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NASA Super Pressure Balloon -Loft  Capacity 5000lbs
Look Familiar? NASA Super Pressure Balloon -Loft Capacity 5000lbs

The Chinese Spy Balloon incident has caused shock and alarm in the US and the western world. As if this incident wasn’t bad enough, three additional objects have been intercepted and destroyed over the US and Canada. The US leads the world in using balloons for intelligence, communications, and scientific measurements while simultaneously operating a vast array of spy satellites. Why is it a surprise that the Chinese are emulating our methods? This blog will look at US balloon systems and technology to extrapolate the likely capabilities of the now-destroyed Chinese Spy Balloon.


Before we begin our survey of US balloon systems, let’s briefly review what w know about the Chinese Spy Balloon Incident.


The Chinese Spy Balloon Incident

Path of the Chinese Spy Ballon -  January 28  to February 4, 2023 ( Source Statisica)
Path of the Chinese Spy Balloon - January 28 to February 4, 2023 ( Source Statistica)

Per the BBC, “From January 28 to February 4, 2023, a Chinese-operated, large white high-altitude balloon was seen in North American airspace, including Alaska, western Canada, and the contiguous United States.” On February 4th, as the balloon finally reached the South Carolina coast, a US Air Force F22 interceptor fired an AIM-9 sidewinder missile and shot down the balloon.


The US Navy immediately performed a recovery operation shipping the balloon debris to the FBI in Quantico, Virginia, for analysis.


Based on the US Defense department briefings, the balloon was helium-filled and approximately 200 feet in diameter. As a data point for comparison, a mid-sized version of NASA’s own Super Pressure Balloon Program (SPB), of roughly the same size, can loft nearly 2000 lbs of payload.

Telephoto Image of Chinese Spy balloon over Wyoming
Telephoto Image of Chinese Spy balloon over Wyoming

The Chinese Balloon carried a payload ( “gondola”) roughly “two to three school buses in length” ( ~30 meters). Based on a US U2 spy plane flyby, the balloon carried antennas and equipment capable of locating electronic communications devices, including mobile phones and radios. A DoD spokesperson noted that the balloon’s instrument package was “clearly for intelligence surveillance” and inconsistent with the weather-balloon equipment. The balloon’s payload included 12 solar panels estimated to generate the power necessary to operate multiple intelligence-gathering systems.

Spy Balloon Architecture  (Source BBC)
Spy Balloon Architecture (Source BBC)

So at a gross level, the Chinese spy balloon clearly had signals intelligence capability with antennas to collect RF and cellular traffic and transmit that intelligence via satellite up-link back to China. The balloon likely had hyperspectral imaging equipment for detailed images of the flyover areas. While there is no confirmation, the balloon could have LiDAR ( Laser Radar) an all-weather radar imaging capability similar to Lower Earth Orbit Earth observation satellites.


For more information on LEO Earth observation sensors used satellites, please watch the following: Video Presentation: Imagery versus SAR for Military Applications.

Four US Airspace Breach Incidents Resulting in Shootdowns – (Source WSJ)
Four US Airspace Breach Incidents Resulting in Shootdowns – (Source WSJ)

In late-breaking news – A US F22 shot down a 2nd object over Canada on February 11th. A briefing by Canadian Defence Minister Anita An noted that the unidentified object was smaller than the Chinese Spy Ballroom but similar in appearance and represented an immediate hazard as it was lofted at 40,000 feet (12,200 m), posing a risk to civilian air traffic.


In even later breaking news - 2 similar smaller “objects” have been destroyed over Alaska and Michigan. NORAD and the US airforce have been very busy


In each of these cases, the additional “objects” were detected after the US Defense Department changed the detection parameters of the North American air defense and early warning systems If you want to know more about these early warning and defense systems, check out: Missle Defence – An Imperfect Shield.


Did the US Have a Legal Right to Shoot Down the Spy Balloon?

International law states that a nation “has complete and exclusive sovereignty over the airspace above its territory”, which corresponds with the maritime definition of territorial waters as being 12 nautical miles (22.2 km) out from a nation’s coastline.

Karman Line – layers of the Atmosphere and the boundary of Outer Space
Karman Line – layers of the Atmosphere and the boundary of Outer Space

The problem lies with the fact that the specific definition of “airspace” altitude is NOT DEFINED. You read that right; there is no international agreement on the vertical extent of sovereign airspace.


According to NOAA, the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. “the common definition of space is known as the Kármán Line, an imaginary boundary 100 kilometers (62 miles) above mean sea level. In theory, once this 100 km line is crossed, the atmosphere becomes too thin to provide enough lift for conventional aircraft to maintain flight.”


High-altitude stratospheric balloons typically fly between 120,000 feet (37 Km) and 80,000 (24 Km). High enough to be safely out of Civilian and military air traffic, typically between 30,000 and 65,000 feet (~10 km to 20 km ), but far lower than the Kármán Line at 100km, which defines outer space.


In short, the Chinese Spy Balloon flew squarely in US airspace, and China needed to request overflight permission for this balloon to overfly the US. Lacking permission from the US for overflight, US air defense forces were within their rights to destroy the object violating our airspace.


A final note: There is an international ban on nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction in space. Unfortunately, there is no ban on air, ground, or conventional space-based anti-satellite or anti-missile weapons. However, unlike showdowns associated with airspace violations, since the dawn of the space age, an anti-satellite attack has been considered an act of war. You can read more about international space law from these two excellent papers: Reference 1, Reference 2


High Altitude (Stratospheric) Balloons – The Poor Man’s Satellite System

Why would China bother using a high-altitude balloon as a spy platform? Given all the new low-cost satellite launch capabilities, why would you bother using high-altitude balloons as earth sensors/spy/communications platforms?


There are several advantages to using a stratospheric balloon:

  1. Low radar cross-section, difficult to detect (STEALTH)

  2. Launch Costs of LEO satellites

  3. Range of sensors to a target (lowers cost and complexity of instruments)

  4. Dwell Time over a target

  5. The sensor package (the “gondola”) can be landed, and sensor equipment reused ( lowering cost)

As the Chinese spy satellite incident illustrated, balloons are stealthy despite their massive size. Most of a balloon’s composition, except the equipment package, is helium ( air) held in a non-radar reflective material. The US air defense system can detect these balloons closer to our airspace and sensors. The shortened detection range limits the time for defense authorities to react before our air space is breached.


There are no appreciable launch costs for a balloon. A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch is roughly $50M to place a 34,000 lb payload into orbit, and this is approximately $1500/lb 0r $3300 /Kg (1 KG = 2.2 lbs). Given the estimate of a 2000 lb Chinese spy balloon payload, the equivalent launch cost would be $3M.


