Tag Archives: Technology

What is Space Force?

Here is the short version.

There is a lot of concern about Russia and China working on hypersonic weaponry, primarily for anti-ship activities.  China probably has enough money and technology to make this work, and they have set up a series of artificial islands around the South China Sea that contain military bases.  The US has spent decades maintaining a vast collection of radar and space assets to track ICBMs and SLBMs anywhere in the world.  The common trait of these missiles is that they exit the atmosphere en route to their targets.  This makes them much easier to spot, and theoretically, makes them vulnerable to lasers or fast interceptor missiles.

The problem with hypersonic missiles is that they travel too fast for conventional aircraft interception, but too low for conventional ballistic missile interception.  They would arrive with almost no warning from radar, designed to see things traveling at high altitude or low speed.  Michael Griffin has stated that the only way to even see these hypersonic missiles is with a set of radar systems in medium to low Earth orbit, similar to the networks that provide GPS navigation or high speed satellite phone conversations globally.  To intercept these missiles, the vehicles may or may not be space based.  In fact, they probably would not be.

There is a second factor of what appear to be satellites from both Russia and China that can approach other satellites and manipulate them.  They could be placing mines or jamming devices on board to be triggered in the event of a war.  They could simply snip wires or crush components.  Again, with legacy cold war satellites costing vast sums of money, there is very little defense against this form of attack.  There must instead be either too many satellites to intercept, or a defense system to prevent those satellites from being sabotaged.

Existing government agencies are relatively moribund.  They are no longer able to field brand new systems quickly without enormous waste in terms of time and money.  NASA was very efficient up until it fulfilled its initial purpose of the moon landing.  After that, it became another contractor game of how much money could be spent on how little work how slowly without the whole organization being shut down.

The US Military already spends more than NASA on space, and has done so for decades.  This is mostly with the Air Force, but also includes such things as navy weather satellites, the National Reconnaissance Office, and so on. Interestingly, these spy satellites will remain separate from the new Space Force, which means that 90 percent of the assets being transferred to  this organization will be from the Air Force.

Where Russia is concerned, there is some concern that this is a set-up. When Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative, it was intended to leverage the US economy to end the Cold War without a fight.  The US spent less than five percent of GDP on military efforts, whereas the USSR spent roughly 25 percent.  The quickest way to win the war was to propose a plan to build a system that would invalidate the investments of the USSR that would not in itself be offensive.  The Soviets had two choices – ignore it and fall behind permanently, or respond to it and go broke.  SDI was only a $150 million research program at first.  This is less than a cheap Mars probe mission. Yet it broke the stalemate of the Cold War.

Fast forward to 2018.  Russia announces a series of wonder-weapons that could overwhelm existing US defenses.  They include stealth fighters – but those have been largely cancelled because they were being built in cooperation with India, who have since pulled out of the program.  They included an orbital ICBM that could be launched over the South Pole and hit the US from the side that lacks the DEW radar arrays for early warning.  The problem here is that the launches can be seen from space (assuming our satellites are not sabotaged), and the actual weapons have been around since the 1970’s.  A third item was a robotic submarine that would detonate a super-nuclear weapon under the ocean to wipe out all human life from the US East coast.  This seems like a Dead Hand weapon, however, where the attackers assume the Russian mainland has already been deeply attacked.  The fourth item were these hypersonic missiles, but those appear to be oversold. Test missiles have under performed.  Another effort involved a nuclear propelled missile, but this seems to be a re-hash of a cancelled US program called Project Pluto from the 1960’s that was too dangerous to ever be tested, let alone used. In short, these appear to be Russian efforts to assume that the US government under Trump has forgotten what happened under Reagan and would fall for the same trick to spend itself into oblivion.  It seems a bit ham handed as a strategy, and seems more likely to backfire into more boycotts and sanctions.

The real problem, then, is the Chinese effort.  China has launched many tests of hypersonic missiles in an effort to neutralize the US carrier fleet.  While Chinese fighters also seem to be oversold, the missile programs, ship programs, and artificial islands are quite real, as is the territorial ambitions in the South China Sea.

I suspect the Space Force will result in a fast, SpaceX-like effort to build radar satellites en masse, along with an effort to identify and disable any attempts to approach or intercept those satellites.  That may involve blinding, jamming, or conversely intercepting the interceptors with radio frequency attacks. A modern radar satellite could certainly manage such an attack in terms of power and perception, if it were designed to do so.

A secondary benefit of such a system of satellites is that any sort of Malaysian airliner disappearance or stealthy 9/11 style attack with corporate or commercial jets would be largely nullified, because basically anything flying, anywhere in the world, would be tracked in real time.

Seven Distant Worlds, With Dramatic Implications

NASA has announced the discovery of a solar system 40 light years away that contains seven planets, each roughly the size of Earth. Three of these planets orbit at a distance that is considered habitable.

While some who read this are excited about all the discoveries for future generations, others dismiss it as something invisible to our generation and therefore useless. The fact is that it will be quite visible quite soon, and may be a major driver for technology advancements for the rest of our lives.

