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Losing one's marbles in deep space.

Voyager 1’s mixed signals. US subcommittee discusses mission authorization with witnesses. D-Orbit signs two launch service contracts with TelePIX. And more.




NASA’s JPL says Voyager 1 is having trouble with its flight data system. US Subcommittee on Space and Science hears from federal witnesses about mission authorization for all new commercial space activities.  D-Orbit has signed two launch service contracts with South Korean space startup TelePIX, and more.

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T-Minus Guest

Our guest today is African Space Policy Analyst, Ruvimbo Samanga.

You can connect with Ruvimbo on LinkedIn.

Selected Reading

Engineers Working to Resolve Issue With Voyager 1 Computer – The Sun Spot 

Government Promotion of Safety and Innovation in the New Space Economy - U.S. Se…

NASA’s Space Station Laser Comm Terminal Achieves First Link

Amazon to connect Kuiper satellites with laser links to boost space internet network

Air New Zealand partners with Starlink for onboard wifi - Airport Technology

D-Orbit and TelePIX Announce Contracts for the in-orbit testing of Tetraplex

Tomorrow.io and TomorrowNow Supports the President’s Emergency Plan for Adaptation and Resilience in Africa

China’s Space Program in 2023: Taking Stock – The Diplomat

Blue Origin sure seems confident it will launch New Glenn in 2024- Ars Technica

Pathfinder Launch Lessons Learned report- GOV.UK

Massive 'lighthouses' on the moon could light the way for future lunar astronauts- Space

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>> Maria Varmazis: Oh, poor Voyager 1. It has a golden record, and it is very much in its golden years. And it's experiencing what's often thought of as a Golden Year Problem.

>> Lost, lost, lost.

>> Lost what?

>> I've lost my marbles.

>> Maria Varmazis: Maybe it's just a glitch, or maybe it's something more. Either way, NASA's doing its best, and we're here for you Voyager 1, even if we don't quite understand what you're trying to tell us.

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Today is December 14th, 2023. Thanks to the miracle of science that is Paxlovid, I'm Maria Varmazis, and this is T-Minus.

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Voyager sends scrambled messages from deep space. U.S. subcommittee hears from federal witnesses about mission authorization. D-Orbit signs two launch service contracts with South Korean space startup TelePIX. And our guest today is African Space Policy Analyst, Ruvimbo Samanga. Stay with us for that chat.

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Let's take a look at our Intel Briefing for today. You know, we like to talk about the latest in the space industry on this show, but forgive us for starting off with some decently old tech in space terms today, as NASA's JPL posted an update that Voyager 1 is having trouble with its flight data system, which is one of its three on-board computers. Voyager 1 is receiving and executing commands from earth correctly, but it's not giving any useful information back. Just garbage ones and zeroes repeating, kind of like if the needle was stuck in the groove of its own golden record, metaphorically speaking of course there. And a quick refresher, Voyager 1 is a mere 15 billion miles from earth right now, so it will take 22.5 hours for any pokes and prods from us to reach it. And as we've also covered a few times on the show, the programming languages for Voyagers 1 and 2 are pretty old, and not a lot of people still comfortably programming those languages. And you don't want to send unstable code 15 billion miles out either. So, any fix for Voyager 1 will take some time. It wasn't that long ago that we were rooting for Voyager 2, which was on a communications pause due to its antenna pointing a bit too far away from us. Thankfully, it's all better now. So now, it's Voyager 1's turn. Let's hope for a similarly fast recovery for our good old friends in the outer solar system.

We closed out yesterday's briefing acknowledging that the U.S. Subcomittee on Space and Science were holding a hearing titled, "Government Promotion of Safety and Innovation in the New Space Economy." Witnesses for the meeting included NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy, the FAA's Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation, Kelvin Coleman, and the Director for the Office of Space Commerce, Richard Dalbello. The meeting was broadly discussing mission authorization for all new commercial space activities and was a chance for the subcommittee to hear from the government witnesses. The Space Council has suggested that mission authorization stay as is, but that new space activity, such as in-space servicing, should be split between the Department of Transportation and the Department of Commerce. The FAA's Kelvin Coleman pointed out that only a single agency will have oversight of a single activity, and said quote, "There is no situation in which both the Department of Commerce and the Department of Transportation will have joint oversight responsibilities for a single activity," end quote. No decisions were made during the hearing, but there were some interesting questioning rounds which extended beyond the mission authorization decisions. For example, Pam Melroy was asked about NASA's position on whether the learning period under which the FAA cannot create new commercial human space flight regulations should be extended. And we should note, this learning period is due to expire on January 1st. Melroy replied that NASA would prefer not to extend it, because they worry commercial passengers may believe NASA certifies the vehicle as safe, but NASA certifies them only for NASA operations, not for use by private astronauts. She said quote, "We do have concerns about that misunderstanding." We do not expect votes on mission authorization until January at the earliest.