Spy satellites typically fly at 450 Km above the Earth, traveling at 7.6 Km/sec. An LEO satellite completes an orbit in just over 90 Minutes and can only observe a given location of the Earth for less than 5 minutes. That is a very short dwell time, considering a balloon can loiter for hours or even days over a given location gathering far more extensive information. Earth observation instruments collect RF or visible light energy. The range of an optical camera or RF antenna is proportional to the square of the distance. A Balloon sits ~35 km above a target location, while an LEO satellite distance is > 450 Km. That means an equivalent sensor on a balloon receives over 160 times more energy and, by extension, is more sensitive than an LEO satellite.


Put another way, a spy balloon can use cheaper, less sophisticated sensors than an LEO spy satellite, saving cost and weight while having far superior dwell time.

Finally, balloons can be landed safely. A balloon’s sensor package can be recovered and reused, further reducing costs. A spy satellite burns up in orbit after its service life is complete.


There are, however, two critical downsides to using balloons and a spy platform:

  • High-altitude balloons are easily within the range of low-cost weapons like Aim-9 sidewinder missiles, as the Chinese satellite incident clearly pointed out.

  • The platforms are subject to unexpected weather and air patterns changes - a reliability issue that LEO satellites do not have.

Still, it is no wonder spy balloons are thought of as “Poor man’s Satellites.”


The Chinese Balloon program is neither a new concept nor novel. As it turns out, US and US commercial companies have numerous balloon programs servicing a variety of applications. It is doubtful the US government will ever reveal all the details learned from the Chinese Spy Satellite. We can extrapolate by example the likely capabilities by reviewing a number of important balloon programs.


The remainder of the blog will do just that. We’ll be reviewing the following balloon systems to provide insight into what balloon platforms are capable of:

  • TARS (Tethered Aerostat Radar System)

  • Space Data

  • Google Project Loon

  • NASA Super Pressure Balloon

TARS (Tethered Aerostat Radar System)

TARS - Tethered Aerostat Radar System  ( source US Customs and Border Protection Agency)
TARS - Tethered Aerostat Radar System ( source US Customs and Border Protection Agency)

The TARS (Tethered Aerostat Radar System) is a tethered balloon lofted radar system. TARS began operations 1978 with a single site developed by the US Air Force to detect maritime and surface smugglers, narcotics traffickers, and other threats flying below the coverage of ground-based Radars. Once the system was qualified, construction commenced across the United States-Mexican border, the Florida Straits, and a portion of the Caribbean. The US Air Force managed the TARS program until July 2013, when the program was transferred to CBP(Customs and Border Patrol).


The TARS aerostat is a large fabric envelope (balloon) filled with helium that can rise to an altitude of 15,000 feet. The look-down radar and any communications signals detection equipment (SIGINT) is housed in the covered equipment bay(“bubble” at bay bottom of the aerostat. The maximum tether length ( altitude) for the system is 25,000 feet. The Radar has a detection range of roughly 200 nautical miles (400Km).

The Air Force initially considered crewed radar aircraft (AWACS) and drones for the southern border low-level surveillance mission. Analysis concluded that only a multi-site tethered look-down radar could cost-effectively maintain continuous coverage. Drones and aircraft would simply be too expensive to perform the mission. For example, In 2013, TARS was responsible for detecting 586 suspicious flights, representing 42 percent of all the suspect flights along the Southwest border tracked by the CBP that year.


As a starting point for balloon-based intelligence gathering, TARS gives us a glimpse of how effective a balloon platform can be for low-level airspace surveillance. What is little talked about is TARS SIGINT and COMINT capabilities. that is a conversation for another day.


TARS -Tethered Aerostat Radar System – US border coverage – Source( US border protection)
TARS -Tethered Aerostat Radar System – US border coverage – Source( US border protection)

Space Data

Space Data is a commercial company that develops and deploys Stratospheric, high-altitude wireless communications based on their SkySat balloon platform. Space Data has flown more than 25,000 missions lifting wireless communications systems to stratospheric altitudes using military-grade balloon technology. As an example, a SkySat repeater platform extends the range of commercial and military-grade UHF two-way radios from 10 miles to nearly 500 miles. Equipped with a WiFi access point, real-time voice and data services are possible over a similar area of coverage.

Space Data – US Marine Tactical UHF Communications Repeater
Space Data – US Marine Tactical UHF Communications Repeater

Unlike TARS or other systems we will discuss, Space Data SkySats are designed for a quick launch and a limited life span. A SkySat can be launched and reach an operating altitude of 60,000 to 100,000 feet in under 20 minutes. SkySat’s small size (<10m) and weight meet FAA rules for balloon fights and do not require flight approvals. Balloons typically loft for~7 days, are battery-powered, and are typically used for short-term communications. Example missions:

  • Tactical UHF military communications extension

  • Wide area IoT data communications

  • Wide area WiFi network for emergency communications services

The SkySat system is so inexpensive and quickly deployed that these systems could be launched in swarms to overload air defense with multiple targets. Considering events of recent days, imagine the crisis that would evolve if 100s or even 1000s of stratospheric breached US airspace over a period of days... Food for thought!


Google Project Loon

When the Chinese spy balloon was first spotted, and the first telephoto images hit the media, it immediately made me immediately think of Google’s Project Loon.

Google Project Loon Communications Balloon ( Source Google)
Google Project Loon Communications Balloon ( Source Google)

Before SpaceX ever conceived the StarLink Low Earth Orbit broadband data system, Google Project -X conceived a low-cost global network of stratospheric balloons to connect “the unconnected” with broadband wireless using LTE micro base station technology. Unlike LEO satellite networks like SpaceX StarLink requiring expensive custom user hardware, the Loon project team set out to use 4G LTE (and later 5G) and build a system compatible with smartphones WITHOUT MODIFICATION.

Google Loon Balloon Architecture ( Source Google)
Google Loon Balloon Architecture ( Source Google)

In 2011, Google envisioned creating worldwide cellular network coverage using stratospheric balloons, a slowly moving cell site. As we saw earlier with Space Data, each balloon’s “cell coverage” is approximately 400 miles in diameter. Live testing started in June 2013 in New Zealand and expanded to other sites around the world. Over a 9 year period, the Loon team solved a series of technical hurdles to field a full system, including:

  • Design and testing of LTE links to the users and high-speed data feeds to the balloons and between balloons (cross links)

  • Refinement of the Balloon design for long endurance – 100s of days, not 10s of days typical of weather and scientific balloons and, in the process, setting a record of over 300 days aloft

  • Predictable maneuvering and station-keeping of balloons to create continuous coverage between multiple balloon “Cells.”

Along the way, Loon provided practical services as an emergency communications system. First in 2017 during a major flooding event in Peru and later in Puerto Rico after a major hurricane.

Despite all the progress made, deployment and operating costs could not reach a point where a fully deployed loon system would be profitable. A brilliant set of technical success could not overcome an unworkable business case.

Google Loon Network Basics – (source: Google)
Google Loon Network Basics – (source: Google)

So, what does this have to do with Chinese Spy Satellites?


First, Loon proves that a spy satellite can easily listen in and intercept cellular and other communications. Further, communications links are readily supported to pipe those intercepts any place in the world.