Understanding the Trappist-1 System

This is a small solar system around a small, cool star. Each of the seven planets is roughly the same size as earth. The smallest is roughly half-way between the size of Earth and Mars. All these planets orbit very close to the dim red star. It is assumed that, like the Earth’s moon, they will be tidally locked. The same side will face the sun constantly. In a system such as this, it is assumed that the dark side will remain relatively cool on the hottest worlds, and the permanently-sunlit side will be tolerably warm on the coldest world. Since all the planets are nearly earth sized, they should all have weather. This weather should circulate temperatures across the surfaces of each world. In other words, all seven could theoretically support life.

We know something about a small, tidally locked system like this from the moons of Jupiter. The four largest moons are between the sizes of our moon and Mercury. They orbit much closer to Jupiter than the Trappist system does to their sun. We see another factor in this situation with the Jovian moons, however, which may come into play here. The four moons are heated by internal tides, which squeeze and stretch them with each orbit. This generates heat. So despite being in a place in the solar system that would freeze most water worlds solid, both Europa and Ganymede (the two middle moons) have sub-surface oceans of liquid water. The innermost moon, Io, is basically a ball of volcanic sulfur that is so heated that it’s volcanoes turn the moon inside out repeatedly through history.

The TRAPPIST-1 sun is cool, but apparently young – no younger than 500 million years, or a ninth the age of our solar system. It’s difficult to say how old it is, but stars this size could exist for not billions, but twelve TRILLION years. If life does get a foothold here, it has a LOT of time to grow and explore before the local sun explodes or goes dark. Of the three planets most likely to be habitable, two are 2/3 the size of Earth (Mars is 1/3), and one is 1.34 times the size of Earth. The margin of error on the heavy one is such that it may be Earth sized. We aren’t sure of the size of the outer planet, and there may yet be more planets farther out in orbit.

Near Term Implications

The team responsible for building the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and the European Extremely Large Telescope (EELT) have stated that they may be able to measure the composition of the atmospheres of these worlds. They may be able to detect ozone, methane, or other gasses that indicate life, or the lack thereof.

When you consider this news, along with similar news about a super-Earth orbiting the nearest star, what does that mean in our lifetimes? Quite a bit.

It basically means that we have a very good reason to develop large telescopes specifically to examine near-solar exoplanets. Part of the reason we don’t have these yet is that they require either very large mirrors, or a cluster of telescopes flying in formation with incredible precision. Even being off the perfect distance by the width of an atom would ruin the observations. These projects could also be very expensive, exceeding $10 billion. That was not be a defensible investment if near-solar exoplanets were not both common and interesting. Now we know they are both.

There is a plan to build a star-shade that would block the light of a star, allowing the telescope to see the planets. The New Worlds Mission would build either a 4 meter telescope and starshade for $3 billion, or a starshade for the JWST for $750 million.

Some systems, such as those involving telescopes or star-shades flying in long range formations, have limited practicality due to how difficult they would be to re-orient to new targets. It becomes more practical in this case as well, since TRAPPIST-1 could be the focus for years of observation while still returning useful data.

FOCAL - Proto-Starship

Speaking of precisely-aligned, one shot missions, we have yet another option for examining these systems. As it turns out, you can go far enough away from our sun to use the gravity of the sun itself as a lens to curve distant light around to a focus – like a gigantic refractor telescope. To do this, one must send the “eyepiece” and camera of this telescope in the exact opposite direction as the star being observed. This could see not only the planets, but continents on the planets over a period of several years. As the probe gets farther from our sun, the magnification of the telescope would increase with the focal length, although the brightness would diminish. Ultimately, the images became too dim to resolve, and the field of view would become too narrow.

I could see one, or possibly several, telescopes sent out in this way to resolve the sun and planets from slightly different fields of view. Aiming straight at the star would give a bright target for the later observations, but would be somewhat useless for seeing the planets, which would always be in transit. It would be good for observing their atmospheres, however. The lateral telescopes could see the planets in crescent and gibbous phases as they went by.

The other beauty of the FOCAL mission is that it builds on our existing ability to send spacecraft beyond Pluto, but does so at a range that is possible with existing technology. Pluto is 40 astronomical units from the sun, or 40 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun. To work, FOCAL must go 550 astronomical units away or greater. So basically, take New Horizons, and give it a nuclear power supply that would still work in 220 years. Obviously, if you have 220 years to build a faster vehicle, you have better options. That said, 550 AU is still 0.009 light years, or less than one-thousandth of one light year. We must walk before we can run. Sending a vehicle one-thousandth of a light year is far easier than sending one four light years to the nearest star, or forty light years to TRAPPIST-1. Building something that can go 550 AU in less than a decade or two would be a key intermediate step before building an actual starship. The reward would be seeing these worlds in some detail, while building the next major set of technologies to building starships themselves. Eventually, a new generation of nuclear or electric engines could drive the FOCAL mission into the icy Oort Cloud. Visiting this space, with its many comets and possible ice worlds of planetary size, is a worthy goal in its own right.

Technology Spin-Offs

Any of these massive telescopes will drive the state of the art in precision manufacturing, optics, and imaging systems. We will see the atmospheres of these worlds in three years. We will develop very advanced telescopes to see many beautiful mysteries of deep space in the decades that follow. And we will benefit from technologies that expand our ability to gather information about nature at every level.

Thank you, TRAPPIST-1. For a star too dim to see with the unaided eye, you will light things up dramatically for our generation and those that follow. If our descendants live peacefully on these worlds ten trillion years from now, we will have bragging rights on being the generation who found them a nice stable home.