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HARDTACK ORANGE High Altitude Nuclear test -12 August 1958
HARDTACK ORANGE High Altitude Nuclear test -12 August 1958

Washington, DC, was engulfed in a firestorm of controversy on Thursday, February 15th, when House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Turner released a cryptic statement about the national security threat posed by the possibility of a Russian nuclear-powered space asset designed to target American satellites. Frankly, the media response bordered on the hysterical.

The fact is, nearly 70 years ago, at the dawn of the atomic age in the late 1950s through 1963, the U.S. and the former USSR conducted a series of atmospheric nuclear tests that created  Electromagnetic Pulse ( EMP) effects so powerful they impacted electronics and power grid systems 1000s of miles away. As it turns out, the effects of these HEMP nuclear tests were not limited to the surface of the Earth. They had an even greater impact on satellite systems in outer space. The perceived threat of the so-called HEMP, High Altitude EMP, was a major factor in the former USSR, and other nuclear powers of the time signing the 1963 Atomic Test Ban Treaty.

This blog will review the history and science behind EMP weapons, nuclear and non-nuclear, and attempt to extrapolate the possible threats Congressman Turner so cryptically warned the public about.

In Case You Missed It …

Over the last few years, I've given a series of lectures on satellite technology and threats to satellite systems, along with a series of popular blogs on nuclear war, including EMP. Consider them a primer to this blog with related detailed content that will interest you.

U.S. STARFIRE Laser Dazzler Test Weapon

The Lectures

  • Rise of Commercial Intelligence Satellite Networks:

The Small Satellite Revolution ushered in low-cost imaging and radar satellites. The War in Ukraine Forged Them Into an Intelligence Network - [CLICK HERE TO VIEW]

  • Vulnerability of Commercial Satellite Networks to Hostile Attack:

Now that commercial satellites have dual civilian/military use, the military threat to commercial systems begins. From Russian cyber attacks on SpaceX Starlink to laser blinding of earth observation satellites, a low-level war in space has already begun. [CLICK HERE TO VIEW]

  • Orbital Debris: Situational Awareness, Collision Avoidance, and Debris Mitigation:

EMP and other hostile attacks are not the only danger to satellite systems. Enough Debris (junk) has been left in orbit to be a danger in itself.

The Blogs

It started as a dinner conversation over the question of Putin's threat of nuclear war in conjunction with his war on Ukraine - Is it possible to survive a nuclear war? This question motivated the following three popular blogs that provide the answers:

Enough of the shameless self-promotion. Let's unpack nuclear weapons in space, starting with some historical background and resulting International Treaties meant to avoid nuclear proliferation in space

Nuclear Weapons in Space – A Historical Perspective

Starting with the 1945 TRINITY test of the first atomic bomb, scientists recognized that a form of electrical interference was generated as a side effect of firing a nuclear weapon. When the British began their own atomic weapons development in the early 1950s, their tests experienced a series of equipment failures that the British attributed to "Radio Flash", an early term for the Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) effect.

In the 1950s, as the U.S. and the then Soviet Union(USSR) experimented with new and more powerful weapons designs, they conducted live atmospheric tests to understand the destructive forces of weapons based on altitude and device yield(strength in millions of tons of TnT). Tests were conducted for groundbursts, airbursts, and finally, starting in 1958, high-altitude / low-earth-orbit-level space bursts. As the altitude of tests increased, measurements indicated destructive levels of electromagnetic pulse (EMP) reaching much farther than the physical blast effects of the nuclear weapon itself. Weapons scientists quickly understood that the "EMP" effect could be a unique form of weapon in itself. Funding and execution of test experiments soon followed.

Johnston Atoll – principal U.S. missile test site 1950s -1960s
Johnston Atoll – principal U.S. missile test site 1950s -1960s

The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and the Defense Atomic Support Agency jointly conducted a series of 15 tests out of Johnston Atoll in the Pacific, using the vast space provided by the Pacific Ocean to ensure test safety. Six of these tests technically occurred in outer space with altitudes ranging from 100Km to as high as 400 Km. To put this in perspective, the  International Space Station orbits the Earth at approximately 408 Km.

Of these high altitude tests, code-named STARFISH PRIME stands out in particular for breath and level of impact resulting from the experiment. STARFISH PRIME launched from the Johnston Atoll test center on July 9th, 1962. The Thor test missile followed a parabolic flight path, reaching an altitude of 1100 km. The nuclear warhead was detonated on its downward trajectory when it had fallen to the programmed altitude of 400 kilometers. The results of the detonation of STARFISH PRIME's 1.4Mt ( equivalent to 1.4 million tons of TnT high explosives) was unprecedented:

STARFISH PRIME High Altitude Nuclear Test as seen from Honolulu, HI - 9 July 1962
STARFISH PRIME High Altitude Nuclear Test as seen from Honolulu, HI - 9 July 1962
  • The rainbow-like explosion itself could be seen in Honolulu, HI, 1,400 km away.

