Will Hypersonic Capabilities Render Missile Defense Obsolete?

Will Hypersonic Capabilities Render Missile Defense Obsolete?

Throughout the nuclear era, and especially since the 1980s, the United States has been singularly obsessed with developing a strategic missile defense system. In some ways, this obsession seems to be growing.

A 2011 Arms Control Association report noted that to date the United States had spent over a $100 billion on developing strategic missile defense systems. A Council on Foreign Relations’ Backgrounder from last year contends that the U.S. Missile Defense Agency spent roughly $90 billion between 2002 and 2013, and plans to spend about $8 billion annually (2 percent of the Pentagon’s baseline budget) through 2017.

Strategic missile defense might therefore very well constitute the worst investment-return ratio of any major military system in U.S. history given that decades of work and billions of dollars have produced little in the way of results. To be sure, the U.S. has demonstrated some notable progress in the area in recent years. Still, at best, the missile defense systems the U.S. is developing might provide some unreliable protection against the currently non-existent North Korean and Iranian missile threats to the U.S. homeland.

Yet current missile defense efforts are probably at greater risk of becoming obsolete than at any time before. As Harry Kazianis noted on these pages last year, missile defense’s real enemy to date has been arithmetic. That is, missiles inherently favor the offense because they are exceptionally cheap to deploy and exceptionally expensive to defend against. Another factor that has long bedeviled strategic ballistic missile defense is the necessity of perfection given the sheer destructive power of just a few nuclear warheads.

But this is no longer the only threat to the missile defense systems the U.S. has invested so much in already, and continues to invest in the future. Notably, the emergence of hypersonic missiles could very well render these missile defense systems obsolete.

Hypersonic missiles pose two distinct challenges to current missile defense systems. First, they travel at speeds far greater than what the missile defense systems are built to counter. To be considered hypersonic, a missile must travel at speeds of between Mach 5 and Mach 10, or 3,840–7,680 miles per hour. By contrast, modern cruise missiles travel at speeds of between 500 and 600 mph.

Secondly, hypersonic missiles fired from intercontinental ballistic missiles travel at lower altitudes and have greater maneuverability than the ballistic missiles America’s BMD systems are being built to counter. As Richard Fisher explained to The Washington Free Beacon after the recent Chinese hypersonic missile test: “The beauty of the HGV [hypersonic glide vehicle] is that it can perform hypersonic precision strikes while maintaining a relatively low altitude and flat trajectory, making it far less vulnerable to missile defenses.”

None of this has done anything to diminish the United States’ enthusiasm for pushing ahead with missile defense programs. In fact, support for missile defense seems to be growing among U.S. leaders. Whereas missile defense had been a fiercely partisan issue in the United States for decades—with Republicans strongly in favor and Democrats against—both parties now seem to generally support it, albeit with different degrees of enthusiasm. Indeed, the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act ordered the Pentagon to review four sites on the eastern United States to build missile defense systems to protect the country from the ICBMs that Iran doesn’t have. Moreover, Reuters reported yesterday that the Pentagon now plans to ask Congress for an additional $4.5 billion in missile defense spending over the next five years.

Supporters of these efforts might counter that current missile defense systems aren’t intended to counter the ballistic missile threats posed by Russia and China—two of the four countries currently pursuing hypersonic capabilities (the others being the U.S. and India). Rather, the U.S. is simply trying to protect itself and its allies from less capable regional states like North Korea and Iran. Neither of these countries are known to be pursuing hypersonic capabilities.

This is perfectly true for the time being but it’s far from certain how long this situation will last. If the proliferation of missiles in general is any guide, hypersonic missiles are likely to proliferate across the globe before too long. It’s hardly unthinkable that North Korea and Iran will be among the countries that acquire them whether through indigenous efforts or by purchasing them from foreign sources. Both countries already have advanced missile development programs, as well as a history of foreign support for these “indigenous” efforts. China, in particular, has been quite generous to both when it comes to missile technology.

Therefore, at a time of fiscal austerity the U.S. is essentially investing billions of dollars in technology that will most likely be obsolete before its fully deployed.


