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A matter of mini space debris.

IARPA launches an initiative to track space debris. NOIRLabs halts observations after cyberattack. UK Space Agency to fund Earth Observation tech. And more.





The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) launches an initiative to track space debris. All observations are suspended at NSF's National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory (NOIRLab) after a cyberattack. The UK Space Agency has announced a new initiative to fund Earth Observation technologies, and more.

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T-Minus Guest

Our guest today is Jack Cohen, Program and Mission Manager at Astro Digital. 

You can connect with Jack on LinkedIn and learn more about AstroDigital on their website.

Selected Reading


Attempted Cyber Attack on NSF’s NOIRLab- NOIRLab

UK Space Agency funding for technologies to monitor the Earth- UK Gov

National Risk Register 2023- UK Gov

Scientists reveal blueprint of China's lunar water-ice probe mission- CGTN

China launches new meteorological satellite- CGTN

iRocket Signs Development Agreement with AFRL to Use High Thrust Facility- Via Satellite

Navy safely recovers mock space capsule off San Diego in big step toward sending humans to the moon- The San Diego Union Tribune

U.S. Space & Rocket Center to break ground on newly renovated ‘rocket park’- WHNT

Space Coast Economic Development Commission Announces Spaceport Commerce Park Selected for FPL’s Florida First Sites  Program- Space Coast Daily

New Facility Aims to Propel U.S. Hypersonics Research- National Defense Magazine

Bruised Earth uncovered by new mapping product- Space-Intelligence

James Webb Telescope Spots 'Question Mark' In Space- the Weather Channel

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>> Maria Varmazis: You know, as long as humans have been exploring space, we've also been creating a bit of a mess. Orbiting our planet are thousands of dead satellites, along with bits of debris from all the rockets we've launched over the years. But who's tracking all the many pieces of junk up there? Well, this month marks the beginning of SINTRA, a four-year program to start tracking space debris that has been both flying over and under the space debris radar, objects that are not too big and not too small but just enough to cause the biggest of problems in low Earth orbit.

>> Unidentified Person: T-Minus 20 seconds to LOA. Go for the floor.

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>> Maria Varmazis: Today is August 3, 2023. I'm Maria Varmazis, and this is T-Minus. IARPA launches an initiative to track space debris. NOIRLabs halts observations after a cyberattack. UK Space Agency to fund Earth observation tech. And our guest today is friend of the show Jack Cohen, Program and Mission Manager at Astro Digital. Stay with us.