  • Honolulu, Hawaii, power grid experienced unexpectedly overloaded and overheating lightning protection devices on powerlines. Power was restored to impacted areas over a several-day period.

  • The EMP damage to the microwave link between Kauai and the other Hawaiian islands shut down telephone service.

  • Other effects included rendering 100s of streetlights inoperative (blown) and tripping home security alarms across a broad swath of Haiwai.

While these immediate effects of  STARFISH PRIME's EMP 1400 Km from the destination point were troubling, this was only part of the resulting damage. The impact on spacecraft and the space environment quickly became a far greater concern. In particular:

  • Three known U.S. satellites were immediately disabled by the blast's EMP and radiation

    • It is unknown if any USSR satellites were impacted

  • The explosion released an enormous number of high-energy electrons that became trapped in the magnetic fields of the inner Van Allen radiation belt, increasing radiation levels significantly.

    • Satellites a Low and Millde Earth orbit transit through these belts as orbit the earth

    • In the months that followed, these man-made radiation belts eventually caused six or more satellites to fail, including the United Kingdom's first satellite, Ariel 1

  • Perhaps even more disturbing, in 1968, it was reported that some Starfish electrons had remained in the atmosphere for 5 years

Satellites Traverse the Van Allen Radiation belts of trapped electrons in the Earth's Magnetic Fields
Satellites Traverse the Van Allen Radiation belts of trapped electrons in the Earth's Magnetic Fields

According to the Defense Threat Reduction Agency's report, Collateral Damage to Satellites from an EMP Attack.

"The most celebrated victim of STARFISH PRIME was the world's first communications satellite, Telstar, which relayed voice and television signals across the Atlantic. Telstar was launched on 10 July 1962, one day after the STARFISH PRIME nuclear explosion. About one month after launch, there was an indication that one of two command decoders on board the satellite was failing. By utilizing modified and continuous commands to the satellite, the decoder was temporarily recovered. Complete failure of the command system did finally occur in February of 1963"

The report also cites another critical outcome of STARFISH PRIME: Manned Space Flight.

"On September 5, 1962, President John Kennedy met with SECDEF McNamara, NASA officials, and other experts to discuss upcoming high altitude nuclear tests and possible health repercussions for Mercury astronaut Walter Schirra, who was scheduled to go into orbit a few weeks later. Concerns that Schirra might be exposed to unacceptably high levels of radiation if high-altitude tests were conducted led the administration to postpone further testing until after the mission. A few days after Schirra's flight, an Air Force spokesman announced that Schirra would have been killed by residual STARFISH PRIME radiation if he had flown above 640 km altitude."

Soviet Union High Altitude Tests

The U.S. was not alone in running high-altitude nuclear EMP tests. From 1961 thru 1962 the USSR conducted at least 7 of their own tests. Several of these tests, code-named "K-series," were detonated over Kazakhstan, then a state within the USSR,  with some unfortunate consequences.  

Soviet Nuclear Test #184 "K-4"– launched from Kapustin Yar and detonated near Zhezqazghan, Kazakhstan
Soviet Nuclear Test #184 "K-4"– launched from Kapustin Yar and detonated near Zhezqazghan, Kazakhstan

In particular, Test #184, "K-4" launched on 22 October 1962, detonated a 300Kt nuclear device at an altitude of 290 km. According to a 2019 paper, Soviet Test 184, 1962 Soviet Nuclear EMP Tests over Kazakhstan

"Test 184 that caused most of the problems with the civilian infrastructure in Kazakhstan … widespread diesel generator problems occurred sometime after the detonations due to dielectric breakdown in the generator windings … Other known effects of Test 184 were that it knocked out a major 1000-kilometer (600-mile) underground power line running from Astana (then called Aqmola), now the capital city of Kazakhstan, toward the city of Almaty. Some fires were reported. In the city of Karaganda, the EMP started a fire in the city's electrical power plant, which was connected to the long underground power line."

We do not know if the Soviet high-altitude tests impacted any soviet satellites, and there is no record of U.S. or Allied satellites being affected by Soviet tests. The STARFISH PRIME test certainly impacted Soviet satellites. However, the USSR did not lodge any complaints.

What is clear is that both the USSR and the U.S. understood the danger their atmospheric tests were creating and chose to take Action.

The Aftermath of U.S. and Soviet Atmospheric Tests – a Sobering Realization

In 1962, it became very clear to the U.S., USSR, Great Britain, and other nuclear powers that the cumulative dangers from fallout and EMP radiation effects of atmospheric testing could have long-term impacts on other national priorities. The damage to satellites and lingering radiation in the Van Allen belt represented a threat to the future of manned space flight and the extensive space-based national security satellite systems that both the U.S. and USSR had invested in by that time.