Secondly, Chinese efforts in modern balloon surveillance platforms appeared to have begun in 2017, about the time Loon solved their technical problems and demonstrated practical solutions. Between Loon’s open communications about the project and a modicum of industrial espionage, it would be interesting to see what parts of the loon project made it into the Chinese Spy Satellite being examined by the FBI in Quantico, Virginia.


If you are interested in learning more about Loon, check out the following links:

NASA Super Pressure Balloon Program

NASA has been lofting stratospheric balloons for over 40 years. The NASA Balloon Program has provided high-altitude scientific balloon platforms for scientific and technological investigations, including fundamental scientific discoveries that contribute to our understanding of the Earth, the solar system, and the universe.

In particular, NASA developed a new generation of balloons capable of lofting Over 5000 lbs (2,5x the estimated weight of the Chinese Spy Satellite payload). The so-called “Super Pressure Balloon Program.” provides the lift necessary for NASA to loft an ambitious set of stabilized telescopes above the distortion of the Earth’s atmosphere to detect exoplanets in other star systems. SPB has also lofted and tested high-definition LIDAR ( Laser Radar) missions for highly accurate mapping of the earth’s surface.


In particular, NASA developed a new generation of balloons capable of lofting Over 5000 lbs (2,5x the estimated weight of the Chinese Spy Satellite payload). The so-calledSuper Pressure Balloon Program.” provides the lift necessary for NASA to loft an ambitious set of stabilized telescopes above the distortion of the Earth’s atmosphere to detect exoplanets in other star systems. SPB has also lofted and tested high-definition LIDAR ( Laser Radar) missions for highly accurate mapping of the earth’s surface.


In particular, the WASP - Wallops Arc-Second Pointer project perfected a platform that can point telescopes on balloon gondolas at inertial targets with arc-second accuracy. WASP is capable of compensating wind-driven motion of the gondola platform in the stratosphere. In particular, SPB and WASP are capable of providing meeting or exceeding the following system parameters:

  • Supporting 1 ton of science instruments (SPB can loft 2.5 tons)

  • Capable of sustained flight altitude of 110,000+ ft (33.53+ km).

  • Capable of sustained flight duration of up to 100 days.

  • Using the WASP platform – capable of sustained instrument pointing to within 1 arc second

NASA – Laser Radar (LiDAR) – Balloon Gondola Package
NASA – Laser Radar (LiDAR) – Balloon Gondola Package

As it turns out, these same system parameters are ideal for a spy surveillance balloon. After all, if you can accurately point a telescope at a star, you accurately point a telescope/hyperspectral imager at a target on the ground. Even more important, the NASA LIDAR experiments are identical to the equivalent functionality for mapping ( TARGET MAPPING) a spy satellite might perform.


Conclusion

As we speak, scientists and engineers in Quantico, VA, are gathering and dissecting the remnants of the Chinese Spy satellite recovered off the shore of South Carolina. With any luck, the components of 3 other “Spy Objects” that the US has shot down be added to the investigation.


What are the exact capabilities of these satellites? It is very unlikely that the US government will provide anything but the most general information to the public.


However, suppose we assume the Chinese can implement any of the ball0on technologies outlined here, you can extrapolate the possible capabilities of the Chinese Spy Satellite.


To summarize, any or all of the following are possible:

  • Intercept cellular, IoT, WiFi, & possibly Bluetooth data within a 200-mile radius of the flight path of the balloon and forward the intercept back, via satellite link, to the home base/control. – CLASSIC COMINT – COMMUNICATIONS INTELLIGENCE

  • Capture and analyze US air traffic and national defense radar systems, specialty radio links, and other command and control infrastructure – CLASSIC SIGINT – SIGNALS INTELLIGENCE

  • Capture High-Resolution Images/Hyperspectral images of structures, facilities, and other infrastructure tied to highly accurate GPS/GNSS location of the ballo0n platform - imaging for target classification and targeting selection in time of war.

  • Laser Radar (LIDAR) super high accuracy mapping - - imaging for target classification and targeting selection in time of war

To be clear, the US deploys an extensive array of spy satellites to achieve the same objectives and avoid violating Chinese airspace. As the old saying goes., “Big Brother Is Watching.”


These incidents are foolish and provocative and have resulted in the first cases of aircraft being shot down in US airspace in our nation’s history.


While we have concentrated on the Chinese Balloon Incident – if you are interested in understanding Earth Observation /Satelite Intelligence sensors, here are links to presentations, video presentations, and technical blogs which accessible to technical and non-technical readers:

As always, if you have any questions, or feedback, or are interested in a specific topic, please reach out to me via my contact page.


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US  DOE  Ignition Facility
First Energy Positive Nuclear Fusion Experiment at U.S. Energy Department National Ignition Facility

Looking forward and looking back. In 2023 I’m focusing on the cause and effect of the great decoupling / Cold War 2.0 with technological advances in Energy, Augmented reality (AR), and Space technology.


The Provocateur Blog provides reflection and ruminations on technology and technology’s impact on society and how these innovations and discoveries relate to my fiction writing projects.


Special consideration will be given to technology’s unintended consequences, which can run the gamut of environmental, social, political (policy only – we’ll refrain from politics in this blog), economic, and beyond.


Before we start, first things first – What happened to those 2022 Predictions?


The Provocateur’s 2022 Prediction – A Summary

In 2022 I Kicked off the Provacature Blog with predictions covering three topical areas:

2022 Energy Prediction: 2022, the year of “Energy Realism”

The 2022 energy prediction included the following points on the subject:

  • First, we need to maintain and even increase investment in natural gas and gas pipelines and distribution infrastructure

  • Green Hydrogen is ideal for long-haul transportation, industrial equipment (tractors, construction, etc.), aircraft, and solar power energy storage

  • In 2022, proponents of green energy will start accepting nuclear power as a necessary part of the green energy ecosystem

  • Nuclear fusion has been “20 years away” for the last 40 years, and government research seems to make progress as slow as molasses.

So, What Happened with Energy in 2022?

Li-Ion Battery raw materials by source country
Raw materials suppliers for Li-ion batteries – Sorce by Country ( Source Report - EUR 29850 EN

I was half-right and half-wrong on energy, between the horribly misguided U.S. energy policy and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Energy scarcity (The Great 2022 Energy Crunch) forced some movement toward “Energy Realism,” but not nearly enough. Between printing money, spending like drunken sailors on shore leave, and creating a self-imposed energy crunch, the U.S. and the West experienced the worst inflation in 40 years and took the world along for the ride.


Meanwhile, we still have a myopic (in my opinion) view of battery-powered transportation (EVs, e-bikes, e-everything) despite a worldwide shortage of the raw materials for LiIon batteries: lithium, cobalt, and nickel to make those batteries. Even worse, less than 50% of those batteries will be recycled, and the battery byproducts are toxic. The U.S. sources less than 2% of the components of LiIon batteries ( see the graphics). So if you think fossil fuel shortages and supply issues are a problem, just wait till we are dependent on LiIon batteries (more on that later.)