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And now let's take a look at today's intel briefing. Today kicks off and encouraging new enterprise to address an existential problem that worries a lot of space watchers, space debris. There are ongoing efforts to track abandoned spacecraft and a mosaic of efforts to track space trash floating in orbit at various sizes. But current efforts can miss large swathes of space debris. For example, right now NASA is leading efforts to model but not track tiny debris, less than a millimeter in size. And the Department of Defense tracks large debris over 10 centimeters in size. So that leaves debris including and between the tiny 1 millimeter and a large 10 centimeters in size as kind of an unknown. The US National Science and Technology Council wrote in a 2021 report that 100 million debris objects over one millimeter in size are estimated to be in orbit over Earth right now, but only about 1 percent of that debris is being tracked. And it's the bits in that Goldilocks 1-millimeter to 10-centimeter small size range that can pose the largest risk to missions in low Earth orbit. So last month IARPA, or the intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, announced the creation of SINTRA, the Space Debris Identification and Tracking Program to go beyond modeling and specifically to detect, track, and characterize all that small, not tiny or large but 1-millimeter to 10-centimeters small space debris. And SINTRA kicked off officially now at the beginning of this month, starting what's anticipated to be a - program. SINTRA will be using existing sensor infrastructure, including ground-based radar, optical sensors, and tracking satellites to do their work. The four prime contractors working on SINTRA are A-Tech, Advanced Space, SRI International, and West Virginia University Research Corporation. And the test and evaluation team for SINTRA are MIT Lincoln Labs, Naval Research Laboratory, Los Alamos National Labs, and Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Labs. We're learning today about a cyberattack that happened on Tuesday August 1 at NSF's National Optical Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory, or NOIRLab. It's the US Center For Ground Based Optical Infrared Astronomy. That's a joint effort between the US, Canada, Chile, Brazil, Argentina, and South Korea. And because of the cyberattack, all observations had to be suspended at the Gemini North Observatory in Hawaii. While the NOIRLab IT security team work out the depth of the attempted attack on their system, all Gemini Observatory computer systems have been completely shut down to prevent possible damages. This includes not only the connected computer systems but also both of the Gemini telescopes, the North in Hawaii and the South in Chile. Now, thankfully, at the time of the attack, both North and South telescopes were already not in use. Possibly we have the full moon to thank for that timing. But the telescopes were safely stowed or shut down when the attack occurred, and both South and North telescopes will continue to be closed down while the investigation continues. The Gemini website and proposal tools are also offline for the time being. According to the NSF press release about this incident, thanks to fast action taken by the NOIRLab IT security teams, there does not appear to be any damage to any of the observatory computer systems or telescopes. Details are admittedly scant on the nature of the cyberattack right now, so we can't and shouldn't conjecture if this attack was random or targeted. But it's a good reminder for observatories and research centers of all kinds to stay vigilant to potentially systems disabling cyberattacks like this. You might remember that Atacama Large Millimeter Array, or ALMA, in Chile was also hit with a cyberattack last October that forced operations to shut down for almost a month. NOIRLab is doing an investigation into the nature of the security incident. So, when there is information to share from NOIRLab about the nature of the attack, we'll be sure to share it with you. There is no ETA at this time for when the observatory will come back online. The UK Space Agency has announced a new initiative to fund Earth observation technologies. The agency is committing 15 million pounds, and that's $19.1 million for those of us on this side of the pond, to support the research and experimental development of space-based instruments aimed at supporting a range of environmental services. The Earth observation technology program funding is delivered by the Center for Earth Observation Instrumentation and as part of a 400 million pound, or $511.8 million package announced in November of last year to support the UK's Earth observation sector. The funding will cover Pathfinder projects of up to 75,000 pounds, fast track projects of up to 250,000 pounds, and flagship projects of up to 3 million pounds. And staying with the UK, the government has published a National Risk Register. And that's an annual assessment of the most serious risks facing the nation. And a number of the risks identified are in the space domain. The risks include disruption of space-based services; loss of positioning, navigation, and timing; severe space weather; and deliberate disruption of sovereign space systems and space-based services. The UK Space Agency says that space-based tech is increasingly important to everyday lives; and, therefore, protecting it is vital to the nation's security and prosperity. The report also warns that the cost of a potential disruption to global navigation satellite systems has been estimated to be over 1 billion US dollars per day. Moving over to China now and researchers from the National Space Science Center under the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the China Lunar Exploration and Space Engineering Center of the China National Space Administration have released a paper on the country's lunar probe Chang'e 7. The paper details how the vehicle, which is supported by a hopping detector, will look for water ice in the shadow pit near the coveted lunar South Pole. The vehicle will carry a water molecular analyzer on a mini flying probe to obtain water molecules in the frost layer on the lunar surface. China plans to launch the Chang'a-6 to land on the moon next year to collect samples from the far side of the moon before sending the Chang'e-7 probe in 2026 to investigate resources at the South Pole. And China also held a launch earlier today of its Long March-4C carrier rocket. The vehicle launched a Fengyun-3 06 meteorological satellite into orbit. Today's launch is the 481st flight mission of the Long March carrier rocket series. That is impressive. Moving back to the US now and Innovative Rocket Technologies Incorporated, also known as iRocket, has signed a cooperative research agreement with the Air Force Research Lab to allow the startup space launch company to use a government facility to test and mature its technology for reusable rockets. iRocket expects to use the facility located at Edwards Air Force Base to develop engines and stage technology for the company's fully reusable shockwave launch vehicle. Test Site 156 is one of only four stands in the entire United States capable of 10 million pounds of thrust. That is some power. The US Navy, Air Force, and NASA have held a joint exercise to simulate capsule recovery off the coast of San Diego. The drills were held as a critical dress rehearsal for Artemis-II, the first human lunar mission in over 60 years. A mockup of the new Artemis' Orion spacecraft was repeatedly placed in the ocean by a transport dock ship, which then filled the capsule with four officers and sailors from the Naval Air Station North Island. The capsule was safely extracted and transferred back to the ship by helicopter, and Orion was guided back by boat crews. The four astronauts assigned to the Artemis-II mission, Christina Hammock Koch, Reid Wiseman, Victor Glover, and Jeremy Hansen will travel to San Diego next spring and participate in splashdown recovery drills with the Navy ahead of their mission to the moon. In-space logistics provider Atomos Space and solar energy company Celestial Incorporated have announced a multi-mission sales agreement for a minimum of 20 kilowatts of Celestial's ultra-thin, low-mass radiation-hardened solar blankets. Celestial's photovoltaic system will be demonstrated on Atomos' first mission scheduled for February of next year. If successful, the technology will provide primary power for Atomos' solar electric orbital transfer vehicles on two subsequent commercial missions, beginning in late 2024. Now, that is super cool technology. I can't help but wonder if they're going to develop solar blankets for houses because I would definitely want that. And that concludes our intel briefing for today.