In 1963, the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain signed the Limited Test Ban TreatyThe treaty banned all nuclear tests in the atmosphere, in space, or underwater. This is the first of a set of Cold War treaties placing limits on nuclear weapons and weapons testing. Nearly all nations have ratified the treaty, with the notable exception of China. Underground testing was unaffected by the treaty until the United States and the Soviet Union signed the Threshold Test Ban Treaty (TTBT), which banned underground tests with yields greater than 150 kilotons.

Four years later, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty banned the stationing of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in outer space. The treaty prohibits military activities on celestial bodies and details legally binding rules governing the peaceful exploration and use of space. The treaty entered into force on October 10, 1967, and currently has 110 states-parties, with another 89 countries that have signed it but have not yet completed ratification.

Testing and refinement of EMP and other nuclear weapons would continue, but they would do so via underground tests. Through the 1960s, the USSR would consider a form of space-based orbital weapon known as an "FOBS" or Fractional Orbital Bomb System. A Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS) is a warhead delivery system that uses an orbital path toward its target destination. It looks like a regular satellite launch as opposed to a ballistic missile launch. Just before reaching the target, thet FOB deorbits through a retrograde engine burn. Unfortunately, a FOB is not as accurate as an ICBM ( Intercontinental Ballistic Missile), and given the increased launch energy requirements, it can only loft a much smaller nuclear weapon.

While the 1967 Outer Space Treat allowed for FOBS, from the U.S. point of view, FOBS were not particularly useful militarily, which may explain why Secretary of Defense McNamara and others defended the Soviet FOBS as legal under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.

One interesting note: In August 2021, the People's Republic of China tested a weapon that combined FOBS with a hypersonic glide vehicle. It was a very provocative threat as a first-strike weapon in the Pacific Theater against U.S. Naval Task Forces and depot supply bases in the event of war in the Taiwan Straights or a direct first strike on the CONUS (Continental U.S.) in a general nuclear war.

The Science Behind Nuclear and Non-nuclear EMP Weapons

If you have experienced electronic damage from a nearby lightning strike or power/communications outages from solar flare activity, you've experienced EMP. EMP is a short-duration energy pulse across a broad spectrum of radio frequencies. EMP can be powerful enough to melt wire and "fry" the electronics in the circuit boards of any electronic device. At lower levels, EMP will cause "UPSETS" - blow breakers and fuses, reset of electronics, and recoverable power and communications outages. EMP is generally harmless to humans – unless they have a heart pacemaker or other electric health devices.

The EMP from nuclear weapons is more intense and of slightly longer duration than natural sources, and hence it is more destructive. There are two types of EMP we need to be concerned with:

  • Source Region EMP (SREMP), created by nuclear weapons detonated at lower altitudes or near the Earth's surface. Any city or installation targeted by a nuclear weapon will experience SREMP

  • High-altitude EMP (HEMP), from a nuclear detonation at 15 or more miles above the Earth's surface.

Source Region EMP (SREMP) is a by-product of any nuclear weapon detonated at low altitudes. In the first tenth of a second, the blast creates an intense burst of gamma rays, producing SREMP fields of a few kV/m (thousand volts per meter) that can penetrate up to 1 km into the Earth. The SREMP fields are coupled with buried cables, ariel cables, and building and communications wires (E.g., ethernet cables), creating destructive energy roughly 10 times larger than severe lighting. Unconnected electronics like cell phones, tablets, cordless phones, and laptops coupled to these EMP fields are likewise damaged.

Surface Regional EMP (SREMP)  impact on cellphones 10 Kiloton weapon, Washington DC
Surface Regional EMP (SREMP) impact on cellphones 10 Kiloton weapon, Washington DC

Fortunately, the effects of SREMP are limited to a few kilometers (km) for unconnected electronics. For communications and power cables emanating from ground zero, the damage can extend over 100 km. Here are a few examples of damage and upset radius for a 100 kiloton nuclear weapon:

  • Cellphone handset: damage 1.72 Km, upset: 2.5 Km (~ same distance as detonation major damage zone)

  • Cellular micro-cell antenna pickup: damage 0.57 Km, upset: 0.95 Km

  • 200-foot cell tower antenna pickup: damage 2.99 Km, upset: 16.25Km

  • 100-foot F.M. radio station tower pickup: damage 5.49Km, upset: 44.60 Km

  • 100-foot ethernet cable (home) connected equipment: damage: 26.40 Km, Upset: 95.84 Km

  • Wired POTS – Plain Old Telephone System: damage: damage: 87.90 Km, Upset: 149.6 Km

  • Overhead A.C. power line: damage: 74 Km, Upset: 135 Km

Power distribution, cable T.V. Coax, Ethernet-connected equipment, and old-fashioned wired telephones will have a much wider area of possible EMP damage than physical blast damage.

High altitude EMP (HEMP) results from the detonation of a nuclear weapon at a high altitude, typically 30 to 400 Km (15 to 50 miles) above the Earth. HEMP nuclear detonations create EMP destruction and interference (upset) over an extensive area without destroying structures or causing human loss of life. As a by-product, HEMP has an equivalent destructive impact on satellites. HEMP has three specific phases: E1 (Early-time), E2 (Intermediate-time), and E3 (Late-time).