Only Apollo camera to make return trip to the Moon to be auctioned



February 3, 2014



The Hasselblad Data Camera from Apollo 15 is the only one to make the return trip to Earth...

The Hasselblad Data Camera from Apollo 15 is the only one to make the return trip to Earth (Image: Westlicht)


Sometimes history is preserved by accident rather than design. Thanks to a malfunction during the Apollo 15 mission in 1971 that prevented it from being abandoned with its fellows, the only camera used on the surface of the Moon and brought back to Earth will be auctioned by Westlicht Photographica Auction in Vienna. The motor-driven camera is a Hasselblad 500 “EL DATA CAMERA HEDC,” also known as a Hasselblad Data Camera (HDC), that was specially designed for use on the Moon. It’s currently in the hands of a private collector and goes on the block in March.


We like to think of space gear as being far more complicated than its terrestrial counterparts, but that isn’t always the case. Based on the the commercial electric Hasselblad camera, 500EL, the Apollo 15 HDC was heavily modified, though this was more a matter of radically simplifying it so it could be operated by a man in a space suit complete with helmet and thick, pressurized gloves.


The most visible step taken to make the HDC suitable for the Moon was painting it silver to reflect sunlight and help keep it cool. Since the lubricants normally used on Earth would either boil away in the vacuum on the Moon or stop being lubricants, they had to be replaced. In addition, Carl Zeiss designed a new bespoke lens, and a new, thinner film was developed by Kodak with a special coating of transparent silver to prevent the buildup of static electricity inside the camera as the film wound.


Starting bid for the Hasselblad is €80,000 (US$108,000)  (Image: NASA/Westlicht)


Because the astronauts couldn’t use the viewfinder, the mirror and secondary shutter were taken out, the focusing screen for the reflex viewfinder was replaced with an opaque plate, and a reseau plate engraved with a precision grid of small crosses was added to aid photogrammetric analysis. In addition, the controls were greatly simplified to accommodate the clumsy gloves. It all worked, but it did mean that taking photos had a huge element of guesswork as far as aiming was concerned.


This particular camera, officially numbered no.1038, was carried by Lunar Module Pilot James B. Irwin during the Apollo 15 mission, which flew from July 26 to August 7, 1971. It spent three days on the Moon, where Westlicht says it took 299 pictures in the vicinity of Hadley Rille in the lunar highlands of Palus Putredinus in Mare Imbrium.


A Hasselblad Data Camera with telescopic lens (Image: NASA)

A Hasselblad Data Camera with telescopic lens (Image: NASA)


The mission was notable for its emphasis on science, the introduction of the Lunar Rover, and being the first mission to land away from the vast lunar plains, but it’s also distinctive because of camera number 1038. While 13 identical cameras landed on the Moon, only number 1038 came back. The normal procedure was to leave the cameras behind along with other equipment in order to save liftoff weight, which could be used for taking more rock samples back to Earth. Irwin’s camera was the exception because the film magazine jammed, so the camera had to return to remove it.


Westlicht says that number 1038 eventually ended up in the hands of private collector Alain Lazzarini, author of the book Hasselblad and the Moon. It comes with extensive documentation and is identified by the number 38 on the reseau plate, which can be seen on photographs taken with the camera, the NASA number P/N SEB 33100040- S/N 103 engraved on the body, and the number P/N SEB 33101018-301 S/N 1003 HASSELBLAD REFLEX CAMERA FILM MAGAZINE on the magazine.


The auction will be held on March 22, when the starting bid for the Moon camera will be €80,000 (US$108,000) with estimates of the final price set at €150,000 to €200,000 (US$203,000 to US$270,000).


