Your Personal Spy Satellite!

Love Gadgets?  How about a Personal Spy Satellite?

     Well, if you have $8,000 to spare, you can now actually have a small low-earth orbit satellite of your own which will fly for a couple of weeks.

  Advertised to be used for scientific experiments with many different capabilities, one possible use listed is Earth-from-space video imaging.  One blogger suggests it brings to mind the possibility of spying on your neighbor by satellite.

Interorbital Systems provides satellite hardware and launch support for the experimental and commercial satellite community.  The company is part of the Google Lunar X-Prize Team, SYNERGY MOON, and will provide Lunar Launch Services and develop the Lunar Lander.  They will sell a TubeSat Personal Satellite Kit AND a launch to orbit on their NEPTUNE 30 rocket for the combined price of $8,000.

Will Commercial Satellite Operators See the Military “Gravy Boat” Sunk?

            How long will the military gravy boat continue to represent a lucrative market for the commercial satellite operators?
            Throughout this recession, the satellite industry has continued to be profitable.  Although many companies have cut consulting costs and used layoffs to keep costs down in the uncertain economy, long term contracts and renewals have kept the companies healthy.  A very lucrative market for the commercial satellite companies is represented by the defense and military requirements for commercial satellite capacity.
            Demand continues to be heavy for commercial capacity, and  is largely driven by flashpoints around the globe
[MilsatMagazine – July 2009] even though the availability of military satellite bandwidth is expanding.  The first Wideband Global Satcom was launched in 2007 and the second in early 2009.  
TacSat-3 was launched in May 2009, and features an onboard processor which can provide real-time data to the combatant commander in the field within 10 minutes of its collection
[SatNews – 06/25/2009].  The U.S. Air Force announced the entry into trial operations of the second Space Based Infrared System Highly Elliptical Orbit payload and associated ground system for use by the warfighter in June [SatNews – 06/25/2009].  G6 provides continental United States wide voice and data satellite communications to Global Medic medical companies for all the U.S. military services except the Coast Guard [DVIDS – 06/17/2009].  The U.S. Army completed successful testing of the first Advance Extremely High Frequency satellite communications production terminals from Raytheon, being supplied under a $97.,5 million contract to upgrade and increase the data rate of existing SMART-T systems four fold  [PRNewswire – 07/14/2009].
            Still, the commercial satellite companies benefit from demands for capacity that cannot be met by the military satellites.  Intelsat and SES AMERICOM-NEW SKIES, the two largest, are just among many that contract large chunks of capacity to military needs, especially in the Middle East (Iraq and Afghanistan, for example).  Iridium recently won a $22m contract to provide the Navy with communications services and develop new tactical communications system for the Marines
[Washington Business Journal – 06/05/2009] and shortly thereafter was awarded a phase II contract for continued development of the Distributed Tactical Communications System for the U.S. Navy [UPI – 06/10/2009].
             General Dynamics won a $119m U.S. Army WIN-T order for 293 satellite terminals and support services in June
[Satellite Today – 06/08/2009].  The company contracted with Citrix Systems Inc. to supply WANScaler units to help optimize satellite bandwidth for the U.S. Army and its WIN-T (Warfighter Information Network-Tactical) initiative [Military & Aerospace Electronics – 06/25/2009].
            TeleCommunications Systems announced the award of a $3.4m U.S. Army contract to provide additional Secret Internet Protocol Router and Non-secure Internet Protocol Router access point VSAT satellite systems in July
[TMCnet – 07/13/2009].
            Apptis won an Army communications upgrade contract in July worth more than $130m to provide management and integration services of more than 100 projects including strategic satellite systems
[WashingtonTechnology – 07/13/2009].  ARINC and partner Impeva Labs received a U.S. Army contract for additional test deployments of a mesh network satellite-based global asset visibility system [SatNews – 07/09/2009].
            The Department of Homeland Security Office of Detention and Removal selected Fleet Management Solutions Iridium-based vehicle tracking and mobile resource management systems in July for deployment in its effort to optimize efficiency
[SatNews – 07/23/2009].
            Cisco will send an internet router into space on a geostationary satellite as part of a U.S. Defense Department-led initiative called Internet Routers in Space (IRIS)
[PCWorld – 07/06/2009].
            The use of so much commercial satellite capacity becomes very expensive.  The large commercial satellites commonly used are not designed and purposed for the selective use of defense and military clients.  The agencies must search out capacity on satellites in neighborhoods of the orbital arc that can serve the regions where service is required, and then contract for the capacity at commercial rates or higher because of the premium satellite real estate represented by the large commercial satellites.
            Small satellites have been looked at for many years as possible alternatives to the large commercial satellites for special purposes, but have had the “reputation of being unobtainable and promising capabilities in conflict with the laws of physics or business.”  However, they are “increasingly being proposed as enablers of these new systems.”
[SatNews – 07/23/2009]   The 23rd Small Satellite conference will be held in Logan, Utah in August and will focus on expanding applications of small satellites and their developing technologies.
            A new company, U.S. Space LLC, has been formed by former SES Americom CEO Ed Horowitz and former International Launch Services CEO Mark Albrecht, along with former Pentagon brass, to build small commercial communication satellites targeted at military customers only.  
[reallyrocketscience – 07/16/2009]  [Wall Street Journal – 07/01/2009]  It will be very interesting to watch this company and see if it can be successful in making small satellites profitable for providing lower cost dedicated services to the defense and military establishments.
            Will the combination of increasing capacity on military satellites, and the promise of small commercial satellites dedicated to military and defense needs, signal a decline in the demand for traditional satellite operators’ satellite capacity by those agencies?  Is the military gravy boat in danger of sinking?