Hydrogen powered long haul truck
Nicola Motors TRE FCEV ( Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle)

I’ll stick with my position that Green Hydrogen is the only responsible replacement for fossil fuels for transportation (trucks, planes, heavy machinery, busses, railroad engines, airplanes, medium to long-distance car driving, and energy storage). Much of the world’s fossil fuel pipeline and distribution capital infrastructure can be reused to deliver green hydrogen. To that end, we have made some progress. Toyota announced the launch of the MIRAI 4 door sedan, which takes only 5 minutes to fill with liquid

Airbus Hydrogen Powered ZEROe concept for 2035 launch
Airbus Hydrogen Powered ZEROe concept for 2035 launch

hydrogen and has a range of over 400 Miles. Nicola Motors announced a long-haul heavy truck with 900-mile driving radius that takes only 20 minutes to fill. Finally, Airbus announced that it will launch a set of zero-emissions ( ZEROe) aircraft by 2035. In short, we made some progress on Green hydrogen in 2022.


It only took a war and the “Great 2022 Energy Crunch” to get the green movement to embrace nuclear power as a necessary part of the green energy ecosystem. Governments around the world have reversed course on using nuclear fission reactor energy. Mothballed reactors are being re-licensed, and currently, licensed reactors are receiving lifetime extensions. Over 60 new reactors are being approved and constructed worldwide, according to the World Nuclear Association.

National Ignition Facility Hydrogen Fusion Test  (Source  - Wall Street Journal)
National Ignition Facility Hydrogen Fusion Test (Source - Wall Street Journal)

The final energy surprise of 2022 was the announcement a major milestone for clean energy production with hydrogen fusion. On December 5th, the U.S. Energy Department National Ignition Facility conducted an experiment that astounded the world. For the first time in over 40 years of research, an experimental hydrogen fusion reactor produced more energy than it took to create the fusion reaction. There is a great deal more to do. The experimental reactor must move to a working engineering reactor, which must be refined into a functioning commercial (profitable) reactor. That being said, 2022 was a milestone year for humankind on the road to a hydrogen fusion future commercial- an incredible achievement!


2022 Augmented Reality: Disappointing Progress

I predicted that in “2022, we’ll be hearing a great deal about augmented and extended reality glass as the up-and-coming replacement for our smartphone and a segway into the METAVERSE.”


I also noted the following points for 2022:

  • So far, however, the form factor and price point are a non-starter for any consumer applications. Wearable AR needs to look and feel like a set of normal eyeglasses!

  • In the background, working in “skunkworks mode,” the world’s largest cell phone makers, Apple, Samsung, and Huawei AR glass projects, are coming to maturity.

  • I also predict several unintended consequences of AR adoption supplanting the smartphone.

    1. First, the “always-on capture” of the environment inherent in AR will accelerate the budding dystopian Survalience State – everyone is a snitch!

    2. My second prediction: AR image processing in the cloud will dominate 5G and follow on 6G cellular data traffic.

Microsoft Holoens 2 – A niche product not ready for mainstream ( source: Microsoft
Microsoft Holoens 2 – A niche product not ready for mainstream ( source: Microsoft)

AR was a complete bust in 2022. The only major announcement came for META. Teaming with Microsoft, META reused Microsoft’s Hololens software and applications in a solution aimed at where the money is – business applications. This is a pivot from Meta’s flagging metaverse investment. As it turns out, after a few years of COVID lockdowns, people want real-world, not virtual-world experiences. The hope is that after $billions invested, mixed AR/VR for work and virtual meetings will produce a modicum profit and return on investment. I’m not holding my breath.

Looking at the current Hololens two headset still fails the “size, weight, and battery life issues” I identified last year as table stakes for success.


We’ll return to AR Later in our 2023 predictions ...


Space and Communications 2022: The Year of StarLink and the James Webb Space Telescope (JSWT)


Let’s look at my first prediction for 2022: “We will see the dawn of the first self-funded integrated commercial space operators, with Starlink leading the way.”


2022 Starlink ...


The Starlink LEO communications satellite network deployment has been nothing short of amazing! As of December 2022, Starlink consists of over 3,300 mass-produced small satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), which communicate with designated ground transceivers. In total, nearly 12,000 satellites are planned to be deployed.


In a breaking update, on December 1st, 2022 —The FCC issued a key authorization to Elon Musk’s SpaceX, granting approval to 7500, limiting the number of satellites in SpaceX’s second generation of the Starlink constellation, also known as Gen2. The initial request was for over 30,000 satellites.


Starlink is providing fiber-speed communications around the globe, connecting the unconnected. Even more important, Russia targeted much of Ukraine’s cellular and communications infrastructure at the onset of the Ukraine-Russia war. Starlink stepped in and provided over 10,000 satellite terminals to replace the lost infrastructure. Despite continued efforts by Russia to jam, hack, or otherwise interfere with the Starlink satellite communications system, the system is holding up just fine, providing primary communications links for the Ukrainian military and civilian authorities.


Starlink’s success led to a wave of commercial satellite innovation we will discuss in a future Provocateur Blog: The Rise of Commercial Intelligence Satellite Networks. My lecture on this subject from the February 7th, 2023, Small Satelite Conference is available HERE.


2022 The James Webb Telescope ...

GLASS Z12  Galaxy viewing  back to just 350 Million years after the big bang
GLASS Z12 Galaxy viewing back to just 350 Million years after the big bang

My 2022 prediction was that we would see the first images from James Webb and peer back in time to when the first stars and galaxies formed in the universe.


What the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST)has shown us so far in 2022 was amazing! Pictures speak more than words.


Like a giant time machine, the JWST peered back in time, gathering images at distances unseen by humankind, detecting images of the first galaxies formed after the Big Bang: an object designated as GLASS Z12. GLASS is an acronym for the Grism Lens-Amplified Survey from Space instrument aboard the JWTS. In July 2022, GLASS detected an object designated Z12. GLASS Z12 is one of the earliest and most distant galaxies ever discovered, dating back to 350 million years after the Big Bang, 13.6 billion years ago. GLASS Z12 lies ~ 33.2 billion light-years from earth based on estimates of the expansion of the Universe.

James Webb Telescope  Image  - Neptune, with rings and moons
James Webb Telescope Image - Neptune, with rings and moons

The JWST instruments can see far deeper into the infrared spectrum than the older Hubble Space Telescope providing stunning detail of even nearby objects. This new image of Neptune with its moons and rings is just one of many examples.


There are many more amazing examples you can find HERE at the JWST website.


2023 Predictions

Whether we like it or not, the world has entered the 2nd Cold War (Cold War 2.0). Tensions between the Western Democracies and Authoritarian powers (China, Russia, North Korea, & Iran) will impact trade, energy, technology, space (the new space race), military technology ( a new arms race), and numerous other areas. This new political polarization is creating a great decoupling of two economic spheres, forcing tough decisions about military and economic alliances for smaller nations caught between the “Western Democracies” and “Authoritarian Nations.” There is little room to be an “unaligned” nation in the 2020s.