Source: Westlicht via Moon Daily


The Human Body May Not Be Cut Out For Space



The human body did not evolve to live in space, and the longest any human has been off Earth is 437 days. Some problems, like the brittling of bone, may have been overcome already. Others have been identified — for example, astronauts have trouble eating and sleeping enough — and NASA is working to understand and solve them. But Kenneth Chang reports in the NY Times that there are some health problems that still elude doctors more than 50 years after the first spaceflight. The biggest hurdle remains radiation. Without the protective cocoon of Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere, astronauts receive substantially higher doses of radiation, heightening the chances that they will die of cancer. Another problem identified just five years ago is that the eyeballs of at least some astronauts became somewhat squashed. ‘It is now a recognized occupational hazard of spaceflight,’ says Dr. Barratt. ‘We uncovered something that has been right under our noses forever.’ NASA officials often talk about the ‘unknown unknowns,’ the unforeseen problems that catch them by surprise. The eye issue caught them by surprise, and they are happy it did not happen in the middle of a mission to Mars. Another problem is the lack of gravity jumbles the body’s neurovestibular system (PDF) that tells people which way is up. When returning to the pull of gravity, astronauts can become dizzy, something that Mark Kelly took note of as he piloted the space shuttle to a landing. ‘If you tilt your head a little left or right, it feels like you’re going end over end.’ Beyond the body, there is also the mind. The first six months of Scott Kelly’s one-year mission are expected to be no different from his first trip to the space station. Dr. Gary E. Beven, a NASA psychiatrist, says he is interested in whether anything changes in the next six months. ‘We’re going to be looking for any significant changes in mood, in sleep, in irritability, in cognition.’ In a Russian experiment in 2010 and 2011, six men agreed to be sealed up in a mock spaceship simulating a 17-month Mars mission. Four of the six developed disorders, and the crew became less active as the experiment progressed. ‘I think that’s just an example of what could potentially happen during a Mars mission, but with much greater consequence,’ says Dr. Beven. ‘Those subtle changes in group cohesion could cause major problems.


Space Dogs

Space Dogs

Meet the canine heroes of the Soviet space programme


Dogs have been man’s best friend for tens of thousands of years. Their superior tracking abilities, combined with man’s superior killing abilities, made them invaluable to early hunter-gatherers.

This relationship persists to today, but the apex of the bond of friendship between the two species may have come in 1957, when a three-year-old mongrel named Kudryavka (“Little Curly”) was picked up on the streets of Moscow. She weighed about six kilograms, was part husky and part terrier, and had survived through several harsh Russian winters.

That made her the perfect candidate for an experimental programme being run by the Soviet government. Vladimir Yazdovsky was a medical scientist in the space program, who’d launched a number of dogs to altitudes of more than 450km in pressurised rockets.

While the US test rocket programme used monkeys, about two thirds of whom died, dogs were chosen by the Soviets for their ability to withstand long periods of inactivity, and were trained extensively before they flew. Only stray female dogs were used because it was thought they’d be better able to cope with the extreme stress of spaceflight, and the bubble-helmeted spacesuits designed for the programme were equipped with a device to collect feces and urine that only worked with females.

Training included standing still for long periods, wearing the spacesuits, being confined in increasingly small boxes for 15-20 days at a time, riding in centrifuges to simulate the high acceleration of launch, and being placed in machines that simulated the vibrations and loud noises of a rocket.

Some of the spacesuit designs used by the canine cosmonats // National Space Centre

The first pair of dogs to travel to space were Dezik and Tsygan (“Gypsy”), who made it to 110km on 22 July 1951 and were recovered, unharmed by their ordeal, the next day. Dezik returned to space in September 1951 with a dog named Lisa, but neither survived the journey. After Dezik’s death, Tsygan was adopted by Anatoli Blagronravov, a physician who later worked closely with the United States at the height of the Cold War to promote international cooperation on spaceflight.

They were followed by Smelaya (“Brave”), who defied her name by running away the day before her launch was scheduled. She was found the next morning, however, and made a successful flight with Malyshka (“Babe”). Another runaway was Bolik, who successfully escaped a few days before her flight in September 1951. Her replacement was ignomoniously named ZIB — the Russian acronym for “Substitute for Missing Bolik”, and was a street dog found running around the barracks where the tests were being conducted. Despite being untrained for the mission, he made a successful flight and returned to Earth unharmed.

“Despite being untrained for the mission, he made a successful flight and returned to Earth unharmed.”

