Feature

The Coming Revolution in Orbit

How space went from a superpowers-only club to a DIY playground.

Last November, a rocket built from a decommissioned U.S. intercontinental ballistic missile lifted off from Wallops Island, Virginia, carrying not nuclear warheads headed for the Soviet Union, but rather 29 small satellites bound for orbit. Among them was the TJ3Sat, built by students at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in nearby Fairfax County.

The satellite is relatively rudimentary, as such things go. It is not much bigger than a can of soup and weighs only a couple of pounds. Its main purpose is to convert students' text messages into speech and broadcast them over amateur-radio bands -- a demonstration project, much like the Soviet Sputnik, the world's first orbital satellite, which broadcast beeps.

Thomas Jefferson is a selective, science-oriented school in a highly educated county, and the satellite project was largely funded by established space companies, which also provided some technical know-how. In other words, if any kids were going to launch a satellite, the students at TJ were precisely the ones you would expect to do it -- and they had help. Still, they accomplished what 30 years ago would have required the resources of a major nation-state or a Fortune 500 company.

Until recently, orbital space was an exclusive club. The Soviet Union and Russia, the United States, certain European nations, Japan, and China were the only builders of large satellites, and they controlled the only rockets capable of actually putting a heavy payload into orbit. Everyone else who wanted to send a package (or a person) whizzing around the planet had to deal with them.

But the club's membership is expanding. In the past three years, Bolivia, Hungary, Belarus, and Lithuania -- countries not known for their technological prowess, let alone their space-faring experience -- have placed their first satellites in orbit, as have dozens of obscure universities, scientific research institutions, and start-up companies. TJ3Sat was the first high school–built satellite, but it will certainly not be the last.

Spaceflight is enormously expensive, and the single most costly component of operating a satellite is getting it into orbit in the first place. The upfront financial costs of designing, building, and testing a rocket run well into the billions or even tens of billions of dollars. International Launch Services, a U.S. subsidiary of the Russian company that builds Proton rockets, charges around $100 million to launch a single large satellite, according to industry clearinghouse Seradata. The highly reliable Ariane 5, sold by French company Arianespace and launched from French Guiana, will run you about $210 million per launch. All told, the cheapest launch options cost around $5,000 per pound of payload.

It is a commonly held view in the space industry that once prices break $1,000 per pound, the market will grow exponentially, ushering in an orbital revolution. Twenty years ago that threshold was a fever dream, but one company is set to run up against it as soon as this year. The result could be nothing less than the democratization of access to space -- and a boon for the students, scientists, companies, and governments that have grand plans for the final frontier.

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THE ORBITAL REVOLUTION IS BEING DRIVEN FIRST AND FOREMOST BY THE fact that satellites are getting smaller, cheaper, and ever more capable. The miniaturization of electronics has led to new markets of small satellites with better capabilities -- variously called microsats, nanosats, picosats, and the like. "A lot of the growth we're seeing in small satellites is in the 10-kilogram range," says Jeff Foust, a senior analyst with Futron, a prominent space analysis firm. "A lot of developments out of universities can weigh as little as 1 kilogram, as opposed to the 100-kilogram microsatellites that constituted most of the small-satellite market a few years ago."

This shift is partly the result of space technology finally catching up with the electronics revolution. Because of the enormous costs of building and launching satellites, the space industry puts payloads through stringent testing to ensure they can withstand the forces of launch, the vacuum and radiation of space, and limited Earth-based troubleshooting options. Nobody wants to explain why their multimillion-dollar satellite keeps rebooting. So, advances on Earth can take years to percolate into the heavens. But now that more tech has been proved spaceworthy -- several successful test satellites, in fact, have been built from the guts of smartphones -- institutions are free to use ever-smaller off-the-shelf components. That makes satellites cheaper to build, and their smaller size makes them cheaper to launch.