  • E1 (Early-Time) is an electromagnetic field pulse created by gamma rays from a nuclear warhead explosion. The pulse has a duration of several nanoseconds and covers a broad range. E1's power spectrum frequency is in the 10s to 100s of megahertz range, enabling it to couple to electrical and electronic systems, inducing currents in the range 1000s of amperes, and "frying" impacted electronics.

  • E2 (Intermediate-ime) is produced by delayed gamma rays and neutron-induced currents and is similar in frequency to lightning but vastly more widespread, like thousands to millions of simultaneous lightning strikes over a period of 10s of milliseconds. E2 follows E1 and creates a compound effect where E1-induced damage has circumvented circuit protection, the E2 impact could pass directly into major system components and damage them.

  • E3 (Late-Time) is widespread and similar to intense solar flare/geo storm solar activity -inducing large fluctuations of the Earth's magnetic fields while simultaneously generating large induced currents and damaging equipment connected to powerlines and the lines themselves on Earth, E3 has little impact on satellite systems.

HEMP effects,  E1, E2, and E3 (RED) compared to a Direct Lightning Strike (BLACK)
HEMP effects, E1, E2, and E3 (RED) compared to a Direct Lightning Strike (BLACK)

Damage (RED) or upset (YELLOW)  of computer equipment  from HEMP attack using 100 Kiloton Bomb detonated at 400 Km altitude just south of Pittsburg PA
Damage (RED) or upset (YELLOW) of computer equipment from HEMP attack using 100 Kiloton Bomb detonated at 400 Km altitude just south of Pittsburg PA

As the acccomanying diagram shows, HEMP causes outages over nearly 1000 km area and damage over 100 Km or more. The higher the HEMP nuclear detonation, the more widespread the outage area and the more limited the damage area. In a nuclear war, the first strike would likely include one of more HEMP detonations to bring down the national power grid (for a brief period - upset) and cause major EMP damage to disrupt communications and cause widespread general confusion. In fact, in 2017, a Department of Homeland Security study noted, "A burst similar to Starfish Prime today over the central USA today would likely shut down commercial power and communications in large regions for months or longer."

A HEMP Attack Against Satellites Will Result in Extensive Earthbound

Collateral Damage

How EMP Damages Satellites

Satellites in all orbits are designed for and subjected to significant radiation over their lifetimes from continuous bombardment of varying degrees of radiation and energetic particles from the sun. Cumulative radiation effects generally cause satellite failure/end of life. The radiation and EMP from a satellite nuclear attack accelerate cumulative radiation damage to the satellite. The older a satellite, the more likely it is to fail from the effects of a nuclear attack. This is an important point for large constellations of satellites used for Communications (Satrlink, OneWeb, ViaSat, etc.)   for geolocation (GPS, GLONASS, etc), that even moderate radiation exposure will result in accelerated satellite failure.

Delayed Gamma Radiation from  1 Mt 200 Km altitude HEMP blast
Delayed Gamma Radiation from 1 Mt 200 Km altitude HEMP blast

For satellites in Low Earth Orbit, "direct X-radiation from a nuclear weapon can be lethal."  The large distance of satellites in Medium and Geostationary Earth Orbit to a HEMP attack makes the probability of damage to them very low. These satellites are already designed to operate in the relatively severe natural radiation environments outside the Earth's protective magnetic field that exist at such altitudes. Some military satellites are actually hardened against nuclear environments (these details are classified). However, as we will discuss later in this paper, alternate weapons can threaten these MEO/GEO satellite systems.

"Pumped Belts" of captured beta particles from HEMP burst
"Pumped Belts" of captured beta particles from HEMP burst

EMP attacks at northern or southern latitudes below ~50 degrees are more likely to damage satellites in LEO by "pumping the electron belts" of the Earth's magnetic fields of the inner Van Allen Radiation Belt as opposed to direct radiation and EMP. These belts capture beta particles (high-energy electrons) and can take weeks to years to leak away the "pumped" radiation. LEO satellites are destroyed by the cumulative damage of passing through these "pumped belts" as they orbit.

Ultimately, using a HEMP against LEO satellites is counterproductive because all satellites, allied or enemy, will pass through these belts, receiving increased doses of radiation accelerating satellite damage till failure.

Nuclear Detonations at high altitudes to target GPS (MEO) and GEO satellites will also induce "pumping of the electron belts." However, the radiation effect is significantly lower at the higher orbits. A level too low to cause very early loss of these MEO and LEO satellite assets. The direct radiation/EMP effects are of the most concern to GEO and MEO satellites.

If Russia were to launch a nuclear attack against LEO satellites, the net result would be the sudden loss of most, if not all, LEO commercial satellites. This would seriously impact U.S. national security as well as the American economy. The renewed Russian threat for this scenario is likely why House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Turner issued such a grave warning. However, I think this is pure "saber-rattling." Carrying out the threat would equally affect China, Russia, Europe, and all LEO space assets. An attack on one nation's assets is essentially an attack on all.

