agreement that will officially declare space as a war domain. This means that aside from land, air and sea, space could also be used for military operations during times of war.

Although NATO’s partner countries currently own 65% of the satellites in space, China is reportedly preparing to launch a massive project that involves releasing constellations of satellites in low Earth orbit.  China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp (CASIC)  is planning to put in orbit 150 or more Hongyun satellites by 2023. Some of these satellites will provide commercial services like high-speed internet while others would be controlled by the Chinese military. These militarized satellites can be used to coordinate ground forces and to track approaching missiles.

“You can have warfare exclusively in space, but whoever controls space also controls what happens on land, on the sea and in the air,” according to Jamie Shea, a former NATO official. “If you don’t control space, you don’t control the other domains either.”

Excerpts from Inigo Monzon , NATO Prepares For Space Warfare By Militarizing Low Earth Orbit, International Business Times, June 24, 2019