So inexpensive is the latest generation of small sats -- starting around $30,000 in materials, by Foust's estimate -- that new funding options have become possible. A handful of crowd-
funded satellites have been launched to monitor atmospheric conditions, and a satellite to spot asteroids is on the way. And though these cheaper satellites are less robust and have shorter life spans than their larger predecessors, they are also easier to replace: "The small satellites are more technically capable and less expensive," says Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president of satellite and spacecraft builder Sierra Nevada Corp., "and as launch costs come down, it may be better to continually upgrade them than to build a large satellite that lasts 20 years but which can't be upgraded and whose technology becomes increasingly obsolete soon after they launch."

Launch costs do remain a major stumbling block, but here, too, changes in the industry favor the proliferation of satellite capabilities.

Competition is emerging in the launch market, both in the United States and abroad. After decades of having rockets built to government standards for government roles, in 2006 NASA announced a new public-private partnership, called Commercial Orbital Transportation Services. The government needed to replace the Space Shuttle fleet, which would be retired in 2011 and was the only set of vehicles the United States had to fly cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). Rather than defining precise specifications for each part and contracting to build them, NASA allowed companies to come up with their own designs -- and paid them as they passed various milestones. "We wanted to do an experiment," explains Scott Pace, a George Washington University professor who was then an associate administrator at NASA. "It was somewhat unique for the space business, but not terribly unique in other areas like aviation or railroads. The government goes in and says, we're going to help support development of a capability and then be a customer of that capability."

The result was two brand-new launch vehicles produced by private-sector firms and backed by a mixture of government and corporate funds: SpaceX's Falcon 9 and Orbital Sciences' Antares, both of which have successfully launched custom-built capsules to deliver cargo to the ISS. New rockets are rare enough, but the funding mechanism was a spaceflight first. The two companies have already contracted with the U.S. government for 20 resupply flights to the ISS, and more are likely. The same public-private approach is being used to develop reusable spacecraft to ferry American astronauts to the station, with SpaceX, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada all competing for the job. (Currently, the astronauts ride up in Soyuz rocket capsules at a cost of $50 million per seat, payable to the Russian government.)

What separates these new launch vehicles from earlier iterations is that they may prove commercially viable, irrespective of government contracts. For the advertised price of $56 million, far less than its nearest competitor, the Falcon 9 has garnered robust demand from the commercial sector, with eight launches to date and a backlog of around 35, many from telecommunications companies. And this year or next, SpaceX is supposed to conduct its first launch of the Falcon Heavy, which, if successful, would be capable of launching 53 metric tons, by far the most powerful rocket available on the market. SpaceX plans to charge $135 million for a launch, meaning it will nearly break the $1,000-per-pound threshold that experts believe may radically shift the industry. Even more exciting is that the company is on a quest for the holy grail of spaceflight: a fully reusable launch system that could reduce costs further because its propulsion system would not be destroyed in the process of reaching orbit.

Costs may also drop as launch firms make better use of existing capabilities. Building a new rocket or satellite is difficult, but then economies of scale kick in and drive down marginal costs. The most capable rocket flying today, United Launch Alliance's Delta IV Heavy, is essentially three regular Delta IVs bolted together. And the U.S. government has agreed to buy the cores in bulk rather than individually. SpaceX's Falcon 9 is so inexpensive partly because it uses nine smaller rocket engines on the first stage instead of one big one. The Falcon Heavy will use three cores for a total of 27 such engines.

Competition is heating up outside the United States as well. Notably, new medium-sized launch vehicles are available from Europe and Japan (Vega and Epsilon, respectively), and India has declared it will make its new heavy rocket, the GSLV, available for purchase, building on the commercial success of the smaller PSLV, which has launched several European government and commercial-imaging satellites. China, with an ambitiously large space program, continues to offer its Long March rockets commercially, with new variants in the works. Soon, the French will introduce an improved version of the Ariane 5 and its eventual replacement, the Ariane 6. Russia's Proton will be replaced by the more capable Angara. Brazil and Indonesia, among others, have expressed serious interest in new launch sites and rockets, which would introduce yet more players to the market.