It begs the question: Why is this happening, and how can we (the world’s citizens) avoid all of this turmoil? Why is this happening?


The answer is simple -we live in the “Age of bad Governance” – weak political leaders and polarization in the West Democracies and the rise and concentration of power in “strong men” in the Authoritarian Nations. In the future, historians will be highly critical in their opinions of worlds leaders and policies from 2018 to 2030 (Note: 2030 is a personal prediction looking at U.S. political cycles, roughly three U.S. 4 year presidential cycles)


What is driving the Age of Bad Governance? The Authoritarians have eclipsed, and their economic and military power is rapidly declining in the decade ahead. They aim to expand their sphere of influence NOW while their current military and economic power allows them to act. The West will not see an economic or military decline; their problem is ineffective policy and planning caused by polarization of the political views of their populations. The weak Western governance is emboldening the Autortarians to act - viewing our weakness as an opportunity.

If we are not careful over the next few years, we will stumble into World War 3.


So much for that sobering assessment. Let’s get back to technology and my predictions for 2023:


Polarization is accelerating “The Great Decoupling.”

  • The great decoupling/Cold War 2.0 impacts nearly every aspect of the world economy

  • The Provocatoure Blog will focus on space, energy, and economic impacts on technology development caused by the great decoupling.

  • Ukraine as an active military hotspot and the Taiwan Strait as a possible military hotspot are driving not only political and diplomatic policy, they are driving trade and technology

Supply Chain Security will drive business, and national policy – a knock-on effect of decoupling – supply chains move home or close to home

  • Energy/Raw Materials Security - Fusion, fission, Green Hydrogen, and traditional battery/Solar technology will remain in political and investment focus

  • Core Technology, especially the manufacturing of Semiconductors

  • General supply chain, especially green technology, especially solar, wind

The Free Internet is Over

  • Inflation and rise in interest rates change technology business models, Venture Capital (VC) funding, and technology investment in general.

Innovation continues despite hurdles in investment and the “cost of money.”

  • AR Augmented Reality (and AI/Artificial Intelligence associated with AR) will continue their evolution to replace smartphones – with a potentially reduced pace due to lower investment.

  • Space Technology/System: the golden age of commercial space innovation will continue despite economic hurdles.

While I don’t cover robotics and AI in my blog, I keenly follow the progress in those areas. In 2023 I’m focusing on the cause and effect of the great decoupling / Cold War 2.0 with Energy, Augmented reality (AR), and Space technology.


Let’s dive a bit deeper into the following areas:

  • Energy

  • The new economic reality - The Age of the Free Internet is Over

  • Semiconductor Supply Chain Security

  • Augmented Reality

  • Space - Rise of Commercial Intelligence Satellite Networks (and other topics)

2023 Energy

The  U.S. will soon exceed Qatar as the world’s largest natural gas exporter (Bloomberg)
The U.S. will soon exceed Qatar as the world’s largest natural gas exporter (Bloomberg)

U.S. energy policy will continue to evolve as the two sides of our polarized democracy fight over an aggressive adoption of “green energy” vs a more rational and measured adoption. The U.S. has no choice but to supply more oils and gas to the rest of the world, especially Western Europe, to make up for the international embargo of Russian fossil fuel products. We have already matched Qutar in shipments of gas to Europe.


As part of the great decoupling, the U.S. needs to source Li-Ion batteries, solar panels, and wind turbine equipment domestically and from other allied nations closer to the U.S. homeland. That takes years, not months. As I keep hammering home, EVs and battery energy storage of solar energy are a partial solution:

A Lithium Supply Shortage is Expected by 2030
A Lithium Supply Shortage is Expected by 2030
  • Today only 2% of Li-Ion battery materials are sourced in the U.S. ( previous graphic)

  • Even worse, a persistent Li shortage (and other materials like graphite) in which recycling will not close the gap – prices of EVs will not fall. They will increase and be out of reach of the average American

  • An even bigger question is – where is the electrical generation capacity to charge all the new EVs? or do we just like rolling brownouts to power our EV cars?

Li-Ion  and Green Hydrogen  vehicle  comparison
Li-Ion and Green Hydrogen vehicle comparison

I’m going to double down on clean hydrogen’s growth for vehicles requiring long-range and/or large loads (cars, trucks, busses, etc.) along with all aircraft, heavy equipment, and rail/ Li-Ion makes sense for shorter commuting EVs, e-bikes, etc. It will all come down to the end cost to the consumer, and that is the real cost, not a government-subsidized cost. Any successful full technology will have to be cost-effective and create a self-sustaining ecosystem.


All politics aside, the U.S. ( and our allies) are lucky. With a rational energy policy, the U.S .and Canada have enough reserves of oil, natural gas, lithium, and uranium, to build and power solar, gas-fired, and Nuclear fission energy generation until hydrogen fusion shows up. Until then, Congress has approved the Solar Energy Manufacturing for America Act, along with nearly $369B for solar energy manufacturing and credits in the 2022 Senate Inflation Reduction Act .


Fusion is Hot - Fusion Startups are a rare VC bright spot
Fusion is Hot - Fusion Startups are a rare VC bright spot

On a final note, Nuclear Fusion is Hot! It's a big bet and a longshot bet for Venture Capital, but as you can see. money is being put to work. Given all the turmoil in the world, we are bound to see some interesting moves in energy in 2023.


2023: The Age of the Free Internet is Over

Since the market crash of 2001 and later 2008, the U.S. and the world pursued a monetary policy of low-interest rates and moderate growth while keeping the money supply tight. The low cost of money reduced the risk of borrowing for companies and venture capital to form and fund new companies. Technology companies in particular, were able to go public funding debt and continued spending without a line of sight (or a viable plan) on how to become profitable and sustain operations. Then came COVID, out-of-control spending, which led to inflation, followed by high-interest rates to get inflation in check.


In a handful of months, 20 years of a stable low-cost-of-money business environment ended abruptly. I can tell you right now a vast majority of public, private, and VC-funded companies are in no position to continue operations based on eventually free money.


The first casualty was Crypto – A majority of which has been Nothing but a Ponzi scheme or, as I like to summarize:


CRYPTO: Nothing, backed by Nothing, has a value of Nothing


Think that is bad? It is worse – All those coins need to be mined – the money is no longer there to fund the energy used to mine crypto coins, let alone pay off the massive computer farm equipment used in mining. That, in turn, puts a big dent in sales of computer server equipment companies like Dell and HP and server semiconductor vendors Like Intel, AMD, and Nvidia.