In June 1954, Another dog named Lisa flew to an altitude of 100km with a companion named Ryzhik (“Ginger”), returning successfully. But they didn’t have to deal with the trauma of a mid-air ejection at an altitude of 85km, as Albina and Tsyganka (“Gypsy Girl”) did. The pair landed safely, and it was noted in particular by the scientists how well Albina had coped with the journey.

In 1957, Soviet scientists were ready to attempt something rather more audacious — an orbital flight. Sputnik was launched on 4 October 1957, in a storm of publicity, sparking something of a crisis in the United States. This triggered the space race, and eventually led not only to the creation of NASA and eventually the Apollo programme and Moon landings, but also a vast increase in the funding of science.

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, in full thaw, decided to increase that pressure on the US and so Sputnik was followed up a mere month later by Sputnik 2 — a mission to put a living creature into orbit. The Soviets didn’t have the time to build the technology to bring the craft back, so it was known from the start that whichever animal was chosen would perish in space.

A longlist of ten canine cosmonauts was drawn up, which was then reduced to a shortlist of three. They were Albina — who’d already ejected from 85km, a dog named Mushka (“Little Fly”), and the aforementioned Kudryavka, who’d been collected on the streets of Moscow and impressed her trainers with her calm and quiet demeanour in the face of simulated stresses.

That even temperament won her the honour of being the first animal in orbit, and she was renamed Laika (“Barker”). In the days before launch she was kept in the module she would fly in — it was padded, had enough room for her to stand or lie down as she wanted to, and gave her access to a specially-designed nutritious jelly that was high in fibre for her to eat.

Dogs were housed in padded boxes like this for their voyage, allowing them space to stand or sit, and giving them access to food. // Benutzer:HPH CC BY-SA 3.0

Before launch, she was covered in an alcohol solution and painted with iodine in the places where sensors were connected to her skin, which monitored her heartbeat, blood pressure and other biological variables.

On 3 November 1957, Laika blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome and became the first creature to orbit the Earth. The launch went smoothly, and her capsule entered an elliptical orbit, circling the planet at 29,000 km/h and completing a full rotation every hour and forty-two minutes.

While Laika certainly made it into space alive, it’s not entirely clear how long she lived after that. It was originally announced that she was euthanised with poisoned food several days into the mission, then it was said she died when her oxygen supply ran out, on the sixth day of her journey.

Laika on a Romanian postage stamp

But in October 2008, fifty-one years after her journey and after a monument had been erected in her honour near the facility in which she was trained, it was finally revealed that she had most likely perished a few hours after launch from overheating and stress caused by the failure of a rocket component to separate from the capsule.

“We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog.”

Oleg Gazenko, one of the scientists working on the mission, said in 1998 that he regretted sending Laika to her death:

Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us. We treat them like babies who cannot speak. The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We shouldn’t have done it… We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog.

Laika in training and her memorial in Moscow // Soviet Space Program

But the mission was another great success for the Soviets, and the space programme continued. One of the most-travelled dogs was named Otvazhnaya (“Brave One”), who accompanied a dog named Snezhinka (“Snowflake”) into sub-orbital space on 2 July 1959 before making five more successful flights that year.

On 28 July 1960, Bars (“Snow Leopard”) and Lisichka (“Little Fox”) were chosen to follow Laika into orbit, but both perished after their rocket explosively disintegrated just twenty-eight seconds into the launch sequence. This crash caused considerable uproar within the Soviet space programme, as the problem that caused the explosion had supposedly been fixed.

Belka (“Squirrel”) and Strelka (“Arrow”) were the next successful orbiters, spending a day in space on 19 August 1960 aboard Sputnik 5, which was a veritable Noah’s Ark of animals. The craft contained Belka, Strelka, a grey rabbit, forty-two mice, two rats, flies, and several plants and fungi, as well as some slightly creepy strips of human flesh.

All the animals survived the spacecraft’s return to Earth on 20 August, though telemetry showed that one of the dogs had suffered a seizure during the fourth orbit. That led directly to the decision to limit Yuri Gagarin’s legendary flight the following year to just three orbits before returning to Earth.