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As always, we've included links to all of our stories for today in our show notes. We've also included a few stories that we didn't get to in our news read, including developments in Florida at the Spaceport Commerce Park in Titusville; and a new park groundbreaking in Huntsville, Alabama. You can find those stories and a lot more at space.n2k.com. 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 send us a note through our website so we can connect about building a program to meet your goals. Our guest today is Jack Cohen, Program and Mission Manager at Astro Digital. Now, Jack's a friend of the show who joined me for a catch-up chat on the latest at Astro Digital and also to get his view on the anomalies that affected some of the missions on the Transporter-8 rideshare.

>> Jack Cohen: It is not uncommon for there to be anomalies, especially during the leop [phonetic] portion of the mission. It's unfortunate that these happen. And everyone is so invested, and a lot of the times these transformations are the first vehicle for an organization to launch. So it can definitely be heartbreaking every time that we see anomalies happen. And everyone hopes that first contact here, you're getting good signal and immediately seeing that the spacecraft is in Sun track or whatever, kind of nominal mode that shows everything's working. But, of course, it doesn't always go that way. And the best thing to look for in that is kind of, if there's a path forward, if you can do more with the vehicle, or recover fully and do the mission from there. It's not uncommon. It's unfortunate, but it's the reason that a lot of people do these technology demonstration missions. And those are, at the end of the day, actually quite a bit of cost savings because, if folks spent all of their budget on the full mission and really didn't have the opportunity to learn, they might be in a much worse state and not have the ability to recover, whether it's from the technical point of view or the business side of things.

>> Maria Varmazis: Let's shift over a bit into -- we're sort of on orbit right now, so let's stay on orbit for a moment. So I know that you wanted to talk a little bit about some of the on-orbit services that -- maybe I'm phrasing this wrong -- that Astro Digital offers. Can you get a little bit of detail on that.

>> Jack Cohen: Well, Astro Digital doesn't necessarily directly offer in-orbit services in terms of, like, satellite docking or sat-to-sat servicing. What Astro Digital does offer is we can operate the spacecraft that we manufacture for our customers. And, with that, we can bring all of the talents, the knowledge, the technical teams from engineering that worked on building the spacecraft that then can support our Ops group. And that -- having that full team has been really helpful, especially when things aren't going right. Anytime that there's an anomaly, having the ability to have the full team that was there from the start of the design effort for this program. So one of the cool parts about being part of Astro Digital Satellite Operations Group, or SAT Ops, is that we get to operate a very diverse group of spacecraft. I don't know if it's fortunate or unfortunate that we don't just have a giant constellation of 100 of the same spacecraft. We have quite -- quite the opposite. So, while we do support constellations, we also support a bunch of very unique programs. And being able to be a part of that means that no day is going to be the same. It's definitely not boring. So with each mission comes its own kind of list of complexities. Whether it's a an OTB mission where you're trying to get to a specific orbit, by utilizing a SpaceX transporter launch, you can go up relatively low cost. But you're going to SSO when you're going somewhere between 500 and 550 kilometers. So, if you need to go anywhere else, especially if it's a mid inclination destination that you're looking for, there's quite the effort to get there. And so we've -- we've had the ability to show some pretty powerful bi-prop capabilities with our spacecraft and did some pretty complex maneuvers. Yeah. We've done everything from that to small constellation of Earth imaging spacecraft. So those have a completely different concept of operations. And being able to have operators swap between those two missions but be able to support them is very important. We've also been able to support customer payloads that do weather monitoring most recently. We've had two different spacecraft launch as part of that. Will be very exciting to see once we're past the commissioning phase what those spacecraft are capable of. And then, yeah. And then we're still doing a number of different technology demonstration missions, including then the actual in-orbit servicing vehicles. And that's been really cool to be part of these demo missions because you get to see a company bring something to life for the first time and bring something to market.

>> Maria Varmazis: Yeah. Absolutely. That -- I mean, that is such a cool part of the job, I imagine, just seeing that cutting edge that -- right there as it's happening. I'm going to switch gears completely. We also wanted to talk about ground station. My first question is, why doesn't it get the love that it should, given that it is an important part of the whole system, right?

>> Jack Cohen: The first time you ever get to lay hands or see eyes on space hardware, all the attention goes to that because it's cool. It's shiny. It's new. It's unique. It's definitely unlike anything that we have terrestrially. So I think that -- all the effort goes into designing that and making that happen, like making that spacecraft come to life and be real. But in the background are typically one or two people that are eventually going to have to operate it saying, Hey, how are we going to communicate with it?

>> Maria Varmazis: Kind of important.

>> Jack Cohen: I think that's a reason why people are aren't necessarily looking at it as early as they should be. And the timeline is really just the -- the only constraint timeline wise is a result of the regulatory hurdle of having landing rights and transmit rights from each ground station. And we have ground stations all over the world. And Astro Digital partners with RBC Signals, Leaf Space, KSAT, AWS Ground Stations. We're still in talks with several others that we're hopefully going to onboard. The interesting thing is that each one of those locate -- each one of those providers has stations worldwide. And each one of those stations is at a different place that requires a different regulatory process, given that nation that's hosting it.