A NASA technology experiment on the International Space Station completed its first laser link with an in-orbit laser relay system, earlier this month. Together, they complete NASA's first two-way, end-to-end, laser relay system. The laser communications relay demonstration known as LCRD and the new space station demonstration, called ILLUMA-T, successfully exchanged data for the first time. ILLUMA-T stands for Integrated LCRD Low Earth Orbit User Modem and Amplifier Terminal. Together they are demonstrating how a user mission, in this case the space station, can benefit from a laser communications relay located in geosynchronous orbit.

And speaking of lasers, Amazon has said that it plans to incorporate laser communication technology into its Project Kuiper satellites. The company says that they have already tested the lasers during their first mission. The Kuiper satellites' optical intersatellite links, known as OISLs, or maybe "weasels," serve as a way to transmit data through space. We should note, this isn't anything that differentiates the satellites from its competitors, as Starlink has similar technology on later generations of their satellites. Now, Amazon says that the Kuiper prototype satellites maintain links that transfer data at 100 gigabits per second, over a distance of over 620 miles between the spacecraft. And we can expect more launches of Amazon's Kuiper satellites in 2024.

Air New Zealand has signed an in-flight connectivity partnership with Starlink. The partnership will allow New Zealand to introduce free internet on-board its domestic aircraft. The first installation is expected late next year, with expansion plans expected in 2025.

Space logistics company D-Orbit has signed two launch service contracts with South Korean space startup, TelePIX. TelePIX will leverage D-Orbit's expertise to launch and test its on-board processor, Tetraplex, in orbit during a mission planned for June 2024. Tetraplex is designed for enhanced on-board processing capabilities, and will undergo in-orbit demonstration, validating its performance and reliability in the space environment.

Earth observation company Tomorrow.io is working with TomorrowNow.org to expand climate early warning systems across Africa. The company says this effort is part of U.S. President Biden's investment of over $50 million to improve the development, delivery, and use of climate information in vulnerable developing countries. The partnership aims to enhance the capability of African nations to monitor, forecast, and proactively adapt to the impact of day-to-day weather, in addition to extreme events, including rainfall, drought, and heat, particularly on a sub-seasonal timescale. Rei Goffer, Co-Founder at Tomorrow.io said in the press release, "Our mission in Africa goes beyond mere weather forecasting. It's about creating a sustainable and resilient environment where communities can leverage weather intelligence to adapt and thrive, despite the challenges posed by climate change." And we will be chatting more about how earth observation can help boost the African economy in our conversation with Ruvimbo Samanga in the second part of this show. So, stay with us for that.

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And that concludes today's briefing. You'll find links to more about all the stories we've mentioned in our Show Notes. Today, we've included a retrospective piece on China's space program, an Ars Technica report on Blue Origin's New Glenn, and the U.K. government's report on lessons learned from their first launch attempt from Spaceport Cornwall in January.

Hey, T-Minus crew, if your business is looking to grow your voice in the industry, expand the reach of your thought leadership, or recruit talent, T-Minus can help. We'd like to hear from you. Just send us an email at space@n2k.com or submit a note through our website, so we can connect about building a program to meet your goals.

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Our guest today is African Space Policy Analyst, Ruvimbo Samanga. And I started off by asking Ruvimbo to walk me through a project that she's been working on that came in third place in the Africa Earth Observation Challenge.

>> Ruvimbo Samanga: Certainly, I'd be happy to. It's by no means a new idea. I think it's been replicated in various forms all across the world, but the idea is to take satellite imagery and give farmers as much information on what they need to plant, how they need to plant, where and especially when they need to plant, so that they can optimize their yields. And we're looking to big data to support decision-making because we realize that first of all, farmers are losing a lot of their resources to adverse climate effects or weather events, and as a result, big data solutions can help them be a little bit more efficient in how they allocate their inputs and of course how they extract the outputs.