Strelka subsequently had six puppies with Pushok, a male dog kept around the research base, who participated in many of the ground-based experiments but didn’t travel to space. One of the puppies was named Pushinka (“Fluffy”) and was given to US president John F Kennedy’s daughter, Caroline, by Khrushchev in 1961.

The dog was initially kept away from the White House by Kennedy’s staff over fear that its body may have been implanted with microphones, but after a medical check she was brought into the home and won the heart of another of Kennedy’s dogs — a Welsh Terrier named Charlie. They had a litter of puppies together themselves, which Kennedy affectionately referred to as “pupniks”. Their descendents are still living today, and Belka and Strelka were celebrated in 2010 with an animated feature film named Space Dogs.

Left: A model of Strelka in Australia in 1993 // Right: Pushinka and her pupniks

On 1 December 1960, tragedy struck. Mushka — who was shortlisted for Laika’s mission but lost out after — finally made it into space aboard Sputnik 6, accompanied by Pchyolka (“Little Bee”) and other animals, plants and insects. They were in good health when the rocket began its re-entry, but at the last minute a navigation error meant that the craft would have landed outside of Soviet borders.

The CIA intercepted and decoded this image of one of the dogs aboard Sputnik 6 in December 1960

Fear of foreign agents inspecting the capsule trumped the lives of the dogs aboard the spacecraft, and so it was intentionally destroyed, killing everything aboard.

On 22 December 1960, the team tried once more. Damka (“Queen of Checkers”) and Krasavka (“Little Beauty”) were selected from the pool and prepared for launch.

Almost immediately after taking off, however, the rocket encountered difficulties. The upper stage booster failed, causing the craft to re-enter the atmosphere after reaching a maximum altitude of 214km. The back-up plan in this situation was to eject the dogs and then self-destruct, but the ejector seat failed to operate, leaving the dogs stuck in the capsule as the self-destruct sequence ticked down.

Then something incredible happened. The self-destruct module also shorted out — aborting the sequence, and the capsule plummeted back to Earth intact, landing in deep snow in Siberia. A backup self-destruct timer had been set for 60 hours, so a team was scrambled to quickly locate the craft. They found it on the first day, but without sufficient daylight to disarm the self-destruct sequence and open the capsule. They were only able to report that the window of the capsule had frosted over in the -45C temperatures of the landing site, and no signs of life were heard from inside.

The next day, at dawn, they returned to the capsule fearing the worst. As it was opened, however, barking was heard — Damka and Krasavka were alive, though the mice that had accompanied them on the mission had frozen to death in the freezing temperatures of Siberia.

The dogs were wrapped in sheepskin coats immediately, and flown to Moscow, where they were thawed out and given the best medical care. Both survived, and Krasavka was adopted by Oleg Gazenko, a Lieutenant General who’d fought in World War II and the Korean War, and supervised the mission. Krasavka went on to have a litter of puppies, before dying at home 14 years later.

Damka and Krasavka narrowly escaped tragedy, before living long and healthy lives.

As the Soviet spaceflight programme ramped up towards its first human launch in 1961, the dogs began to be accompanied by dummy cosmonauts.

Chernushka (“Blackie”) flew on Sputnik 9 on 9 March 1961 with a dummy named Ivan Ivanovich, some mice and a guinea pig. To test the spacecraft communications, they placed a recording of a choir in Ivanovich’s chest, so that any radio stations picking up the signal would understand he wasn’t real. He was ejected at altitude, and parachuted to the ground, while Chernushka was recovered unharmed from the capsule.

Zvyozdochka (“Starlet”, named by Gagarin himself) flew on Sputnik 10 on the final practice flight before Gagarin’s voyage on 25 March 1961, again accompanied by Ivanovich and his choir recording — which this time had been augmented with a recipe for cabbage soup to confuse anyone listening in. Again, both the dummy and the dog returned safely to Earth, and Ivanovich was auctioned in 1993 for $189,500, still in his spacesuit. Today he lives in the US National Air and Space museum.

Ugolyok and Veterok in space. 1966.