Perhaps the U.S. should have a greater concern as we have the most assets in Low Earth Orbit and because of the military-civilian co-use directive put in place by Presidential Directive over 20 years ago. This directive states that the U.S. Government should:

  • Rely to the maximum practical extent on U.S. commercial remote sensing space capabilities for filling imagery and geospatial needs for military, intelligence, foreign policy, homeland security, and civil users;

  • Focus United States Government remote sensing space systems on meeting needs that cannot be effectively, affordably, and reliably satisfied by commercial providers because of economic factors, civil mission needs, national security concerns, or foreign policy concerns

Does this mean the U.S. has more to lose than other countries? Probably. As we have noted, the U.S. has the most assets in Low Earth Orbit. China has eclipsed Russia and is second only to the U.S. is LEO space assets. Should the Russians launch an EMP attack against the U.S. or a nuclear attack on US LEO satellite system, China would face equivalent destruction of their systems.

Here are some conclusions that can be drawn from the threat:

  • All satellites, regardless of orbit, are vulnerable to direct attack (nuclear or non-nuclear)

  • Ground control stations for satellites are subject to direct attack by EMP or any other means

  • An attack on MEO or GEO satellites by high-altitude nuclear detonations for the purpose of populating electron belts at those altitudes would require large-yield Nuclear weapons over 10 Mt (megaton) – that is an incredibly powerful weapon

  • Satellites in MEO or GEO are not at risk to immediate loss from radiation damage resulting from a credible EMP attack anywhere on Earth.

  • ALL satellites in LEO are at risk to serious damage from line-of-sight or enhanced radiation belt exposure resulting from EMP attacks over many geographical locations of the Earth

  • Stringent nuclear hardening criteria should be placed on LEO satellites and control systems that serve military and intelligence missions.

The Non-Nuclear Option: Space-Based Directed Energy Weapons

Given all the drawbacks of a nuclear HEMP attack, are there non-nuclear EMP options? As it turns out, there are several non-nuclear "directed energy weapons" that could be deployed, including:

  • EMP Bomb - Narrow or Broad frequency spectrum

  • High Power Laser Weapons – solid-state lasers

  • High power Microwave Weapons

These technologies have matured to the point that they are already being deployed to defend U.S. bases and U.S. Navy ships in the widening Middle East conflict. Unlike HEMP,  which is indiscriminate, these weapons provide precise control of destruction and have no lingering damaging effects other than the specific targeted area.

While threatening to use a HEMP nuclear attack or permanently orbiting one or more nuclear weapons as a persistent threat may generate media attention, Space-based versions of each of these direct energy weapons types represent a real and growing threat.

Let's briefly look at each of these alternative energy weapons types using current terrestrial weapons systems as an example.

NNEMP Bomb ( Non-Nuclear  Electromagnetic Bomb)

The U.S., Russia, China, and other nations have NNEMP bombs or missiles with NNEPM warheads. In fact, the U.S. has used NNEMP in combat. In March 2003, CBS News Correspondent David Martin reported that:

"The U.S. Air Force has hit Iraqi T.V. with an experimental electromagnetic pulse device called the "E-Bomb" in an attempt to knock it off the air and shut down Saddam Hussein's propaganda machine."

The NNEMP bombs are based on an explosion device design known as the Flux Compression Generator (FCG). FCG uses a fast explosive to rapidly compress a magnetic field, transferring most of the energy from the explosive into the magnetic field. FCGs can produce tens of MegaJoules of electromagnetic energy with a pulse duration of tens to hundreds of microseconds and peak power levels in the TeraWatts range or roughly 100x to 1000x the power of a typical lighting strike.

FCGs use a power supply, typically a combination of a battery and capacitor bank, to generate an initial magnetic field in the primary stage (stage 1) coaxial coil. When the current in the primary coil peaks, a shaped explosion is initiated, which propagates an electrical "short "in the coaxial wire that has the effect of making a massive energy pulse. The primary stage feeds a secondary stage, which is also compressed by the shaped explosive charge, resulting in a massive electromagnetic pulse before the device's final disintegration from the explosion.

NNEMP has a limited and precise range of effects equivalent to its nuclear counterpart while providing none of the negative factors of broad indiscriminate collateral damage and "magnetic band" pumping of the Earth's magnetic fields/radiation belts.

A strategy of deploying a number of NNEMP devices in orbit with orbit/positioning propulsion can achieve strategic destruction of enemy assets. We will discuss this variation of the U.S. Star Wars "brilliant pebbles" concept later in this blog.

If you are interested, a detailed discussion of the physics and construction of NNEMP bombs can be found here.