WBMSAT Satellite Industry News Bits for July 10, 2009

Satellite Industry News Bits July 10, 2009

Telesat and APT satellite, Hong Kong, complete transaction transferring leasehold interests in Telstar 10 to APT, along with certain customer contracts.
[Trading Markets – 07/09/2009]

Iridium and Stratos supply satellite communications for “Around the Americas” environmental sailng expedition launched from Seattle.
[TMCnet – 07/09/2009]

STS-127 countdown continues for launch on Saturday, July 11 on mission to complete construction of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Kibo laboratory.
[SatNews – 07/09/2009]

UltiSat completes and commissions a C-band teleport for AFCOMSAT, a leading Nigerian satellite services provider.
[SatNews – 07/09/2009]

ARINC and partner Impeva Labs receive U.S. Army contract for additional test deployments of mesh network satellite-based global asset visibility system.
[SatNews – 07/09/2009]

ViaSat signs contracts with pan-African satellite operator Rascom Star-Qaf for high-capacity infrastructure satellite communications between regional and national capitals in Africa.
[SatNews – 07/09/2009]

Internet and Satellite use by politicians in Thailand to widen debate, challenging traditional broadcast media; government may move to undercut these challenges.
[Voice of America – 07/08/2009]

Hughes subsidiary Helius wins award for distance learning technologies that support federal government and military.
[TMCnet – 07/08/2009]

Iridium and SeaMobile Europe partner to support UCAR Cap Odyssee challenge, involving three French women attempting to cross the North Atlantic on paddleboards.
[TMCnet – 07/08/2009]

Orbital Sciences selected by NASA to design, build, integrate, and test a new low-Earth orbit space science satellite to study X-ray polarization in space.
[SatNews – 07/08/2009]

Vizada launches ThurayIP broadband mobile satellite service.
[Satellite Today – 07/08/2009]

Galileo satellite constellation control center turned over to Telespazio in a loan for use agreement.
[SatNews – 07/08/2009]

Comtech makes Adaptive Coding and Modulation (ACM) available for the CDM-625 advanced satellite modem when using the recently announced next generation VersaFEC forward error correction, delivering lower latency than ACM with DVB-S2.
[SatNews – 07/08/2009]

Intelsat wins exclusive satellite rights to Michael Jackson memorial service.
[Satellite Today – 07/08/2009]

Terrestar to launch hybrid satellite-cellular system using Ancillary Terrestrial Component (ATC) integration with the newly launched TerreStar-1 hybrid satellite.
[Network World – 07/07/2009]

SkyVision purchases iDirect Services 15000 Universal Satellite Hub to launch an Evolution network covering 100 percent of Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Asia with a single C-band satellite beam.
[SatNews – 07/07/2009]

Sirius XM iPhone application reaches 1 million downloads in two weeks.
[Satellite Today – 07/07/2009]

Arabsat and Sudanese Radio & TV sign agreement to launch DTH platform in Khartoum.
[SatNews – 07/07/2009]

The head of Iran’s judiciary calls for prosecution of people working for “anti-establishment” satellite TV channels and websites.
[SatNews – 07/06/2009]

Brazil, hoping to enter circle of nations launching rockets, plans to expand Alcantara aerospace base in the north by building 12 more rocket launching pads; will stress advantage of closeness to equator and broadest launching angle in the world.
[Satnews – 07/06/2009]