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Watch: Orbital Science's successful Nov. 2013 launch of a Minotaur 1 rocket

THE USE OF SATELLITES IS UBIQUITOUS IN MODERN LIFE, FROM GPS TO radio (yes, radio: If you listened to NPR this morning, chances are the signal from the recording station was bounced to the local affiliate off a satellite). The result is a $300 billion industry, of which three-quarters is commercial, though often the line between government and commercial is blurry, given the strategic import of capabilities like global positioning. According to a database curated by the Union of Concerned Scientists, nearly 1,100 active satellites are in orbit. That number is set to double by 2022, based on programs that have already been announced, according to Euroconsult, a major satellite-market consultancy, and the number will doubtless grow further as new programs take shape.

The boom in small-sat capabilities is already democratizing access to space, allowing increasing numbers of educators and scientists to take advantage of orbit. Small satellites that were launched in 2013 alone included a Canadian telescope to detect near-Earth objects like asteroids, a Peruvian sensor to gather data on Earth's atmosphere for radio astronomers, a Russian sensor to take geomagnetic readings -- the list goes on. These experiments simply wouldn't have been possible just a few years ago because of the prohibitive cost.

Government interest in new satellites is intense as well: Russia, China, India, and Europe are all building and maintaining their own navigation constellations so that they won't have to rely on GPS, which is run by the U.S. military. Several countries have launched Automatic Identification System satellites to track ships, for both national security and safety reasons. The Indian Navy launched its own dedicated satellite in 2013 that allows high-bandwidth, secure communications exceeding the range and data limits of its previous system. Even the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office and the Department of Defense, which have long had enormous, multibillion-dollar satellites, are taking advantage of the revolution in space access. Their need to gather and transmit data so outweighs even their significant capabilities that they have launched dozens of small sats to test and improve communications, early warning, and imaging.

Cheaper space data will also generate entirely new categories of consumers. Local agribusinesses (and even individual farmers) deciding what to plant could order up bespoke soil-moisture measurements. Small shippers could receive regular traffic updates and road-closure information, which are currently difficult to obtain reliably outside major metro areas. Inexpensive small sats could dramatically expand real-time monitoring capabilities -- enormously useful for emergency responders fighting a forest fire or gauging the impact of an earthquake. Human rights organizations, through initiatives like the Satellite Sentinel Project, could chart violence in Sudan on a daily basis. News organizations could track a distant oil spill as it happened, obviating reliance on government and corporate sources.

And there are possibilities that have yet to be imagined. After all, personal computers and inexpensive cell phones not only opened new markets for old capabilities, but they also generated demand for entirely new products. "It might just be a hobby or something that doesn't turn out to work very well, but it might turn out to be a precursor to something people haven't thought of yet," says Foust. "If you give that technology out and make it more accessible, people start doing all sorts of things, many of which never take off, but which may end up being the next Google or Instagram."

However remarkable some of its accomplishments, space flight has been dominated by risk aversion for much of the last half-century. Space is a radically demanding and unforgiving environment, and the costs of venturing into it were so high and the consequences of failure were so great that few had the means or the interest. That is all about to change.  

Image: Illustration by 5W Infographics for FP; Background photo: European Space Agency

Feature

Longform's Picks of the Week

The best stories from around the world.

Every weekend, Longform highlights its favorite international articles of the week. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform's new app and read all of the latest in-depth stories from dozens of magazines, including Foreign Policy.

 

Spies, Lies, and Rape in the Air Force: An Undercover Agent's Story, by Jacob Siegel, the Daily Beast

Jane Neubauer claims she was raped on duty. The Air Force isn't so sure.

Officially, the Air Force is not disputing Neubauer's account. But "she is under investigation" for falsifying the report of her sexual assault, Air Force spokesman Lt. Col. Allen Herritage says. Neubauer, for her part, says that since the rape OSI has placed her under constant investigation for unspecified crimes, and has repeatedly threatened that she could be court martialed.

In a Feb. 26 interview with The Daily Beast, Col. Humberto Morales, vice commander of OSI, confirmed that Neubauer had worked as an informant for OSI and that she was currently under investigation. On Feb. 27, Air Force Public Affairs stated that OSI gave Neubauer a verbal order to cease her work as an informant on July 25, 2013, the day before she says that she was raped while working undercover. It was the first time anyone from the Air Force had claimed that Neubauer was dropped from the informant program.