NNEMP Bomb based on U.S. Mk 84 Form Factor
NNEMP Bomb based on U.S. Mk 84 Form Factor

High Power Laser Weapons

EMP is not the only effective weapon that can be used against missiles and satellites. Terrestrial anti-missile/anti-aircraft/anti-drone weapon systems in the 100kW per pulse (shot) range are already in the field and are seeing extensive use in the current Middle East conflict. Examples of high power laser weapons systems include:

  • Raphael's Iron Beam and Light Blade laser systems as a complement to their Iron Dome system ( estimated at 100 kW for the latest version)

  • Raytheon - H4 palletized laser weapon anti-drone / down swarm weapon (estimated at 10 kW)

  • Perveset – Russian anti-aircraft system that can also be used as a Dazzler, a blinding system, against Earth Observation satellites (power level unknown)

  • Silent Hunter – Chinese anti-drone system ( estimated 30 kW)

Based on weather and atmospheric effects, high-power lasers are effective at short ranges, typically less than 5 Km maximum range. They are finding applications as components in "close-in-weapons systems" (CIWS) as terminal defense weapons similar to the famous U.S. Navy Phalanx. These systems continue to improve. In 2023, Lockheed Martin delivered a 300 kW class laser to the Army's Indirect Fire Protection Capability-High Energy Laser (IFPC-HEL) prototype program. A 500 kW version is under development.

Unlike missile-based anti-aircraft systems, high-power laser systems never run out of "war shots" or need reloading. As long as there is power, the weapons will continue to fire. So, an unlimited magazine space. Further, the price per shot is at least 1/10th, falling to 1/100th the price of kinetic weapons. For example, Iron Beam costs are estimated at $2000 per shot (amortizing the laser + power generators cost) vs $50k per interceptor for Iron Dome.

U.S. Army Solid State Laser Test Bed – 300Kw (with 500 kW reported)
U.S. Army Solid State Laser Test Bed – 300Kw (with 500 kW reported)

One of the biggest drawbacks to terrestrial deployment of laser weapons is weather, specifically humidity, rain, and fog, which limit the weapons' range. Using an equivalent weapon in space would result in far greater range and, depending on the weapon's orbit, threaten a wide range of satellite targets.

This begs the question, could Russia deploy a space-based laser weapon, and could that weapon be powered by a nuclear battery or reactor? Russia has a long history of using nuclear batteries in space to power its radar satellites. Russia developed and tested the TOPAZ series of reactors in space to power an experimental plasma electric space drive. A compact reactor (TOPAZ derivative) coupled with a several hundred kW class solid-state laser would make a formidable mobile threat. The reactor could equally power the laser or provide propulsion. More importantly, the individual component technologies of such a system are "generally allowed" under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.

Rather than a nuclear bomb being placed in orbit, perhaps the threat is a nuclear-powered Laser system. Food for thought, at least!

High Power Microwave Weapons

As an alternative to high-power laser weapons, a first generation of High-Power Microwave (HPM) anti-aircraft weapons systems are reaching the field. The major advantage of HPM is that it is not impacted by atmospheric or weather effects. This benefit comes at the cost of a lower target engagement range (due to beam spreading) at a much higher power level (typically 100 MW to 10 GW).

HPM weapons are a form of area weapon. HPMs operate in the  500MHz to 3GHz frequency range with wavelengths in the mm to cm range. That is roughly 1000 times longer wavelength than a laser weapon. The beam spread of the microwave radiation from the HPM's antenna array increases with distance, making them ideal against drone swarms. Drone swarms are a new and growing threat which is a feature of a series of militia attacks against U.S. positions in the Middle East.

Epirus's Leonidas, a counter-drone and counter-electronics high-power microwave system
Epirus's Leonidas, a counter-drone and counter-electronics high-power microwave system

HPMs are being operationally deployed as a component to integrated layered defense systems where kinetic kill vehicles (missiles) provide the long-range defense, followed by high-powered laser as intermediate defense, and finally, HPM as the final short range terminal defense.

As an example, defense industry startup Epirius has just delivered the Leonidas HPM prototype system to the U.S. Army's Indirect Fire Protection Capability (IFPC) program to protect fixed and semi-fixed sites from drones as well as rockets, artillery/mortars, and cruise missiles. The IFPC system will consist of a mix of hard-kill interceptors as well as a laser and a high-power microwave capability.

HPM direct energy weapons could be easily adapted for orbital anti-satellite weapons systems in a manner nearly identical to that previously described in our discussion on high-power laser weapons. However, due to HPMs beam spread and resulting range limitation, a high-power laser weapon has greater range and lethality in a space warfare – anti-satellite environment.

Alternate Weapons Systems  - An Overview of Anti-Satellite Threats

Space Warfare is fast becoming a major theater of future conflict as the new space race to the moon, mars, and mineral-rich asteroids has emerged between the major powers. Directed Energy Weapons are part of a growing set of spaced-based weapons threats. For the sake of completeness, here is a brief list of possible space-based anti-satellite threats:

  • Kinetic Kill Vehicles – all the major powers have demonstrated kill vehicles

    • The major drawback of kinetic kill vehicles is all the debris created by their use. The debris can cause indiscriminate collateral damage to all orbiting systems, be they friend or foe.