Telespazio subsidiary Aurensis signs partnership agreement with Google to become partner for enterprise versions of Google Earth and Google Maps.
[Satellite Today – 07/06/2009]

Poland becomes Member State of EUMETSAT.
[SatNews – 07/06/2009]

Inidian Space Research Organisation works on geostationary satellite for Indian Meteorological Department to monitor climate change.
[SatNews – 07/06/2009]

Latitude Technologies to provide the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Air Wing Division fleet of aircraft with a suite of SATCOM hardware and related services.
[SatNews – 07/07/2009]

Cisco will send internet router into space on a geostationary satellite as part of a U.S. Defense Department-led initiative called Internet Routers in Space (IRIS).
[PCWorld – 07/06/2009]

ATCi announces availability of its Warrior satellite monitoring and surveillance system specifically adapted for law enforcement agencies.
[PRNewswire – 07/06/2009]

  Univision successful in getting cable and satellite TV operators to pay to carry its programming, critical to its survival in the present economy given its huge outstanding debt.
[LA Times – 07/06/2009]

WBMSAT PS – Satellite Communications Consulting Services

Transponder Runaway

You might have a wierd picture in your mind of what this discussion could be about, so let me explain a little bit.  I’ll be describing a not uncommon situation where usage of the power available on a multiple carrier (SCPC – Single Channel Per Carrier) satellite transponder by the different RF uplinks using it gets out of control, hurting everyone on the transponder.

It is a fact of satellite transponder physics that only so much power is available, and when demand exceeds that power availability, the total available power is actually reduced.  The phenomenon is true of any amplifier, and a satellite transponder is an RF power amplifier.  The phenomenon is called saturation.  Amplifiers characteristically work optimally within a certain range of power input, and will have a predicted power output dependent upon the gain of the amplifier.  When the total power of the inputs to the amplifier approaches the upper end of the range, the gain of the amplilfier begins to compress, so that for a certain change in power input, there is less of a change in output power than there would be in the middle of the range.

A point is reached where an increase in power causes no change in output power – this is called amplifier saturation.  if input power is increased further, the output power will actually decrease.

Now picture an amplifier that is shared by several inputs.  If any of the input carriers is increased in power, the total input power increases.  If the amplifier is near saturation, the effect can be that the output power for this one carrier will increase slightly, but the output power for the other carriers will decrease.  So now we may see one of the other carriers in trouble, so the operator increases his power input to the amplifier.  This action may help him a little, but everyone else is affected adversely.  Before long, everyone thinks they need to increase power, but no one can get any relief.  The transponder is simply in severe saturation, with no power left to give.  That’s why we dubbed this situation transponder runaway.  The only fix is to back off all offending uplinks to within their assigned power levels to get the transponder out of saturation.

Fortunately, usage of a multiple carrier transponder is planned in such a way that when all the operators are within their assigned range of transmit power, the transponder will be well out of saturation.  Link budgets performed by engineers must abide by transponder operating parameters dictated by transponder design. 

The progress of mini-VSAT from KVH

This week’s news that KVH has added a dedicated Crew Calling Gateway to their mini-VSAT is the latest of several announcements I have been following on the mini-VSAT product as they continue the drive begun last year to develop global coverage with the service. 

As an aside, I was priveleged to work on a project to develop a maritime broadband service for KVH when I was with SES Americom, and that product developed into the KVH mini-VSAT product.  It was one of two major projects I was working on; I would have liked to spend even more time on the maritime mobile project (as a certain VP would also have liked to see) but urgent demands of the other project led to my direct management assigning more of my time to that project.

To continue the KVH mini-VSAT story – the company has consistenly added coverage, as when they expanded into the Pacific last October,  and services, as  when the service was extended to jets crossing the Atlantic Ocean last January.  Also in January, they signed a global distribution agreement with Thrane & Thrane.

This month KVH assumed operational responsibility for the mini-VSAT Broadband service supporting North American and the Caribbean regions, which had previously managed under a revenue sharing agreement with SES AMERICOM.

Chatting about the old days

This week I thought I’d share bits and pieces of an email chain – it’s fun to reminisce about how satellite communications has changed in the past 35 years

I did not think there was anyone around with more time in Satcom than me! Wow –

Invitation extended.

Hi Tom;

It’s a pleasure to connect with you. I took a quick look at your profile, and you’ve certainly been around as well.
We’ll have to find time to chat about the old days sometime. Things have come a long way in the past 30 years in this industry.

