Monday, September 27, 2010

Satellite to launch with air of intrigue about true mission


By Pam Benson, CNN National Security Producer
September 24, 2010 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT

  • New satellite will detect and track man-made objects in space
  • Of about 21,000 objects in space, most are debris
  • In space, even small pieces of debris can cause serious damage
  • Some suspect satellite will spy on other country's satellites
Washington (CNN) -- Getting around town with your GPS, watching your favorite program on satellite TV, tracking hurricanes in real time, communicating with the warfighter on the battlefield -- any one of those activities could be in jeopardy if a piece of the growing mass of orbital junk traveling through space at supersonic speeds smashes into a satellite.
That's why the Air Force is launching a new satellite Saturday night that officials say will have the capacity to better detect and track the more than 20,000 man-made objects in space, most of which is debris.
The managers of the Space Based Space Surveillance (SBSS) program said the satellite will help make U.S. space assets safer and more secure. SBSS commander Col. J.R. Jordan told reporters that "this satellite is going to revolutionize how we track objects in space by not being constrained by weather, the atmosphere or the time of day."
The heart of the satellite is a camera with an unobstructed view of three quarters of the sky, a valuable wide angle that avoids having to expend the time and fuel to reposition the spacecraft.
Currently, space objects are tracked by ground based systems -- radars and optical telescopes -- which can be blinded by adverse weather conditions, clouds and daylight.
The new satellite has other potential missions. It can provide a closer eye on the satellites and space objects of other nations. The Air Force officials participating in the news briefing would not discuss missions or priorities.
"There are a lot of objects out there that we have lost track on, and there are a lot of objects we think we can observe that we haven't been able to observe previously," Jordan said.
"We're going to improve the actual tracking on a daily basis," he added.
"SBSS will track the relative position of satellites and debris to enable the Joint Space Operations Center to protect the nation's assets in space," a spokesman for the Air Force Space and Missile Center said.
Brian Weeden, a former Air Force officer who worked on space operations, said the new satellite makes it feasible to observe and collect information on objects at much higher altitudes in deep space. The satellite "may very well have imagery capabilities" beyond what has been made public, said Weeden, who now is an analyst for the Secure World Foundation.
"Think Hubble," said Weeden, a reference to the space telescope which provided more detailed images of the universe at greater distances.
John Pike, who follows satellite developments for, is more conspiratorial about the satellite's mission. He maintains one of the key purposes of the new satellite is to learn more about the characteristics of debris fields in order to make satellites more stealth -- n other words, to disguise top secret U.S. satellites as debris. Pike said space junk is a concern, but ground systems are able to keep track of most of the space clutter that could impact key U.S. assets.
Weeden disagreed. He is skeptical of the feasibility of developing stealth technology based on observing debris.
Although Weeden acknowledged there may be some elements in the U.S. intelligence and military who want such research, he believes the physics is too hard. Unlike debris, satellites give off a physical signature -- heat, light and other indicators.
"If a satellite is stealth, how do you know where it is, especially if you should lose contact with it?" Weeden posited.
He said the new tracking satellite does provide a far better ability to detect, track and inspect objects in space. One of the motivations for the tracking satellite, Weeden said, is the fear that another nation might have a dormant anti-satellite device in orbit, waiting to be turned on. Although there is no indication such a device exists, Weeden said the new satellite will give the United States better situational awareness in space.
Michael Krepon, a space expert for the Stimson Center, said the new satellite provides needed additional capacity.
Within the past few years, he said, there have been "three wake up calls to say there is a huge problem," with space clutter.
Thousands of pieces of debris were generated when, in 2007, the Chinese intentionally destroyed one of its own satellites with a ballistic missile. In early 2009, a Russian satellite and a U.S. satellite collided in space, and later that year a Russian intercontinental missile blew up during a test flight.
Krepon pointed out that even a marble sized piece of debris "travels with the energy of a one-ton safe dropped from a five story building. If you get hit with that marble, you're having a really bad day," said Krepon.
The Air Force Space Command's mission is to track and chart the path of anything orbiting the earth that is 10 centimeters -- approximately the size of a baseball -- or larger. Of the approximately 21,000 objects currently being followed, 1,000 are active satellites or other payloads such as the international space station and the shuttle.
The Air Force has spent $858 million on the development and production of the new tracking satellite, which is expected to be operational for five and a half years.