  • R.F. Jamming - reversible/non-destructive jamming of satellite uplink, downlink, or R.F. sensor (Synthetic Aperture Radar -SAR satellite)

  • High Power Microwave -HPM – destructive/non-reversible damage to satellite electronics

  • Optical Dazzler - reversible/non-destructive optical jamming of Earth Observations satellites with medium power laser

  • High Power Laser- destructive/non-reversible damage to the satellite via thermal damage / burn-through

  • Chemical Spray – destructive/non-reversible damage by coating target satellite solar panels with paint, causing permanent power failure of the target satellite

  • Robotic – Mechanical –a satellite towing vehicle mechanically attaches to a target satellite and then performs a thrust maneuver to deorbit and destroy the target satellite. Alternately, capture, stow in a reentry vehicle, and return the target satellite to Earth, the so-called "Skyhook" Space piracy scenario.

Space-Based Anti-Satellite Threats – Defense Intelligence Agency Report
Space-Based Anti-Satellite Threats – Defense Intelligence Agency Report

A deep dive into the totality of threats to space systems is beyond the scope of this blog. If you would like to explore the subject further, please refer to the following:

Threat Scenarios – What Could this New Russian Threat Be?

Russia and even China have strong motivations to develop clandestine anti-satellite weapons, especially HEMP weapons. As the Real Clear Defence article, "Have Russia And China Already 'Militarized' Space?" notes:

"Russia and China have great strategic incentives for a clandestine capability to perform EMP attack by satellite as a means of preempting or retaliating against their many nuclear-armed potential adversaries—including each other. An EMP attack could enable China and Russia to "level the playing field" or defeat the U.S. by being the most effective means of quickly neutralizing large numbers of LEO satellites that are crucial to U.S. military operations."

Now that we clearly understand the possible technologies involved for EMP and other space-based threats let's consider the possible Russian deployment scenarios that may have the Washington DC defense establishment up in arms.

  • Hypersonic missile HEMP/NNEMP - missile armed nuclear or non-nuclear EMP warhead

    • This is a first-strike weapon. At the time of this posting, hypersonic weapons can evade U.S. missile defense systems

    • Use as a theater weapon – a serious consideration for China should invade Tawain – suppression of U.S. fleets and our Pacific bases. Again, no defense exists.

    • Any strike of this nature would invite a counter-strike

  • FOB -  Fractional Orbital Bomb

    • Revive the 1960s-era FOB  to disguise a nuclear EMP strike as a LEO polar orbit satellite launch.

    • FOB polar orbit is only useful to attack the continental U.S. and  would invite a full counter-strike

  • Orbital Nuclear Satellite- or a small constellation of satellite  nuclear weapons in Earth orbit (HEMP from orbit)

    • Weapon(s) positioning could be by stealth (undeclared disguised platform) or out in the open (declared- intentional)

    • Stealth Weapons can be detected by neutral particle beam detector systems developed under the U.S. Star Wars initiative to identify enemy decoy nuclear warheads.

    • Represents a major breach of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty –  likely to set off a space arms race in  Earth orbit  and the moon/Mars/valuable asteroids once a human presence is established

  • "Brilliant Pebbles," a constellation of non-nuclear EMP  (NNEMP)  bomb devices

    • Allows for precise targeting

    • Significant launch and satellite device costs due to the  100s, if not 1000s, of  devices needed to mount a credible threat

    • No stealth or secrecy due to the number of weapons involved -

  • HPLW Satellites -One or a small constellation of  High Power Laser Weapon Satellites  

    • Nearly as effective as nuclear HEMP  without indiscrete collateral damage  or long-term radiation "belt pumping." That causes long-term satellite failure.

    • Is this a breach of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty? Possibly. It is a gray area.

Any of these scenarios is a source of serious concern.

The threat of nuclear/non-nuclear HEMP-armed hypersonic missiles exists, and the use of HEMP on standard ballistic missiles has existed since the 1960s. This threat is here, and it is not going to go away. All the major nuclear powers will have hypersonic missiles in their mix of available weapons. While a concern, this is not the likely source of concern from the Washington establishment.

The advent of hypersonic missiles makes the revival of FOBS questionable. Hypersonic is a far more effective and reliable delivery system. While FOBs are possible, this is an unlikely candidate for deployment or to be seen as a strategic threat. We can safely say that the threat is NOT an updated FOB system.

The "Brilliant Pebbles" constellation of NNEMP weapons is unlikely. The number of devices and costs to place them in orbit are prohibitive vs other options. Russia lacks the satellite launch industrial infrastructure to support deployment ( Note: China does have the launch capability. There could be no secrecy in deploying such a system. It would be obvious and could be countered by placing an equivalent capability in space, thereby starting an arms race.