>> Maria Varmazis: Of course. Yeah. So what kind of timelines are we looking at then?

>> Jack Cohen: It could be as little as zero. Like, there are certain locations that you can start operating immediately. However, there are other stations in other parts of the world that take more than a year to potentially two years to license. And so, if you're not thinking about that super early in the mission, and for a lot of people, the entire mission, like, to -- from concept to contract, ATPs to launch is less than that. So it really -- there are a couple of regulatory hurdles when it comes to the ground segment that need to be thought very early on in the mission.

>> Maria Varmazis: I'd say two years lead time. My goodness. That's a lot.

>> Jack Cohen: Yeah. Having so many different network providers, we benefit from being able to have good relationships with them and being able to onboard new spacecraft for upcoming launches. It's gotten to be very just streamlined. And so we're able to save money on the regulatory side by licensing a group of spacecraft instead of individual spacecraft. And then we're able to do a Costco discount or a wholesale discount on passes. So, by being able to operate so many different spacecraft for several different customers, all of those customers are able to benefit from lower prices than they would get if they went directly to those providers.

>> Maria Varmazis: So given the lead times involved in the regulatory hurdles, I imagine that you and your company have dealt with, as I said, as you mentioned, the sort of bulk -- discount's not right word but the negotiation there. But I'm curious what kind of best practices that you have to take pass on to customers or anyone listening who might be going, Oh, yeah. I do need to deal with that and maybe haven't gotten in front of that as quickly as I should have. What are some best practices for them?

>> Jack Cohen: My recommendation and what we've started doing Astro Digital in the last year or two has been to bring in more of the satellite operations folks pretty much at the critical design review point where everything has been discussed in terms of this huge mission being so unique. Everyone needs to understand, hey. If this con op requires an image to be downloaded. And we only have a 60 or 60 new that doesn't have a high speed radio in it, how many ground stations are we going to be required to download that image in a time that we need? Really just closing the loop on making sure that the mission design is still meeting the requirements from an operations point of view and not just from a spacecraft capabilities point of view. If you only sign yourself up for one TTNC radio and one TTNC ground station, you're going to be limited by the number of contacts you have at that ground station and then limited by the data rate of your TTNC radios. Fortunately, Astro Digital has a phenomenal fourth generation KBEN radio that we call X Com, and it's really more than just a KBEN radio. It's got a terabyte of storage on it for payload data. And we're seeing about 1.6 gigabits per second on orbit right now. Should be able to get 2.4. But even only having that one radio and one ground station that's capable of interfacing with that radio, it can meet the requirements of a very large heavy dataset payload.

>> Maria Varmazis: Jack, thank you so much for enlightening me this time. Again, I'm -- it's always a delight to speak to you, and I always learned a ton. So thank you so much for speaking with me again.

>> Jack Cohen: Absolutely. Thanks for having me. It's been phenomenal to see what you guys are doing on the show. It's daily enjoyment [inaudible].

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>> Maria Varmazis: We'll be right back. Welcome back. Now, many discoveries from space admittedly leave us scratching our heads and going, Huh? And the latest one from the James Webb Space Telescope is perhaps telling us that the cosmos is just as confused as the rest of us. About 1470 light years from Earth in the Vela constellation. There are two actively forming young stars, a dazzling display named Herbig-Haro 46/47 by astronomers. Webb's outstanding image of these stars forming is a dramatic nest of swirling gases and light. And just a little bit beneath it, nestled between a whole bunch of swirling spiral galaxies is a question mark. Yes, a question mark. And, no, it's not one of those phenomena where, you know, it looks like a question mark if you squint your eyes and turn your head and maybe kind of looks like that. No, no. It's very cleanly and plainly, like, someone typed one out, very obviously a red question mark. Now, this is the first time astronomers have ever seen this object. Its discovery is new, thanks to Webb, as it is very, very far away. Now, current theories are that galaxies interacting or merging are probably what caused this familiar shape out in space. But there's no word yet from typography nerds what font the Cosmos prefers to use, though I will say it does look like that question mark has a bit of a serif. So thankfully that rules out the universe preferring Comic Sans.

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That's it for T-Minus for August 3, 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 Carruth, mixing by Elliott Peltzman and Tré Hester, with original music and sound design by Elliott Peltzman. Our executive producer is Brandon Karpf. Our chief intelligence officer is Eric Tillman. And I'm Maria Varmazis. Thanks for listening. We'll see you tomorrow.

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>> Unidentified Person: T-Minus done.

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