The startup in question is called AgriSpace, and it was intended to be a policy innovation. What I mean by a policy innovation is that we're looking to create a startup that can align with an overall national government program. In this case, at the time Zimbabwe was very keen on rebooting the agricultural sector as the former breadbasket of southern Africa. And so, to this end, positioning ourselves as sort of private sector partner in that regard was very important. And the idea again is to allow farmers to tap into a user platform that is user-friendly and gives them this folk tailored resources on how to manage their crops. And what satellites are able to do over time is they're able to monitor crops remotely, at a large scale, and also with embedding of emerging technologies you also get the predictive analysis over time. And as this model trains, you can have more accurate results. And of course, when you proof it with actual scenarios on the ground, then you get a really, highly-trained model that can help large-scale to small-scale farmers alike at [inaudible].

So, that was the whole vision, and of course [inaudible] very much looking towards developing that project. We're very fortunate to be the third-place winners in the Africa Earth Observation Challenge, which is--

>> Maria Varmazis: Congratulations.

>> Ruvimbo Samanga: -a regional challenge -- thank you so much. It was a very wonderful opportunity to grow and to also test our idea, and we're very privileged to receive access to Amazon Web Service Credits as part of our prize offering, and of course on satellite imagery. So, we look forward to what they call in start-up speak, "proofing the concept." So, demonstrating that we can actually build a product that shows information that farmers can act on.

>> Maria Varmazis: That's fascinating. Well again, congratulations and that is -- it is such an important and fascinating project that you're working on. It's an amazing product, and also that real-world impact to me, is -- often when I talk to people about things like data or the problems that it's trying to solve, it can stay very abstract. But this is the most important thing there is in terms of feeding people. And having that impact on people's lives, and not just people who are fed, but also the people who are doing the cultivating, the farmers. What a huge improvement for their lives this can be. It's absolutely amazing. And you had also mentioned something about policy, and I'm wondering how governmental policy could potentially be a force multiplier for good in this case. And I know, across the African continent there are a number of space agencies, either already in existence or sort of starting up, and I'm wondering -- thoughts on maybe what the interest has been, or how those different agencies with their many different -- I'm sure different things that they're trying to achieve, but what they could do to help projects like yours kind of get off the ground?

>> Ruvimbo Samanga: I really love this question as a policy analyst at heart. I will start by saying that I think there are about only nine or so countries in Africa that have national space policies, which in the grand scheme of the 20 or so space agencies that are currently operating, is a little bit unfortunate because we look to regulations as sort of the foundation of all space activity. And we gleaned this actually from the Outer Space Treaty which is sort of the Magna Carta of outer space. And specifically in Article 6 of that treaty, it gives governments the obligation of creating national laws that promote an ecosystem for development. So, the ecosystem certainly needs government to create regulations that enable the doing of business. So, when we speak regulatory capacity building for big data applications, it's actually quite multi-disciplinary and I always want to encourage legal practitioners and policy practitioners as well to think from a multi-disciplinary point of view of what could be the possible needs for doing business in a big data scenario. We have everything of course from the traditional trade and investment, or commercial law implications, what can you have in terms of certainty or ensuring your patent or your product cannot be replicated by someone else, some way. So, you need your intellectual property laws to be quite robust.

For the end users, how can you ensure that these different stakeholders can protect and use your data in a responsible way so that data and privacy and security are very big contentious issues, especially in Africa where the storage of data and the dissemination of data is quite tricky where local institutions are not in control of these intermediary platforms for data. For instance, the cloud platforms where this data is stored.

We would also have here the treaties or the laws surrounding international cooperation. A very big topic right now in Africa is capabilities building, which is the ability to not only have the potential to do something, but have the resources to do so independently of the provider. So, to that extent, are you able to actually demonstrate the capacity without a third hand supporting that process? And that's where Africa is trying to sort of move towards now, which is not just demonstrating an interest in space, but can we independently operate in space is why for this we need mutually reciprocal agreements, especially in the capability building and infrastructure development front. And we find that in the past, this has not necessarily been a very smooth track record for Africa, and that has been a pain point, but I do see a lot more understanding from the global community on the need to create that homegrown African solution.

