Saturday, May 21, 2011

LEO Ecosystem

LEO Ecosystem: "There's been a lot of talk this week about the 'ecosystem' of low Earth orbit - the growing, interactive infrastructure mankind has put in place in the realm just above the atmosphere called LEO.

Chris Chyba, a Princeton professor, lectured U.S. senators about the need to build out that ecosystem a little more before mankind makes another push deeper into the Solar System. We need to take some time to invent the technology that will actually make it possible to go to Mars someday.

We don't have it yet, but we're getting there. As Chyba spoke, a dozen astronauts and cosmonauts orbited a couple of hundred miles overhead. The combined crews of the International Space Station and the space shuttle Endeavour include a trio of Russians, a pair of Italians and a bunch of Americans, all working to get the station ready for a decade or so of laboratory work that - hopefully -- will generate some of the skills and hardware we need to explore beyond LEO.

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Chyba's words came back to me Friday afternoon as I sat in my office in Washington, using the internet to cover satellite launches in Kazakhstan and French Guiana. International Launch Services and Arianespace both provided streaming video, so I was able to watch a midnight Proton launch from Baikonur and an afternoon Ariane liftoff from Kourou from my desk.

Those missions sent unmanned spacecraft even deeper into space, to geostationary transfer orbits en route to the equatorial band called GEO where communications satellites maintain their stationary positions 35,000 kilometers over a given spot on the ground.

The Proton carried Telstar 14R/Estrela do Sul 2, a 5,000-kilogram bird built in the United States by Space Systems/Loral for Canada's Telesat to provide Ku-band links in North and South America.

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International Launch Services

An hour-and-a-half later I watched an Ariane 5 lift off from the European launch center on the north coast of South America with two satellites inside its fairing.

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The ST-2, another 5,000-kilogram spacecraft, will deliver telecommunications services on land and sea in and around Asia and the Middle East for a Singapore/Taiwan joint venture. It was built by Japan's Mitsubishi Electric Company.

The Indian Space Research Organization built the other payload, GSAT-8. At 3,100 kilograms, it was too big for India to launch on its domestic rockets, so they bought a ride from Arianespace. It will add to India's growing space-based communications infrastructure, and to its GAGAN navigation system, which functions as a regional GPS over the Indian subcontinent and adjacent waters.

India, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, Canada, Russia, Kazakhstan, Italy and the U.S. - in one afternoon, all of them had a direct hand in near-Earth space. And thanks to the space infrastructure of satellites and ground stations, anyone with a computer and an internet connection could listen and watch. That's a pretty good taste of the promise Chyba's space ecosystem holds.


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