Following Gagarin’s triumphant mission on 12 April 1961, the Soviets slowly dismantled their dogs-in-space programme as it was no longer required. Its final flight, the Cosmos 110 mission, came five years later on 22 February 1966. It carried two dogs — Veterok (“Light Breeze”) and Ugolyok (“Coal”), who spent a record-breaking 22 days in orbit, testing whether life could survive for longer durations in orbit. As well as Veterok and Ugolyok, it carried yeast cells, blood cells and live bacteria.

The long-duration mission was a success, and the dogs were safely landed back on Earth. However, in their medical checkups afterward, it was discovered that their muscle and bone structures had sustained some damage from spending such a long time zero gravity, paving the way for later discoveries on the biological effects of spaceflight on the human body. Veterok and Ugolyok held the record for spaceflight duration until Skylab 2 in 1973, and still hold the record for the longest spaceflight by dogs.

A number of other dogs flew on sub-orbital flights, including Dymka (“Smoky”), Modnitsa (“Fashionable”) and Kozyavka (“Little Gnat”), as well as at least four others whose names don’t survive to this day. Almost all survived, with the exception of two of the unnamed dogs who perished in failed launches.

Without their contributions, and those of their canine colleagues, Russia would never have been able to launch Sputnik in 1957 and Gagarin in 1961, and the space race may never have taken off. Their heroism and bravery fuelled the earliest space exploration missions, paving the way for humans to later follow.

So to Dezik and Tsygan, Smelaya, Malyshka, ZIB, Ryzhik, Albina and Tsyganka, Mushka, Otvazhnaya, and Snezhunka, Bars and Lisichka, Belka and Strelka, Pushok, Pchyolka, Damka and Krasavka, Chernushka, Zvyozdochka, Veterok and Ugolyok, Dymka, Modnitsa, Kozyavka — and, most of all, Laika — I’d like to thank you for everything that you’ve done for mankind.

Хорошая собака, or as we say in the West…

Good dog.

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Comet-chasing prob “woke up” today


Jason Major reports that after nearly a decade of soaring through the inner solar system, flying past Mars and Earth several times and even briefly visiting a couple of asteroids for a gravity assist, the European Space Agency’s comet-chasing spacecraft, Rosetta, woke up today after 957 days of hibernation. The probe  awakened to prepare for its upcoming and highly-anticipated rendezvous with comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in August. The spacecraft was designed to be put in hibernation for the coldest part of the journey that took it close to the orbit of Jupiter, because even with massive solar panels the size of a basketball court, Rosetta would not have enough power to complete its mission without this energy-saving strategy. Once Rosetta enters orbit around the comet — the first time a spacecraft has ever done so — it will map its surface and, three months later in November, deploy the 220-lb (100-kg) Philae lander that will intimately investigate the surface of the nucleus using a suite of advanced science instruments. ‘It’s the first time we’ve made a rendezvous with a comet — that’s never been done before — and it’s going to be the first time we’ve escorted a comet past its closest approach to the Sun,’ says ESA project scientist Matt Taylor.

Solar Lull Could Cause Colder Winters In Europe



“Since September of last year scientists have been wondering what’s happening to the Sun. It’s supposed to have reached the peak of its 11-year cycle, but sunspot and flare activity remains much quieter than expected. Experts now think the recent cold snap that hit North America and the wet weather that hit part of Europe might be linked to the eerie quietness of the Sun. According to the BBC, solar activity hasn’t been this low in 100 years, and if activity keeps dropping, it may reach levels seen during the ‘Maunder Minimum,’ an ‘era of solar inactivity in the 17th Century [which] coincided with a period of bitterly cold winters in Europe.’ It wouldn’t have a big effect on global temperatures, just regional ones. Why? The sun’s UV output drops during these lulls, and the decreased amount of UV light hitting the stratosphere would cause the jet stream to change course. Prof. Mike Lockwood says, ‘These are large meanders in the jet stream, and they’re called blocking events because they block off the normal moist, mild winds we get from the Atlantic, and instead we get cold air being dragged down from the Arctic and from Russia. These are what we call a cold snap… a series of three or four cold snaps in a row adds up to a cold winter. And that’s quite likely what we’ll see as solar activity declines.'”