Best Regards

Hey Bill,

Yeh, a long ways.  I started off on LEOs doing “hand-offs” every couple of hours to get 3 voice circuits into Turkey and Ethiopia from Germany with the Army Signal Corp – just a year or two ago . . .

Do you do any work in Asia?  With DBS?  Those are my two calling cards.



                My early days were at the Intelsat standard A earth station in Guam operated by RCA Globecomm.  The days of 30 meter antennas, cryogenic LNAs, and threshold extension demods!
                While I have not actually travelled to Asia to work there, I have worked with a number of the Asian companies over the years.  I enjoy travelling, and would certainly entertain travel with the right opportunities. 
I have exposure to DBS, and worked on a broadband collaboration project for a few months with Echostar. 

Best Regards


I grew up cleaning out cryo lines with nitrogen, which fed our dewars, running at 18K, in AD Little Parametric Amps.  We had a HAC 10KW HPA for 3 – 5 channels, built our own FM Mods, learned how to align the klystron while tracking a bird, and basically learned it all from the ground up. Spent tome on As, Bs, and Cs all around the world, and a lot more.  Just finished a project for Charlie about 2 years ago.

Talk about the days, Tom.  And disassembling the parametric LNAs – got to be careful with that donkey dick – er, excuse me, displacer.  I saw one removed one time before the amp had warmed up to room temperature.  I should say, they started to remove it – got it slightly open, and it immediately froze up.  And we were always maintaining the coolant systems of the water cooled 3KW HPAs.

Best regards

Ethylene Glycol coolant systems – sticky, and generally a pain in the . . .  Varian 5 cavity tuned klystrons, transmissions that weighed in more than a VW bug, and using a ball peen hammer to tune wave guide!


The Old Days – Satellite Communications

       This week, a MarketWatch story about celebrating the 50th anniversary of the communications satellite reminded me of the old days in satellite communications.

       I like to say I was with SES Americom longer than it was a company.  I started in Guam with RCA Globcom in 1971, at the Pulantat international earth station.  It was part of the early Intelsat worldwide network of Standard “A” stations (30 meter antennas) and was the only one managed by RCA.  The station was owned by a consortium of ITT, RCA, and Intelsat.  RCA Americom didn’t come into being until about 1975, when RCA started a domestic satellite communications company and had to break it away from the international satellite communications division. 

         Those days really were the early days in satellite communications, less than 20 years since the first experimental relay satellite was launched.  The state of the art technology included such things as cryogenically cooled parametric low noise amplifiers to receive the weak signals from the satellites.  Threshold extension demodulators were the way to further improve signal to noise on the downlinks.  Some of the technologies you still see in use today, like the 3KW water cooled klystron high power amplifiers on the uplink.  You can still find them around, although they are much more rare than then.

                Today we take the internet for granted and it is nothing to see 80 to 100 emails a day if you are fairly busy.  In those days we used a teletype machine, which could send messages at a rate of about 60 – 120 characters per second if you used the machine to punch your message on a paper tape and then ran the tape through the machine to actually send the message.  This was also the method we used for programming a mini computer we had on the site which was used for  “orderwire” – voice communications between satellite earth stations for co-ordinating maintenance and troubleshooting. 

            An alternate method for programming the computer was to use 8 front panel toggle switches to program in machine language – each toggle switch was set to 1 or 0 for a single bit of an 8 bit byte.  A byte represented one character in machine language.  Imagine a computer using magnetic core memory – each bit was represented on the memory board by a single tiny iron donut (toroid) with a few wraps of wire around it to magnetize it in one direction for a 1 and the opposite direction for a 0. 

            Just a couple of memories about the old days in satelite communications.




SiriusXM Revisited

Sirius Logo XM Logo

The merger finally behind it, the now-combined company’s troubles are far from over.  As if Sirius XM did not have enough problems getting the merger done and dealing with the two widely different technologies used in the two infrastructures, the souring economy dealt another blow.
The CEO of SiriusXM remains upbeat about a turnaround next year, stating that even if new car sales tank, the company will do well because it is a subscription business, and because the company’s penetration in the new car industry will be 50%.  Observers feel this is a weak argument, and that the market has little hope for the future of SiriusXM.
Sirius has been adding programs and moving to A La Carte programming in an effort to improve it’s revenue, but industry experts feel this will not save the company.  The company’s stock has been trading below $1.00, and there has been discussion of de-listing the stock from NASDAQ. But with a three month moratorium now in place, Sirius is among the companies in the 30 day delisting clock which will be reset, so Sirius would have 30 days beginning January 20, 2009 before being de-listed, if the stock remains below $1.00.
The decline of the U.S. car industry, where Sirius gets many of its new suscribers, along with growing competition, were stated as reasons for Goldman to drop the price target to $0.25 per share.  Goldman expected churn (subscribers leaving the service) would further decimate the subscriber base and the ability to generate cash flow.
SiriusXM will have a hard row to hoe.