Intel Posts 4th Quarter Loss  and 6%  Valuation Loss ( source: S&P Capital IQ)
Intel Posts 4th Quarter Loss and 6% Valuation Loss ( source: S&P Capital IQ)

As an example, lets look at Intel, purveyor of server chipsets used in cloud computing ( for everything including social media) and powering PCs used for work and productivity ( your smartphone is used for everything else). According to the Wall Street Journal and Intel’s latest quarterly report :


Intel’s central processing units, or CPUs, are in most of the world’s PCs. Revenue in the division responsible for those sales fell 36% to $6.6 billion, worse than analysts expected. “PC shipments will be at the low end of its forecast range of 270 million to 295 million this year, the company said.”


A big reckoning is coming in the first half of 2023:

  • VC investment is falling by ~50% or more, and many startups will retrench or fold (just line 2001)

  • Online advertising is retrenching along with low-cost debt to fund operations and growth. Social Media, most Apps, music streaming, and streaming video will have no choice than figuring out how to charge customers a recurring and increasing fee while at the same time lowering the only cost control they have - firing their employees.

Tech Sector Layoffs are Accerating – 57,000 jobs lots as of  01/25/2023
Tech Sector Layoffs are Accerating – 57,000 jobs lots as of 01/25/2023

In the 2001 Dot-Com bubble, silicon valley alone lost over 200,000 jobs, and the total US estimated losses exceeded 2 million tech and tech support jobs. Let’s hope the 2023 bust will be more subdued.


I’ve been sick and tired of relentless internet advertising -are you? I’d be willing to pay for select social media and browsing that is curated, unbiased, and limits advertising to items I ask for when I ask for them. I’ll pay to avoid being blasted constantly with advertisements selected by some dodgy AI /algorithm.


Is it a bad thing if a major technology recession forces these changes? In my opinion, it is a good thing. As we move to AR (another topic later in this blog) – a parade of advertising in your line of site will not only be annoying, it will be downright dangerous.


I conclude – get ready to make some choices and open your wallet – we will finally have to pay for our internet - free internet is over!


2023: Semiconductor Supply Security

Continued Chinese threats against Taiwan threaten the world’s supply of semiconductors powering nearly every device we own. Given the unpredictable invasion of Ukraine, Western Governments faced the hard reality that China may not be bluffing, and an actual invasion could occur, and much like the solar energy supply chain, a majority of semiconductors are produced overseas.

US Share of  Semiconductor  Supply Value Chain
US Share of Semiconductor Supply Value Chain

While the U.S. leads the world in design, design software tools, and semiconductor manufacturing equipment. We have outsourced semiconductor production and have less than 10% of semiconductor manufacturing and assembly. Much of this is centered in Taiwan.


Recognizing this giant supply chain imbalance, both the U.S. (August 2022) and Europe proceeded on a crash course to shore up semiconductor manufacturing ( Chip Fabs) regionally.

  • In the U.S.: The CHIPS and Science Act has earmarked nearly $60 Billion in incentives to build a new generation of Chip Fabs and assembly lines on U.S. soil

  • In the EU: The European Chips Act, like the U.S plan, has earmarked roughly $49 Billion to bolster semiconductor design and fabrication in the EU



In 2023 we’ll see major projects breaking the ground in theU.S. and the EU based on these incentives. The Provature Blog will follow up and see how we are doing.


2023: Augmented Reality (AR)

I’ll admit I’m obsessed with AR, and for a good reason. A few years ago, as CTO of Dell Computer, I kicked off a project based on Google Glass2 AR glasses to improve production efficiency and lower defects in Boeing 777 production. The Dell team curated Boeing 777 assembly manuals to properly fit the Google Glass screen and a set of eye blinks and vocal commands to turn assembly instruction pages, turn on the Glass2 camera, and call a supervisor to check work. By freeing both hands of the assembly worker and having a supervisor inspect work literally in the blink of an eye, improved efficiency and lowered defects by a combined 30%.


The second reason I’m obsessed with AR is that AR fuses AI and human interaction in a unified platform. Add the ability to sense and communicate with brain waves, another evolving technology; this combined platform will be nothing short of astounding. Why?


AI-assisted AR will enhance human capability - NOT replace it


So, what is holding us back from all this progress? Miniaturization and energy reduction of AR display technology remain the stumbling block to wider adoption and eventual replacement of the beloved smartphone. Still, 2023 holds the promise of further advances in AR.


First, Apple is rumored to make public its highly secretive AR platform at the Apple Developer Conference in June. Like Apple’s kickstart of the APP revolution over ten years ago at the Developers Conference, Apple is expected to announce a development platform and tools for AR for tet apple development community. An open AR software development backed by Apple’s commitment to AR glass platform hardware looks to be a game changer.


Second, despite the drastic reduction in VC funding rounds available in 2023, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund in late December 2022 announced taking more than 50 percent stake in Magic Leap. Like Meta’s pivot to enterprise solutions for Hololense2, the Saudis are funding Magic Leap 2 pivot to the same enterprise market – It’s not a surprise; follow the money. For now, enterprise solutions for AR are the only viable market available.

Vuzix Blade AR glasses – one step closer to a commercial solution ( Source: Vuzix)
Vuzix Blade AR glasses – one step closer to a commercial solution ( Source: Vuzix)

This brings us to Vuzix. Vuzix has never left the enterprise/commercial market and will be tough competition for Hololense of Magic Leap to counter. The new Vuzix Blade glasses stand on the threshold of meeting the form factor of normal eyeglasses, so critical for wider consumer adoption.


In 2023, in a project to support the US Defense Department, Vuzix will make an enhanced version of the Blade, providing:

  • Ultra bright 24-bit color projected images in both eyes

  • Based on 1-micron micro-LED array projector (one of the highest density pixel arrays available)

  • Vuzix patented ultra-slim, binocular waveguide technology to transport images from the micro-LED array eyeglass lenses.

  • And all the other sensors expected in AR glasses, eye tracking, dual/binocular outward cameras, bone-conducting audio - “all the bells and whistles.”

If Vuzix can deliver, the company would be an attractive takeover target for any major consumer smartphone maker to leapfrog into AR technology race.


We’ll keep track of Apple, Vuzix, and all the other progress in AR technology in 2023 – It certainly looks more promising than 2022. Perhaps we'll hear some news from Samsung. Time will tell.


2023 Space - Rise of Commercial Intelligence Satellite Networks (and other topics)


2022 was nothing short of astounding with respect to commercial, scientific, and manned space projects. In 2023 will be just as exceptional. Here is what we can expect:

  • SpaceX Starlink LEO communications network will be fully deployed, and Startlink gen2 will begin deployment – anyone anywhere can get 100MPS internet (as long as you can pay for it!). Find out More Here

  • Starlink will face competition from OneWeb. Oneweb will complete its first-generation constellation and activate global coverage in 2023

  • NASA will continue a series of developments and launches in a race to a manned landing on moon in 2025, a permanent lunar base, then Mars. If any story is worth watching - this is it

  • JWST – James Webb Space Telescope will continue to provide starling images of our universe

I’ll be delivering a lecture on February 7th at the Small Satellite Conference at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA. I’ll be discussing “The Rise of Commercial Intelligence Satellite Networks.”


