A)India Launches 104 Satellites From a Single Rocket, Ramping Up a Space Race

NEW DELHI — India’s space agency launched a flock of 104 satellites into space over the course of 18 minutes on Wednesday, nearly tripling the previous record for single-day satellite launches and establishing India as a key player in a growing commercial market for space-based surveillance and communication.

The launch was high-risk because the satellites, released in rapid-fire fashion every few seconds from a single rocket as it traveled at 17,000 miles an hour, could collide with one another if ejected into the wrong path.

“They have spent months figuring out how to make an adapter, which will release these small babies into space one after another,” said Pallava Bagla, science editor for NDTV, a cable news station. “Now, all of them are in space.”

Wednesday’s launch was being watched closely by firms that place satellites in orbit, because India’s space agency charges substantially less than its competitors in Europe and North America, said C. Uday Bhaskar, the director of the Society for Policy Studies, a public policy research group based in New Delhi.

Eighty-eight of the 104 satellites released on Wednesday were tiny, weighing about 10 pounds. Called Doves, they belong to Planet Labs, a private company based in San Francisco that sells data to governments and commercial entities, and they constituted the largest satellite constellation ever launched into space.

The chairman of the Indian space agency, A. S. Kiran Kumar, has said that commercial fees covered around half of the cost of Wednesday’s mission.

“I’m sure the global market will be looking at this pretty closely,” Mr. Bhaskar said. “If they can send 90 of them up for $10 million, hypothetically, then just by Moore’s Law, next time they should be able to send 120 satellites.” Moore’s Law originated in the semiconductor industry and held that the number of components that could be crammed onto a computer chip would double at regular intervals.

The previous record was set by Russia’s space agency, which launched 37 satellites into orbit with one rocket in 2014.

India is fascinated with world records, and Wednesday’s satellite launch prompted a wave of celebratory crowing, some of it aimed at Asian rivals. Many declared it a “century,” a term for a cricketing milestone when a single batsman manages to score 100 runs in a single innings.

The president, Pranab Mukherjee, called it “a landmark in the history of our space program,” while Alok Kumar Dubey, a right-wing activist, said on Twitter, “Look china, pak THIS is Our power.”

The Indian Space Research Organization has gained attention in recent years for staging successful missions at very low cost, in part because its scientists are paid less.

In 2014, India sent a spacecraft to Mars for $74 million, a small fraction of the $671 million the United States spent for a Mars mission that same year, and showing up a regional rival, China, whose own Mars mission failed in 2012.

By charging significantly less to launch satellites into space, India could carve out a niche in the $3 billion to $4 billion market for detailed information about climate, topography and defense, Mr. Bhaskar said.

Robbie Schingler, a former NASA scientist and a co-founder of Planet Labs, described himself as “ecstatic.”

“The sequencing needed to be very precise,” he said. “It worked perfectly and flawlessly.”

Shri G. Madhavan Nair, a former chairman of India’s space program, said newer satellites weigh as little as two pounds, meaning that there is “no limit” to the number that can be launched into space at a time — a trend that he said worried him, as most satellites are operational for only two or three years.

“We are all concerned about space debris,” he said. “After that, it becomes a dead mass floating in space. Personally, I will not recommend such an increase in the number without a practical purpose.”

Follow Ellen Barry on Twitter @EllenBarryNYT.


B)China launches world’s first quantum science satellite

China has launched the world’s first satellite dedicated to testing the fundamentals of quantum communication in space. The $100mQuantum Experiments at Space Scale (QUESS) mission was launched today from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northern China at 01:40 local time. For the next two years, the craft – also named “Micius” after the ancient Chinese philosopher – will demonstrate the feasibility of quantum communication between Earth and space, and test quantum entanglement over unprecedented distances.

Work on QUESS – a collaborative endeavour between the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Austrian Academy of Sciences – began in 2011 and the assembly was completed earlier this year. The 600 kg satellite will now be put into Earth orbit around 500 km above ground. The craft’s main instrument is a “Sagnac” interferometer that is used to generate two entangled infrared photons by shining an ultraviolet laser on a non-linear optical crystal.

Physicists have previously managed to separate entangled photons by distances up to 300 km on Earth. But because photons scatter when they travel down optical fibres or encounter atmospheric turbulence when sent between telescopes, it is hard to send entangled photons longer distances unless the experiments are performed in space.

Quantum encryption

The main goals of QUESS will be to demonstrate quantum key distribution (QKD) between the satellite and two stations on the ground – the Nanshan 25 m telescope at the Xinjiang Astronomical Observatory in western China and the Xinglong Observatory in Yanshan, around 200 km south of Beijing. A quantum key is a string of ones and zeros, representing the quantum states of particles. These can be used to encode and decode messages, which would be secure from eavesdroppers.