Satellite Communications “War Stories”

 It occured to me it might be fun to share some of the communications problems I’ve been involved in troubleshooting over my years in the business.

 Case 1:  Ku Band Receive RFI Due to Radar Detectors
A study of the problem at an Oregon educational institution from February to June, 1998

 The satellite downlink at this Oregon site was part of a video conferencing network using a Ku band satellite.  The frequency allocations were in transponder 1, from 11719.25 MHz to 11737.95 MHz.  The site had been experiencing occasional loss of sync on the digital video carrier for over 2 years.  The problem was identified as local RFI early on, but the difficulty in having a technical person at the site with the proper test equipment at the right time kept this elusive problem from being identified.  I became involved in November, 1997.
 Following a couple of initial visits when I installed some shielding and power isolation equipment, I made plans for more sophisticated troubleshooting.  In February, 1998 I set up a spectrum analyzer controlled by a laptop computer, with remote dial-in capability.  During a four month period I remotely saved 224 spectrum analyzer max hold traces.  110  of these traces showed evidence of the RFI, and proved that it was present both at 70 MHz second I.F. and at L band (950 MHz – 1450 MHz) first I.F.  Two visits to the site during this period did not result in positive identification of the source.
 I prepared for a trip the week of June 1, 1998 by obtaining an L band log periodic antenna and a K band horn with an LNB to use for triangulating.  The problem appeared the evening of June 4.  I quickly identified it as being received at Ku band, and began triangulating.
 I drove around campus with my laptop and spectrum analyzer running on an inverter in the car, and by 9:30 had triangulated back to the parking lot where I started.  The same pickup with a horse trailer was still sitting in the same spot where it had been when I started looking.  Two more traces showed positively that the interference was coming from the pickup.  A conversation with the driver verified that he had a radar detector that was operating.  The interference disappeared when he drove away.
  The spectrum analyzer traces taken when the problem was present showed the typical RF signature was virtually the same except for the total sweep width and intensity.  The interference actually appeared as random individual pulses occuring over a wide bandwidth when viewed at L Band first I.F. and 70 MHz second I.F. frequencies because of the narrow video bandwidth setting on the spectrum analyzer.
 A sample spectrum analyzer trace below shows the typical signature of the interference at the low end of transponder 1; the trace was taken at a 70MHz second I.F. monitor point, and the spectrum analyzer was on “max hold” for 30 seconds.  The interference was at the low end of the transponder and below it; signals in the center were normal signals on the satellite.

Spectrum Analyzer Trace


Epic Battle – XM and Sirius Merger Attempt

Actually, SM and Sirius had branched into weather and traffic programming as well, and Sirius launched television programming in 2007.You likely knew that the two premier satellite radio companies, XM and Sirius, have been planning a merger for quite some time now. On March 24, 2008, the Justice Department approved the merger.  The merger was finally approved after an 11th hour two-month extension the two companies gave each other on the merger.  The DOJ review took over a year.

Well, “The Game Ain’t Over.” . . . The FCC delay has been an historic one, and the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) has been battling almost everyone else in an effort to subvert the proposed merger.

     Clear Channel, in its 17th statement filed with the FCC, also claims the merger would be unfair and illegal. It takes the same position as the NAB, that a combined XM/Sirius would constitute a monopoly of satellite radio that would be prohibited by the 1997 FCC order establishing the Satellite Digital Audio Radio Service.  Clear Channel, though, is willing to withdraw its objections if the FCC were to ease the eight-station cap on the number of radio frequencies an entity can own in big Arbitron-designated markets. This would allow Clear Channel to own 12 radio stations in large city markets.

  Now attorney Julian R. Shepard, a top telecommunications lawyer, has filed papers with the FCC offering “highly confidential documents” accusing the two companies of lack of truth and candor in dealing with the FCC. The FCC is being asked not only to reject their application for a merger, but to revoke the licenses of Sirius and XM.

Stay Tuned to this one .  .  .