 

The Military is Leaving the Missing Behind, by Megan McCloskey, ProPublica

There are 45,000 service members missing in action from WWII. Last year, the U.S. brought home 60 of them.

The Pentagon spends about $100 million a year to find men like Bud, following the ethos of "leave no man behind." Yet it solves surprisingly few cases, hobbled by overlapping bureaucracy and a stubborn refusal to seize the full potential of modern forensic science. Last year, the military identified just 60 service members out of the about 83,000 Americans missing from World War II, Korea and Vietnam, around 45,000 of whom are considered recoverable.

At the center of the military's effort is a little-known agency, the Joint Prisoners of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command, or J-PAC, and its longtime scientific director, Tom Holland. He alone assesses whether the evidence J-PAC has assembled is sufficient to identify a set of remains: A body goes home only if he signs off.

 

The Face Behind Bitcoin, by Leah McGrath Goodman, Newsweek

Meet the man alleged to be the founder of the infamous cryptocurrency. 

But a two-month investigation and interviews with those closest to Nakamoto and the developers who worked most frequently with him on the out-of-nowhere global phenomenon that is Bitcoin reveal the myths surrounding the world's most famous crypto-currency are largely just that -- myths -- and the facts are much stranger than the well-established fiction.

Far from leading to a Tokyo-based whiz kid using the name "Satoshi Nakamoto" as a cipher or pseudonym (a story repeated by everyone from Bitcoin's rabid fans to The New Yorker), the trail followed by Newsweek led to a 64-year-old Japanese-American man whose name really is Satoshi Nakamoto. He is someone with a penchant for collecting model trains and a career shrouded in secrecy, having done classified work for major corporations and the U.S. military.

Standing before me, eyes downcast, appeared to be the father of Bitcoin.

Not even his family knew.

 

The Indian Sanitary Pad Revolutionary, by Vibeke Vinema, BBC

A school dropout from a poor family in southern India has revolutionized menstrual health for rural women in developing countries.

"It all started with my wife," he says. In 1998 he was newly married and his world revolved around his wife, Shanthi, and his widowed mother. One day he saw Shanthi was hiding something from him. He was shocked to discover what it was - rags, "nasty cloths" which she used during menstruation.

"I will be honest," says Muruganantham. "I would not even use it to clean my scooter." When he asked her why she didn't use sanitary pads, she pointed out that if she bought them for the women in the family, she wouldn't be able to afford to buy milk or run the household.

Wanting to impress his young wife, Muruganantham went into town to buy her a sanitary pad. It was handed to him hurriedly, as if it were contraband. He weighed it in his hand and wondered why 10g (less than 0.5oz) of cotton, which at the time cost 10 paise (£0.001), should sell for 4 rupees (£0.04) - 40 times the price. He decided he could make them cheaper himself.

 

Unarmed and Dangerous, by Lauren Wolfe, Foreign Policy

With civilian rape on the rise, the war on Congo's women comes painfully, pervasively home.

Sjögren, who estimates that maybe just 2 percent of women report rape in Congo, said the country's ongoing war is being used as something of an excuse at this point -- a way of gesturing toward an end to the epidemic of violence against women without recognizing how deep its roots run. "It's easier to say the conflict has big shoulders almost because, if you blame it on the conflict, then it helps makes it look erratic: 'If we have peace, we have no more sexualized violence,'" Sjögren said.

Other experts agree that the "weapon of war" frame is obscuring what is truly going on, and that there has been little deep analysis about what causes unrelenting violence against women. In reality, the idea that sexualized violence is somehow acceptable -- or at least to be expected -- has become deeply embedded in the national psyche. "There are many people that could say, 'Yeah sexualized violence is being committed by armed groups or the Rwandans.' But there is a lot of sexualized violence by Congolese against Congolese," said Alejandro Sanchez of the Sexual Violence Unit of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in Congo (known as MONUSCO).