On February 20th, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine, The U.S., and our allies provided Ukraine with not only military assistance, they also provided Intelligence Assistance. However, security concerns limited Ukrainian access to the U.S.’s most Secret Satellite Intelligence Assets. Ukraine required alternate sources of real-time intelligence ASAP to cobble together a C4I system ( Command, Control, Communications, Computers and Intelligence) to beat back the Russians or face defeat.


Enter DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), the NRO (National Reconanace Office), Ukrainian ingenuity, and other systems and software platforms integrated into the world’s first commercial version of a military C4I system. This integration was done in months, not years, and consisted of the following elements:

  • Synthetical Aperture Radar (SAR) Satellites for all weather) strategic surveillance by ICEEYE, Capella Space, and other commercial LEO (Low Earth Orbit) systems

  • Imaging Satellites, including infrared imaging- strategic surveillance by Maxar, among other LEO imaging satellite systems

  • SpaceX StarLink satellite network for real-time communications

  • Local UAV (Unmanned Aviation Vehicle) imaging drones for tactical surveillance (w/”Delta” battlefield intel)

  • Homegrown Ukrainian “GIS Art for Artillery” command and control APP derived from, of all things, a local clone of a taxi/Uber APP ( seriously, that’s what the Ukranians did – crafty, eh?)

  • Ukrainian rebuild of NATO battlefield-awareness platform - the top-level C4I command and control

  • Finally, US and NATO Alliance precision weapons & Air Defense Systems – the weapons to win


Capella Space SAR LEO Satellite
Capella Space SAR LEO Satellite

This is a fascinating story. In February/March time frame, I’ll convert my lecture to a blog post. Until then, If you’d like to learn more about commercial SAR ( Synthetic Aperture Radar) and Imaging satellite technology, click here to access a short technology briefing video delivered at the Military Satellite conference in November 2022.


There is a downside to all of this. Commercial satellite systems operators place their real-time imagery and data gathering in the cloud in real-time and simply charge for access. This means any nation, company, or individual can have access to real-time intelligence – even terrorists.


One way or another, 2023 will be another banner year for Space Technology and Exploration.


In conclusion

They were the best of times. They were the worst of times …


Human progress is bewildering and vast. This short blog offers a small sample of the advances we can anticipate in 2023. Despite all the bad news you hear on social and traditional media, there's a lot for the human race to be hopeful about. In particular, the hard work, focus, training, and intelligence being applied to solve the world’s problems and extend the reach of human knowledge. There is much more positive than negative in the world. So … “keep your eye on the doughnut – not the hole.”


I’ll be posting more soon.


If you have questions or topics you’d like to see, just ask (contact me here)

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Simulated Image of Space  Debris in Earth Orbit
Simulated Image of Space Debris in Earth Orbit - NASA/Wall Street Journal

Like an otherwordly episode of Hoarders, humankind is filling space with JUNK. Enough Junk that humankind’s access to space could be blocked for decades if we are not careful. That isn’t science fiction – it’s science fact!


In mid-October, I gave a lecture on Satellite Tracking and Collision Avoidance Technologies at the Satellite Innovation Conference in Silicon Valley. As I conducted my research for this lecture, I was astounded at the growing magnitude of the problem.


The lecture was well received, so much so that the editor of SatNews asked if I could convert the lecture into an article for the magazine. So, the following article will be published in the December issue of SatNews, but I thought I’d share it with you, my readers, in the Provocateur Blog.


If you are interested, a video of my original lecture is available by clicking on the Satellite Innovation logo below. The presentation slides are available on my Dystopic-Science & Stories page. Sign up and have full access without advertisements and only a single email updating you on new content when it is available – ABSOLUTELY NO ADVERTISEMENTS. Let’s face it, we all despise, down to the very core of our being, internet advertising! There is a circle in hell reserved for internet advertisers … but I digress!

<<<<< CLICK ICON to view

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As always. I love to hear from you for feedback, questions, or even topics you’d like to see in the Provocateur Blog. Fell free to contact me here.


The Growing Danger of Space Debris

(aka -an article about JUNK)

The near future:

Tiangon Space Station - artist concept
Tiangon Space Station -South China Morning Post

The launch of the Long March 5B resupply mission to China’s Tiangong space station was uneventfully nominal in all aspects. The resupply capsule separated successfully and preceded on course for automatic docking maneuvers with Tiangong as the Long March 5B’s fist stage left a firey reentry trail through the atmosphere and crashed into the Pacific Ocean. Undetectable from the earth and unknown to the Tiangong’s crew, a cluster of debris fragments no bigger than marbles raced on a collision course toward the resupply capsule. As fate would have it, the debris originated from the 2007 Chinese KT-2 ant-satellite missile test against a Fengyun-1C satellite 20 years earlier. One by one, the fragments created a widening breach in the resupply capsule as the crew initiated the transfer of liquid oxygen and hydrazine to the station. The cumulative impacts ruptured the resupply lines, severed electrical lines, and ignited. An explosive shock wave tore through the station generating an accelerating cloud of over 500,000 pieces of debris. The Tiangong station and its crew were lost.


In mere minutes, the Tiangong debris cloud collided with nearby Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites, creating a cascading and ever-growing series of collisions and debris generation. As the destruction accelerated, a wave of satellite failure alarms sounded at the network operations centers of Starlink, OneWeb, Kuiper, and other LEO network operators.


At the 18th Space Defense Squadron headquarters, home to the USSF Space Domain Awareness Space Division, the watch officer overseeing the U.S. Space Surveillance Network (SSN) declared an emergency as the SSN tracking capacity was overwhelmed by the volume of new objects detected. The Watch Officer alerted NASA of the growing threat to the International Space Station (ISS). In turn, NASA issued orders to the ISS crew to evacuate. It is too late. Before the ISS crew could power up their two SpaceX Dragon escape capsules, the ISS and crew were lost in the ever-expanding debris cloud.


The destruction continues unabated for weeks as the world’s scientists and leaders come to grips with the awful truth: Space will be inaccessible for a decade and perhaps much longer.


The Magnitude of Debris Problem

While this scenario sounds like the opening scene of a modern techno-triller, sadly, it is not. In 1978, a NASA scientist, Donald J. Kessler, proposed a theory of cascading collisions based on the growth of LEO satellites and launch debris. This collision scenario became known as the “Kessler Syndrome.”


Small Satellite Launch  estimates to 2027
Global Small Satellite Launches - Northern Sky Research

Let’s take a moment to understand the ever-growing problem of accumulated “Space Junk.” First of all, every satellite launch, successful or not, ends up as accumulated space junk as the satellites reach their end-of-life. Starting in 2019, the number of LEO satellite launches doubled annually (see figure 2). In 2021, the launch rate exceeded 1300, nearly four times the 2019 launch rate, with the U.S. accounting for 93% of the launches. Even more impressive, in that same year, SpaceX accounted for 75% of the world’s launches, most of which were Starlink satellite payloads. As of October 20, 2022, SpaceX alone has launched more than 3500 Starlink satellites into five low earth orbit constellation shells. There is no sign that the launch rate will slow down or decrease. OneWeb, Kuiper, and other operators continue deploying their LEO constellations. Satellite constellations require replenishment as satellites reach the end of their ~ 5-year lifespan. These end-of-life satellites merely add to the cumulative “Space Junk” problem. A similar situation exists for satellites in Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO).