Many eyes on Earth

Swarms of small satellites set to deliver close to real-time imagery of swathes of the planet.

08 January 2014 Updated:

Matt McDonald/Skybox Imaging

Skybox Imaging plans to launch 24 high-resolution SkySats in the next few years.

Imagine using Google Earth or other online mapping tools to zoom in on high-resolution satellite images of the planet taken just hours or days ago. Navigating backwards and forwards in time, one could track changes in everything from crops, forests and wildlife movement to urban sprawl and natural disasters, all with unrivalled temporal precision.

This is the vision of two Californian start-up companies that are set to launch swarms of small imaging satellites, which, by virtue of their sheer numbers, will be able to revisit and photograph huge swathes of the planet as often as several times each day — a frequency much higher than that achieved by current Earth-observing satellites.

San Francisco-based Planet Labs, founded in 2010 by three former NASA scientists, is scheduled to launch 28 of its ‘Doves’ on 8 January. Each toaster-sized device weighs about 5 kilograms and can take images at a resolution of 3–5 metres.

At Skybox Imaging in nearby Palo Alto, plans are afoot for a swarm of 24 satellites, each weighing about 100 kilograms, which will take images of 1 metre resolution or better. Skybox launched its first satellite on 21 November and plans to launch another this year, followed by the remainder between 2015 and 2017.

In a first — at least for civilian satellites — Skybox’s devices will also stream short segments of near-live high-resolution video footage of the planet. So, too, will UrtheCast, a start-up based in Vancouver, Canada, whose cameras will hitch a ride on the International Space Station (see ‘Earth goes under video surveillance‘).

Earth goes under video surveillance

Companies plan to stream near-live high-resolution video of the planet from space.

The International Space Station is set to host an unusual external component. In the coming days, a 32-centimetre-aperture video camera will be bolted to the side of one of its modules and pointed not into space, but straight down at Earth. The device, one of the first of its kind to be launched in space, will then begin streaming high-definition colour videos of Earth on the Web in near-real time.

The camera will be operated by UrtheCast, a start-up company based in Vancouver, Canada, which has gained access to the space station through a deal with the Russian Federal Space Agency. It is one of two companies aiming to deliver up-to-date video footage of Earth from space for the first time. The other, Skybox Imaging, a start-up company based in Palo Alto, California, will deliver panchromatic video from its planned swarm of 24 satellites (see main text). Both will produce video at about 1 metre resolution, fine enough to make out individual moving vehicles, crowds of people and groups of animals.

Cosmonauts carried out a spacewalk on 27 December to mount UretheCast’s video camera on the hull of the Russian Zvezda module, following its arrival on board a Russian cargo vessel on 2 December. They also installed a multi-spectra camera, which UrtheCast will use to stream live 5 metre resolution still images. The cameras were built by the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Didcot, UK. Unfortunately, both devices had to be dismounted after a power problem, but this has now been resolved and the cameras will probably be reinstalled before the end of January. Skybox Imaging has had better luck; it launched its first satellite in November and has since made public videos taken by the craft.

When the cameras are fully up and running, both companies will target commercial markets, such as the media and organizations wishing to monitor traffic, ports and industrial plants. UrtheCast will also make its streams free to the public on its website, and hopes to capitalize on the large number of hits it expects its website to attract. For example, one can imagine the global interest there would have been had regular space video footage of the Fukushima nuclear disaster been available, says Scott Larson, UrtheCast’s chief executive.

Other applications of space video include the monitoring of floods, post-earthquake zones and other natural disasters and humanitarian crises, Larson says. UrtheCast will help to do just that through an agreement reached with the United Nations’ Operational Satellite Applications Programme (UNOSAT), which delivers satellite imagery to the UN and other organizations involved in relief and development operations.

Potential scientific applications of space video include observing volcanic eruptions, forest fires, hurricanes and the movement of wildlife, although the scientific potential of space video is not yet clear. “People will use these tools in ways we haven’t even thought of yet,” predicts Larson.