QUESS will perform a test of Bell’s inequality at a separation of over 1200 km – the greatest distance to date – to prove that entanglement can exist between particles separated by such a large distance. QUESS will also quantum teleport a photon state from the Ali observatory on the Tibetan Plateau to the satellite. “These goals will be performed solely by the Chinese team,” says Jianwei Pan from the University of the Science and Technology of China, who is QUESS’s chief scientist.

Pan adds that, once these targets have been met, the Chinese team will then collaborate with Anton Zeilinger and colleagues at the University of Vienna to create an “intercontinental” QKD channel between Beijing and Vienna, with the option of including stations in Italy and Germany. “QUESS will be the first test of quantum communication with a satellite,” says Zeilinger. “It can also be seen as a very significant step towards a future worldwide quantum internet.” Indeed, China is planning to launch a number of similar satellites to create a quantum communications network by 2030.

Challenges ahead

QUESS first faces a number of technical challenges in orbit, especially to make sure that the receiving telescopes on the ground can precisely track the satellite, which will be travelling at 8 km/s. “It’s very challenging to create a perfect quantum channel between the satellite and the ground station,” says Pan. “We have developed a high-frequency and high-accuracy acquiring, pointing and tracking technique to do that.”

Quantum physicist Alexander Ling, from the National University of Singapore, who is not part of the QUESS team, says he is looking forward to the data that will emerge from QUESS adding that there are now about a dozen groups worldwide working on space-based quantum experiments. Last January, his group launched and demonstrated a quantum entanglement source inside a cube-sat – a type of miniaturized satellite for space research weighing no more than 1.5 kg and with each side being around 10 cm long. “Since the access to space is becoming more easily available with the emergence of new satellite technologies such as nanosatellites, we should be able to see more quantum experiments in space,” he adds.

Thomas Jennewein at the University of Waterloo in Canada and colleagues are working on a quantum payload prototype that could fit onto a small satellite. They have already performed several feasibility experiments, such as sending quantum signals to a payload on a moving truck. Later this year, meanwhile, the European Space Agency is expected to carry out a detailed study into the possibility of using the International Space Station for quantum communication experiments.

QUESS is one of four missions belonging to the National Space Science Center’s strategic priority programme in space science. The others are the Dark Matter Particle Explorer, which took off in December 2015, Shijian-10, launched in April, and the Hard X-ray Modulation Telescope, which is set to take off in November.

About the author

Ling Xin is a science writer based in Beijing


C)Russia sends military satellite into orbit for missile warnings

Russia lofted a military satellite Thursday to join a network of orbiting early warning stations detecting and tracking missile launches around the world, providing the Russian government notice of potential attack.

A Soyuz-2.1b rocket lifted off from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome, a military-run base about 500 miles (800 kilometers) north of Moscow, at 0634 GMT (2:34 a.m. EDT; 9:34 a.m. Moscow time) Thursday, according to a statement released by the Russian Defense Ministry.

Thursday’s mission was the first satellite deployment flight dedicated to the Russian military in nearly one year, a decline from the usual pace of Russian military launches after two of the country’s rockets — the Soyuz and Proton — were grounded in the wake of mishaps last year.

The three-stage Soyuz rocket, fitted with a digital flight control computer and an upgraded RD-0124 third stage engine, propelled the military satellite into space in the first nine minutes of the mission. A Fregat upper stage was expected to separate and fire multiple times to guide its payload into an elliptical “Molniya-type” orbit ranging between approximately 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) and 24,000 miles (38,600 kilometers) in altitude.

The target was inclined around 64 degrees to the equator, and the orbit’s position is designed to allow a satellite to hover over Earth’s high latitudes most of the time.

No data on the orbit achieved by Thursday’s launch was immediately available, but the Russian Defense Ministry said the flight went normally and delivered the payload to its intended orbit.

“Launch of the rocket vehicle and ascent to orbit were held under normal conditions,” the defense ministry said in a statement.

The Russian military named the satellite Kosmos 2518, consistent with the official nomenclature for Russia’s defense-related spacecraft. The type of launcher, time of liftoff and trajectory of the rocket indicated it carried a EKS-type missile warning satellite.

EKS is a Russian acronym that translates to integrated space system, according to The EKS, or Tundra, satellites replace Russia’s Oko early warning system, which had its last satellite launch in 2012, the website said.

The first EKS satellite launched on a Soyuz-2.1b rocket from Plesetsk in November 2015. Russia uses the missile warning satellites, along with ground-based radars, to track missiles that approach the country’s territory.

Thursday’s launch marked the first space mission to lift off from Plesetsk this year. It was the fifth launch of the Soyuz rocket family worldwide in 2017.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.




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