The likely threat is the clandestine deployment of one or more nuclear EMP weapons in a set of strategic orbits to maximize damage to satellites in LEO, MEO, and GEO orbits. This provocative move would be held at the highest security levels by Russia ( or any other country), given that this violates the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Secrets do not last forever, and technology exists to accurately detect hidden nuclear warheads (derived from solutions originating in the U.S. Star Wars program of the 1980s). Given the collateral and indiscriminate damage in actual use, why would you deploy such a system?

The Russian space program is in decline and being eclipsed by both the U.S.(and U.S. space allies) and China. As we will see in the next section, the U.S. and China possess a vast majority of the active satellites in orbit, and those numbers are increasing. Despite the self-induced damage a Russian EMP attack would make on its satellites, strategically, the U.S. and China would suffer far greater losses. The veiled threat is simple, "I may lose carrying out my threat, but you will lose more."

This is troubling as North Korea or Iran could eventually adopt the same position. Further, China should be as concerned as the U.S. and its allies. Should the Russian threat be carried out, the Chinese satellite system will be caught in the conflagration and face proportionately equal destruction. Just as likely, the threat is a hoax, a form of subtle psychological operation (PSYOP) the Russians are running to make the U.S. overreact. If it's PSYOP– it's working.

The darkhorse concept is a nuclear powered high-energy laser satellite system. This is a legitimate game-changer, providing nearly unlimited precision kill capacity with no collateral damage issues. Such a system sits in a gray area concerning the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Considering terrestrial laser weapons/defensive system progress, there are certainly development programs underway working to test and possibly deploy the capability in space.

Final Thoughts

The major nuclear powers and many other nations are making significant investments in space for both commercial and security purposes. Over the last decade,  a revolution in low-cost "small Sat" technology and an equivalent revolution in satellite launch cost reduction have put satellite deployment in the reach of the poorest nations.

lites in Orbit, May 2022 – Source Statisica from UCSS Database As the companion figure illustrates, in May 2022 there were nearly 5000
lites in Orbit, May 2022 – Source Statisica from UCSS Database As the companion figure illustrates, in May 2022 there were nearly 5000

As the companion figure illustrates, in May 2022, nearly 5000 active satellites were in orbit. As of December 2023, SpaceX alone had deployed that many Starlink satellites. This number has the potential to rise above 40,000 in the next decade, with China and the rest of the world catching up to the U.S.'s current dominant position.

Consider the deployed or planned communications satellite super satellite constellations totaling nearly 40,000 satelites:

  • OneWeb – U.K. – 1000 satellites planned  > 600 satellites deployed

  • Starlink -U.S./SpaceX  - 12,000 satellites  planned  > 5000 satellites deployed with  over 5 Million users

  • Kupier – U.S./Amazon –  3268 satellites planned  with < 10 test satellites deployed

  • GuoWang – China – two constellations of 6000 satellites each, 12,000 total  

  • G60 – China – a second competing LEO-only system with 12,000 satellites planned

  • Hanwha Systems - South Korea – 2000 satellites planned

Noticeably missing from this list is Russia. Russia does not have a super communications satellite constellation under construction or is even considering building one. They don't have the funds. Russia's communications satellite systems are in such a poor state that Russia is clandestinely purchasing SpaceX StartLink terminals in the Middle East and using them in Ukraine. Their own aging communications systems cannot support required military operations.

While communications satellites represent the bulk of active satellites in orbit, many satellites are filling other critical roles in the  world economy.

  • Geolocation Constellations at MEO  (Middle Earth Orbit)

    • GPS (United States), GLONASS (Russian Federation), Beidou (China), and Galileo (European Union)

  • Earth Observation and Measurements

    • 1000's of optical hyperspectral, SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar), and other sensors

  • Military and Intelligence satellites  - which are now a small fraction of satellites in orbit

    • However, these satellites are radiation-hardened and likely to survive an EMP attack

Should  Russia actually deploy a Nuclear HEMP weapon and detonate it, the destruction, while significant, would be short-lived. As the following diagram illustrates, the launch capacity of thet U. S. and its allies is 6x ( i.e., 600%) greater than Russia and  2x  (i.e., 200%) greater than China. The U.S. and U.S. allies can mount a satellite replacement program and have the launch and build capacity to replace damaged satellites in less than a year, depending on the level of damage. Further, the U.S. can and would retaliate with a formidable array of weapons. of its own

Orbital Launch Attempts per Year – 2020 to 2023
Orbital Launch Attempts per Year – 2020 to 2023

The dawn of a new space race is upon us. The moon and Mars will be colonized, and the vast resources in the asteroids will be unlocked for the betterment of all humankind. That bright future only happens if we focus on friendly competition, continue to adhere to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, and prohibit the weaponization of space.

Let's hope that Russia's threats (or those of any other hostile nation) to the new space economy are just that, threats, not realities. These are rantings, machinations, and fantasies of playing the spoiler of a nation that is falling behind in the new space race.

If you have questions, feel free to contact me - HERE.


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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.


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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