Mass of Space Debris by Orbit Altitude
Space Debris Count by Orbit Heigth ESA-European Space Agency

Satellites aren’t the only debris source. Spacecraft launches create additional debris in the form of upper stages of launch boosters, orbit transfer motors, and other mission hardware (launch adapters,lens covers, etc.). Adding to our collection of “Space Junk,” accidental collisions between satellites and anti-satellite

Mass of Space Debries by Orbit Altitude
Space Debris Mass by Orbit Altitude-ESA-European Space Agency

weapons tests are perhaps the worse offenders. On February 10, 2009, the first unintentional satellite collision between U.S Iridium-33 and Russian Cosmos 225 created over 2000 pieces of debris over 10cm in diameter. The previously mentioned 2007 Chinese anti-satellite missile test of a KT-2 missile with a Fengyun-1C satellite created 300,000 objects over 1cm and 3000 Objects over 10cm resulting in the largest debris cloud on record.

Destructive Power of Space Debris
Table: Destructive Power of Space Debris

The real issue with all this “Space Junk” is its destructive power. Even small metallic objects have incredible destructive force considering the average orbital velocity is 28,000 km/h (17,000 mph), which is ~7x the speed of a bullet. Table 1 illustrates destructive energy and the estimated number of debris pieces in orbit based on the object’s diameter. These numbers are staggering and growing. The U.S Space Survalience Network (SSN) tracks over 30,000 objects 10cm or greater in diameter. A collision with these softball-sized objects would result in the equivalent energy of a 300 Kiloton TNT bomb and result in the complete obliteration and fragmentation of the satellite.


Tracking Space Debris: The First Step in Avoiding Catastrophic Collisions

The first step in preventing catastrophic collisions is identifying, tracking, and cataloging debris in orbit. That is the mission of the 18th Space Defense Squadron, which jointly operates the U.S. Space Surveillance Network (SSN) with NASA. The SSN is a worldwide network of 30+ ground-based radar and optical telescopes (see figure 3). In addition, the SSN includes 6 Space-Based Surveillance Systems (SSBS) Pathfinder satellites. Interestingly, several elements of the SSN, such as the Coba Dane Radar sites, are part of the U.S. Early Warning Radar System. (see Missile Defense – an Imperfect Shield)

US Space Surveillance system Optical tracking Station
US Space Survelience Optical Tracking - US Space Systems Command

The SSN performs both Near-Earth (N.E.) tracking of satellites, space debris, and other LEO objects and Deep Space (D.S.) tracking of asteroids and comets, assessing possible earth collision scenarios. The SSN currently catalogs and tracks over 30,000 objects 10 centimeters in diameter or larger. China, Russia, and the E.U. perform similar tracking functions. With the exception of the E.U., little or no debris object data is shared.

Space Surveillence Telescope
Space Surveillence Telescope - US Space Force Space System Command

Governments are not the only entities that track space objects and debris. Commercial space startups provide tracking and collision avoidance “as a service” to satellite operators. For example, LEO Labs is deploying a worldwide network of S-Band and UHF radars capable of tracking objects as small as 2cm. The company provides mission planning, space domain awareness, collision/conjunction alerts, and post-maneuver assessment when orbit changes are required.



Collision Avoidance

The first step to minimizing collisions begins before launch with mission planning. Starting in 1989, the FAA required Mission Planning and Simulation to identify launch and orbit profiles that minimize the probability of collision with large objects in the SSN catalog. The soon-to-be-released FAA Streamlined Launch and Reentry Licensing Requirements Final Rule (SLR2). Under the new rule, launch vehicle operators can use a single license for multiple launches from multiple launch sites.


Despite the best possible planning, the probability of a collision continues to increase during a satellite life span. Assuming tracking data can provide a satellite operator with some level of collision warning, the operator can execute orbital changes (maneuvers).


There is just one problem, a vast majority of LEO satellites lack thrusters to make orbital maneuvers. Instead, atmospheric drag can be exploited to alter orbit and avoid collisions. Satellite onboard orientation systems (magnetorquers, reaction wheels, etc.) can use inertia to rotate the satellite between low-drag and high-drag configurations to decelerate (change orbit) and avoid a collision.


Larger spacecraft, like the ISS (International Space Station), carry onboard thrusters to maintain orbit and service life. These thrusters can also perform debris avoidance maneuvers. Crewed spacecraft like the ISS requires about 5 hours to plan and execute a collision avoidance maneuver.


The International Space Station (ISS), executes collision avoidance maneuvers when:

  • The collision probability is greater than 1 in 100,000 and does not significantly impact mission objectives.

  • Or, if the collision probability is greater than 1 in 10,000, maneuvers are conducted unless it will result in additional risk to the crew.

ISS has conducted 29 debris avoidance maneuvers since 1999, including three in 2020.

Conclusion

Fortunately, the U.S. Government took Kessler and his simulations seriously and published U.S. Government Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices in 2001 with a revision in 2019. These practices define stringent limits to the space debris problem, especially for spacecraft in orbits < 2000 Km.


On September 20, 2022, the FCC issued Space Innovation; Mitigation of Orbital Debris in the New Space Age to further strengthen the debris rules from communications satellite constellations like Starlink and OneWeb. Based on the FCC’s communications enforcement authority, FCC placed even great restrictions on LEO communications systems to have US Market Access, effectively regulating communications satellites regardless of the country of origin.


Specific changes include:

  • Disposal: 25 year deorbit policy moved to 5 Years with increased requirements for thrusters on LEO spacecraft

  • Operations: Required Selection of Safe Flight Profile and operational Orbit Configurations

A Final Thought…

“Konstantin Vorontsov, a senior official in Russia’s Foreign Ministry, said Wednesday that if U.S. satellites were used to aid Kyiv, they “could be a legitimate target for a retaliatory strike.” Mr. Vorontsov, who is deputy director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Department for Nonproliferation and Arms Control, didn’t name any company, but Elon Musk recently pledged that his company SpaceX would continue to fund access for the Ukrainian government to its Starlink satellite-internet system.” –Wall Street Journal 10/28/2022


On April 18, 2022, the U.S announced a ban on direct-ascent, kinetic-energy anti-satellite (ASAT) missile tests in response to a November 15, 2021, test of a Russian PL-19 Nudol system ASAT (Anti-satellite) missile test at 450Km. Since then, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, South Korea, and Australia have joined the band.


Perhaps cooler heads will prevail, and China, Russia, and India, the only other countries with operation AST weapons, will join the ASAT band and eliminate this massive contributor to the space debris problem, all threats and saber rattling aside.

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