Ham Radio Operator Talks To Space Station


Texas Man Shocked When He Got Reply From Astronauts

POSTED: 7:46 am PDT September 23, 2010
UPDATED: 8:29 am PDT September 23, 2010

Trying to contact the International Space Station from home is no easy task.
But an East Texas man used his ham radio to pull off the nearly impossible feat.
Darryl Young sent out a message 250 miles away to the space station one night, and was shocked when an astronaut heard and replied.
"Out of Pittsburg we've got ya, loud and clear," the astronaut is heard saying.
Because the space station moves so fast -- about 17,000 mph -- radio operators have only a two-minute window to make contact, Young said.
"When I made contact the first time it was on top of a 20 foot pole," he said. "There's a guy that has all this fancy antenna with tracking and everything else been trying for three years."
John Yembrick with NASA said it's not uncommon for people on the ground to contact the space station and speak with crew members.
"It's bragging rights," Young said. "Hey, I talked to the space station."
Next time, Young would like the astronauts to slow down so they can carry on a conversation "and say when's the last time you played golf or something."

'Social Network' Goes to Harvard


It's unusual that film premieres have their after-parties in such perfect locations as "The Social Network." David Fincher's much-hyped film, which, by all means, lives up to its hype, very classily opened the New York Film Festival Friday night. The movie chronicles the creation—and the various disputes around the creation—of Facebook among a group of classmates at Harvard University.
To celebrate, Sony Pictures, which is releasing the film on Friday and apparently has very high Oscar hopes for it, took over the entirety of the Harvard Club on 44th Street. (The company also hosted a press junket there this weekend.)
WireImage/Getty Images
Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, and Justin Timberlake.

It shouldn't come as a surprise to hear that the rooms and the furniture were stuffy. There was taxidermy, including of a real elephant, on the wall. The food—large sliced cheese plates, pasta with red sauce, old-school carving stations—was mediocre at best, as most food at universities and their alumni clubs tend to be. But the ambience was just right, not to mention a perfect match for a film that captures the strange Neverland of what it's like to exist at an Ivy League institution.

"This is the closest I've come to being accepted to Harvard," said Aaron Sorkin as he nursed a soda. Mr. Sorkin, a graduate of Syracuse with a degree in musical theater, is the creator of "The West Wing" and also the writer of the snappy dialogue in "The Social Network." At least, for the moment, his screenplay seems the one to beat.
The evening brought out an especially high-brow crowd. Princess Firyal of Jordan was there. So were Stephen Daldry ("The Reader") and several American independent film darlings who have all had films premiere at the Film Festival: Noah Baumbach ("The Squid and the Whale"), Wes Anderson ("Rushmore") and Darren Aronofsky ("The Wrestler"), in his now trademark scarf.
Most of the cast was there too, including Jesse Eisenberg, who plays the piece's hero slash villain Mark Zuckerberg; Andrew Garfield, who plays Eduardo Saverin, the friend he betrayed; Justin Timberlake, who plays Napster founder Sean Parker, and Rashida Jones, who plays an attorney, and, for trivia purposes only, in real life actually graduated from Harvard. (Much of the film was filmed at Johns Hopkins.)
Of course, talk in general was about how terrific the film turned out. But if you took a poll of guests at the Harvard Club for—let's go ahead and use a Facebook term, why don't we—their "status updates," many of them would be: "Is wondering how Scott Rudin lost all that weight."
It is perhaps interesting to note, now, the slight irony of Mr. Rudin, one of the film's lead producers, and Mr. Fincher making a film about Harvard and celebrating it at the Harvard Club. Neither, it seems, graduated from college. But Mr. Fincher has spoken about his kinship with his anti-hero. In New York magazine, the director said he has "an enormous empathy for" Mr. Zuckerberg and knows "what it's like to be 21 years old and trying to direct a $60 million movie … you have to have not only a great deal of drive, you have to have an unshakable, freakish confidence."
Less has been made of the parallels with the famously volatile Mr. Rudin, who was president of production at Fox at the age of 29. It is not surprising that he, too, was attracted to a project about a slightly misunderstood, uber-successful genius who can be brash, difficult and hot-tempered.
But we lost the plot for a moment. By all reports Mr. Rudin has recently shed a remarkable 70 pounds. How, by Harvard, did he do it?
"By not eating," Mr. Rudin said, and he returned to his conversation with Sony's Amy Pascal.
Write to Marshall Heyman at