A)US Army wants to send small, cheap satellites to space

The military has been conjuring up one idea after another in an effort to improve its personnel’s ability to communicate, such as putting LTE on a ship and launching a WiFi router to space. This time, the US Army is in the midst of testing nanosatellites that will provide coverage for soldiers’ radios wherever they are. The Army’s having trouble providing a means of communication between soldiers in rural areas, and these small satellites called SMDC-ONE (ONE stands for Orbital Nanosatellite Effect) can solve that issue. “It’s basically a cellphone tower in space,” Dr. Travis Taylor, a senior scientist of the Army’s space division said, “except it’s not for cellphones, it’s for Army radios.” His team made sure SMDC-ONEs are tough enough to survive harsh conditions, but since the devices are small, they could still be displaced by space junk or ruined by adverse space weather.

The agency needs around 12 of these small satellites orbiting the Earth to get the coverage it wants, but it’s not going to be easy making that happen. Aside from launches being really costly, the scientists can’t put a conventional rocket motor on the SMDC-ONEs, because they might explode and take the rest of a rocket’s payload with them. Those rocket motors are necessary for the devices to be able to propel themselves to the right orbit — that’s why Taylor and his team designed a new one using a plastic printer (see image below) and filling it with liquid nitric oxide and a sparker. The plastic and propellant combust together once the sparkler’s lit, but this design’s apparently safe enough to be loaded onto a rocket.

In addition, the Army’s also designing an imaging nanosatellite that’s a bit larger than the one for communications. It will be able to generate images with a ground resolution of two to three meters, enough to tell if there’s a tank on the way. It hasn’t been tested yet, though it’s scheduled to be launched from the ISS in February next year. As we mentioned, though, the SMDC-ONE has already been tested; in fact, one is orbiting the planet right now. If all goes well, the Army will launch a few more units this year and the next until there are 12 or more out there circling the Earth.



B)SpaceX asks FCC to approve its satellite Internet plans

Satellite Internet service is usually seen as a last resort — something you get when there is literally no other option. SpaceX might be on track to change that. Elon Musk’s space firm has filed with the Federal Communications Commission seeking permission to deploy a network of satellites in orbit that would beam wireless Internet access to Earth from space. This is the first step in making the plan — first revealed in January — a reality.

Even today there are large swaths of the US and other developed nations that have little or no connectivity. It’s a matter of return on investment for the Internet service providers. If there are only a few potential customers in an area, it’s not worth the investment to run high-speed Internet infrastructure all the way out there. That leaves those people with limited options like dial-up and traditional satellite Internet.

SpaceX’s plan is to deploy a network of 4,000 small and cheap geosynchronous satellites to beam signals down to Earth. This approach would be easier to maintain than satellite Internet managed by Dish and DirecTV, which rely on just a few larger (and more expensive) satellites. If one of SpaceX’s satellites fails, there’s a huge amount of redundancy and it’s cheap to replace. It certainly helps that SpaceX has its own rockets that can be used to launch new satellites too.

These SpaceX satellites would be set up in a low-Earth orbit, allowing them to reach more areas and hand off connections to improve reliability and speed. One of the most significant issues with satellite Internet is latency — more than half a second for most services. Having satellites in a lower orbit with more interconnectedness will certainly help with that, but it’s not clear SpaceX’s system would be good enough for real-time applications.


This isn’t going to happen overnight, and it’s definitely not going to be cheap. The FCC filing seeks permission to begin a test deployment of a few satellites, which can be used to assess the antenna technology and see if the plan is even feasible. Google and Fidelity have invested $1 billion in SpaceX, part of which is earmarked for the satellite Internet project. SpaceX estimates the project could cost as much as $10 billion when all is said and done.

Despite the high cost, Musk sees this as a good long-term source of revenue to support future spaceflight. Google is also toying with the idea of delivering Internet access to rural areas with its Project Loon balloons. For Google it’s all a matter of getting more people on the Internet to look at ads, but for SpaceX, it’s a stepping stone to Mars.

  • By Ryan Whitwam


C)Asteroid mining firm set to deploy its first satellite

Based in Redmond, Washington, Planetary Resources made news a few years ago when it received backing from technology heavyweights like Larry Page to set up an asteroid miningoperation. The company has been largely quiet since the initial excitement died down, but Planetary Resources is about to take a big step. At this moment, Planetary Resources’ first satellite is sitting aboard the International Space Station, waiting to be deployed.

The satellite is called the Arkyd-3R — the R stands for Reflight, because this is the second attempt to launch the mission. The first Arkyd satellite was lost in October when Orbital ATK’s Antares rocket exploded shortly after liftoff on an ISS resupply mission. The satellite successfully made its way to the station on last month’s SpaceX Dragon mission. Now that it’s in place, the company expects to have Arkyd-3R released into orbit this summer.

Asteroid mining has the potential to be extremely profitable, but also a boon to humanity’s future in space. The mineral wealth in a single small asteroid could be in the billions, but simply having access to ice deposits on an asteroid could be important, too. Water ice can be broken down on site into oxygen and hydrogen for use as rocket fuel. This would allow Planetary Resources to create refueling stations that would drastically expand our reach in space. The economics of space travel are much more friendly when you don’t have to bring all your fuel up from Earth.

A captured asteroid is an ideal place for a refueling station too. The low gravity means it doesn’t take much energy for a craft to land and take off again.

Planetary Resources won’t be using the Arkyd-3R to scan any asteroids just yet. This is to be a dry run for the hardware that will assess the health of all its subsystems and components. The satellite will orbit Earth for 90 days until its plunges into the atmosphere and breaks apart. The Arkyd 3 is basically the Arkyd-100 space telescope without the optical components (and it’s only the size of a loaf of bread).

If all goes well, future Arkyd probes will be able to start hunting for viable asteroids. In addition to the telescope, the company has designed two asteroid interceptor probes that will scan them for valuable resources. Before any of that happens, the company plans to send a second test satellite into orbit later this year. The much larger Arkyd 6 will be equipped with many of the instruments that will be used on the asteroid intercept missions that are to follow. This still only gets us to the observation stage. Actually capturing and mining an asteroid is still far in the future. Still, getting its first satellite into orbit at least shows that Planetary Resources is moving in the right direction.




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