However, the projects have limitations. Skybox Imaging’s satellite and the space station hurtle along at thousands of kilometres an hour in their low Earth orbits, so video footage of any one place will inevitably be fleeting. Both companies intend to use steerable cameras to briefly lock their focus on selected targets, and so acquire 60–90-second video sequences of individual locations.

Satellites are therefore no match for high-altitude drones, which can circle and provide continuous video footage of the same location. But using drones to monitor events across the globe requires operators to gain permission to access countries’ airspace, notes Larson. And drones may not be located near a site of interest when, for example, a natural disaster hits. By contrast, satellite eyes in the sky need no permission to fly, and have access to even the most remote zones.

The efforts could herald a sea change for imaging. Conventional imaging satellites, which are the size of a van and weigh tonnes, cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build and launch (see ‘The swarm cometh’). As a result, there are only a handful of operators, and the commercial world fleet comprises fewer than 20 satellites. Commercial satellites also tend to take pictures mainly when their operators receive orders from customers.

By contrast, the swarm satellites’ cameras will always be on, photographing everything in their path and, owing to their numbers, will pass over the same points on Earth with a frequency of hours to a few days, depending on latitude.

The biggest customers of conventional commercial imaging satellites are governments, in particular intelligence agencies and the military. Prices can be prohibitive for many other potential users, including researchers, in areas as diverse as farming, forest carbon management, regional and local planning, and environmental stewardship. By making their images cheaper, the new entrants into the marketplace hope to spur a proliferation of innovative uses. They also hope to offer heavy discounts or even make imagery free to academics and non-governmental organizations.

“This sector has for so long been driven by government requirements and, to a lesser extent, big industry players, that the mass-market consumer — the long tail — has been almost completely neglected,” says Scott Larson, chief executive of UrtheCast. Cheaper imagery, he says, will lead to “the democratization of near-real-time Earth-observation data”.

To slash costs, Planet Labs and Skybox Imaging use off-the-shelf technologies from the automotive, smartphone and other consumer industries — including low-cost electronics, and sensors from high-end digital cameras. Using the latest technologies from these fast-paced industries also allows the rapid, continuous development of better and better satellites, says Will Marshall, chief executive of Planet Labs. And miniaturizing satellites reduces launch costs.

Because the swarms are still to be launched, scientists have yet to fully assess the quality of the imagery. But the satellites’ spatial resolutions of 1–5 metres are much higher than those of most scientific satellites. Landsat, NASA’s Earth-observation workhorse, for example, has a resolution of 15–100 metres depending on the spectral frequency, with 30 metres in the visible-light range.

Such medium-resolution imagery is adequate for many purposes, but higher resolution can have benefits, says Dan Berkenstock, co-founder and chief product officer of Skybox Imaging. He points to a study published in November that found that the use of moderate-resolution Landsat imagery greatly underestimated forest loss in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (A. Tyukavina et al. Environ. Res. Lett. 8, 044039; 2013).

Precision agriculture, a method that uses remote sensing to aid farm management, will also benefit from swarms, says Berkenstock, because the technology will be able to provide timely crop-yield and health estimates down to the level of rows of plants. Such detail could inform decisions on fertilizer and irrigation use, but is currently out of reach of most farmers.

However, spatial resolution is only part of the picture, says Mike Wulder, a researcher at the Canadian Forest Service in Victoria and a member of the Landsat science team. He uses remote sensing to study forests, and notes that good spectral and radiometric resolution (detection of small differences in wavelength and radiation, respectively), are essential for quantitative scientific analyses. “These very small satellites should not be expected to provide data that are similar or in competition with full-blown Earth-observing satellites,” he says. “They occupy a different niche.”

The scientific value of the swarm data will be “radically dependent” on quality issues, says Greg Asner, an Earth scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, California. Stitching together such frequent-repeat imagery from so many satellites will be challenging, because performance will probably differ between satellites and vary over time, he argues.

But he is nonetheless excited at the prospect of constantly updated fresh imagery. “It will almost be like updating Google Earth each day,” he says.



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