>> Maria Varmazis: I think it makes a lot of sense, honestly. And this is a sort of -- a very random question, but I was interviewing someone last week about the African continental free-trade area. I don't know if that's even relevant, but would that even be something helpful in that -- in growing the homegrown space capabilities? Is that--?

>> Ruvimbo Samanga: Indeed. I believe it would be absolutely relevant. The Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement is the largest trade agreement since the WTO came into existence. And if it's fully implemented, it has the capabilities to lead at least 30 million Africans out of poverty, and to create a GDP of at least 1 trillion United States dollars, and as well, what essentially it wants to do is to unify the continent through free movement of goods, services, people, and of course the necessary skills in different trade areas. And the space industry is a viable trade industry like any other, such as health, agriculture, etcetera. So, what would the free movement of space personnel, free movement of space products and services look like? And this is where we see some very intricate scenarios coming up, especially on the geopolitical front. We know that this will affect who Africa partners with, given the different trade restrictions we see in jurisdictions. And also, the trade opportunities. So, if you see from current industry examples, there are some trends that we're starting to see, especially in terms of trade, whereby African countries are sort of favoring the trade opportunities that have not only dual capabilities of supporting multiple industry or industry goals, but also those that are economically beneficial.

So, for instance, China's Belt and Road Initiative has been quite prosperous on the continent, or these bilateral investment treaties where we see space development being tied to another area of infrastructural development. Again, also research collaborations are quite popular on the continent. I see that the Artemis Accords and the International Lunar Research Station are having sort of balanced adoption. I think it's about three countries that have so far joined the ILRS. Egypt joined just recently and apologies, I think it's two countries on ILRS and three countries with the Artemis Accords. So again, we are seeing that space, at least for Africa, is really a socio-economic or sustainable development goal, or at least a tool to achieving those goals. So, we have [inaudible] also of come in as a way of I think firstly unifying the region so that Africa can have more of a stronger voice in global discourse and a stronger voice when negotiating with international partners.

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>> Maria Varmazis: We'll be right back. Welcome back. We're coming close to the winter solstice, and up here in the northern hemisphere, the days are awfully short, and the nights are oh, so very long. Maybe because I'm still dealing with a bout of COVID right now, they feel a lot longer. But a long winters night here on earth is just peanuts to the average night on the moon, which is around 14 earth days. Those 14 earth days of near continuous darkness, not a smidge of sunlight to be eked, are kind of problem if you're generating power from sunlight for any future tech that might be installed on the moon. To say nothing of being able to see if you are a human roving around the lunar south pole.

Well, what did we use to build along our treacherous seashores when we needed to help others see their way around? Yes, a lighthouse of course. And a research team at Honeybee Robotics has come up with a lunar lighthouse concept that's much more high-tech than what you might be imagining. So, no whale oil lamps and Fresnel lenses here. Honeybee's proposed LUNARSABER Tower is a bit more of a telephone pole, I guess? Albeit it a very, very tall one. Like 100 meters tall, or 330 feet, or potentially even taller. And just for reference, the Statue of Liberty is 305 feet tall. So, these would be some very big structures. Something that high, placed on the right spot at the lunar south pole, like on the top of a mountain, or a tall crater rim, and those panels could get continuous sun access, even during lunar night. And the idea is that gimbaled lights from these towers could direct illumination to the terrain below for explorers, and the towers could also receive communications, position navigating and timing information, power transfers, and even surveillance to help keep a growing lunar infrastructure running and communicating with each other. Well, it's a pretty interesting idea, though maybe not nearly as romantic as traditional lighthouses. Perhaps if this concept ever comes to light, ha-ha, we can convince them to paint some nice stripes. You know, for old times sake.

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That's it for T-Minus for December 14th, 2023. For additional resources from today's report, check out our Show Notes at space.n2k.com. We're privileged that N2K and podcasts like T-Minus are part of the daily routine of many of the most influential leaders and operators in the public and private sector. From the Fortune 500 to many of the world's preeminent intelligence and law enforcement agencies. This episode was produced by Alice Caruth, mixing by Elliott Peltzman and Trey Hester, with original music and sound design by Elliott Peltzman. Our Executive Producer is Jen Eiben. Our VP is Brandon Karpf. And I'm Maria Varmazis. Thanks for listening. We'll see you tomorrow.

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