Saturday, October 29, 2005

Tear Down ITAR's Wall.

A serious drawbacks to America's policy of regulating its commercial space industry under the very strict arms control regime of ITAR is how it isolates the United States. Dennis Wingo, of the company Orbital Recovery, an American company with business ties to European companies, described consequence of that at the recent Space Frontier Foundation annual conference in Los Angeles. According to him, the European Space Agency has a goal of making its entire space infrastructure "ITAR-free." What that means is eliminating any American made component from that infrastructure. And these are our closest allies!

Meanwhile, ESA unites European countries in a mission to explore space. Russia and ESA are making plans for cooperative space missions and space technological development. And now in Asia, China has set up a space-cooperation organization.

The Chinese led alliance is called the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO).
"BEIJING, Oct. 28 (Xinhuanet) -- Representatives from eight Asia-Pacific nations signed a convention on space organization cooperation here Friday, marking a milestone for the final establishment of the organization.

The Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO), an international governmental organization with its headquarters in Beijing, aims to promote multilateral cooperation in space technology and its application in the region.

The eight states are Bangladesh, China, Indonesia, Iran, Mongolia, Pakistan, Peru and Thailand. Representatives from Argentina, Malaysia, the Philippines, Russia, Ukraine also attended the signing ceremony of the APSCO Convention.

The APSCO will be officially set up in Beijing after China receives final approval from at least five participating countries."
(Story here. Further background on the formation of APSCO can be found here and here.)

While China, Europe, and Russia are opening their space programs to international cooperation, the United States government places nearly insurmountable regulatory roadblocks in the way of its companies cooperating with foreigners. Forcing American companies to go it alone in space is bound to retard their development. That could lead to America falling behind the rest of the world as other countries cooperate and share space technology. Access to and control of space is as much a national security issue as arms control. If ITAR continues to isolate America and push other countries away from cooperating with our aerospace companies, the national security of the United States in space is bound to suffer.

When President George Bush announced his space exploration vision in January of 2004 he talked about international cooperation.
"We'll invite other nations to share the challenges and opportunities of this new era of discovery. The vision I outline today is a journey, not a race, and I call on other nations to join us on this journey, in a spirit of cooperation and friendship."
(Transcript here.)

ITAR interferes with that vision and harms American interests. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan: "Mr. President, tear down ITAR's wall."


Friday, October 28, 2005

Iran's Dual-Use Space Ambitions.

One day after the United States lifted the Iran Nonproliferation Act's ban on NASA's use of Russian hardware in space, Russia helps Iran launch its first satellite. It's a reconnaissance satellite that can be used as a spy satellite. (See story here.)

Iran has more ambitions as a space power than having their satellites hitch rides to orbit on Russian rockets. Apparently Iran wants to build their own launch vehicles.
"The next step for Iran, the analysts said, was the launch of a satellite on an indigenous rocket. Iran has developed an enhanced Shihab-3 missile with a range of 2,000 kilometers and was working on a Shihab-4, with a range of 2,500 kilometers. The Shihab-4 was meant to also serve as a space-launch vehicle.

"'The satellite launcher is apparently not ready, but they preferred to send it already rather than wait,' Tal Inbar, a researcher at Israel's Fisher Institute for Strategic Air and Space Studies, said. 'It is clear that Iran plans to use space for military purposes. We are talking about the first capabilities for Iran.'"
(See link above.)

Let's see, Iran launches a spy satellite, is developing a space launch vehicle that can be used as a missile, and is developing a nuclear energy program that can easily be used for nuclear weapons production. And our space ally, Russia, is helping the mullahs with each project.

Thanks for all the help, Vladimir.


China Investigates Moon Property Sales Scheme.

As much as we at Tales of the Heliosphere dislike the current regime in China, we've got to give it credit for opening an investigation into the legitimacy of the extraterrestrial land sale schemes of the Lunar Embassy. (See story here.) The so-called Lunar Embassy opened for business this month in China.

The company purports to sell certificates for ownership of land on the moon. The company's website (here) spouts doubletalk about what a purchase really gets the customer. On the one hand the company claims the land claim is legitimate and backs up that claim with some pretty creative and far-fetched legal mumbo jumbo. On the other hand the company claims to sell "novel" items. Note the careful use of the word "novel" as opposed to "novelty." Here's an example of the doubletalk from their website's FAQ page:
"If this is for real, why is it a novel gift?
We use this statement in two contexts: The first as defined in the American Heritage Dictionary; The quality of being novel: 1) something new and unusual and 2) a small mass-produced article. Well, a property on the Moon definitely falls into all of those categories. The second context is totally out of the Lunar Embassies own, personal paranoia, as our lawyers explained to us 25 years ago when this all started, that this can help avoid any frivolous lawsuits from a foreign country. You should know that this does not diminish the value of the property that you purchase in any way, as every deed is recorded and registered in the Lunar Embassy's registration database and every owners information is listed with that registration. You own this property."
Any potential customer should be hearing loud warning bells after reading that disclaimer.

The legal bottom line on this company is that the land claims are worthless. They might be cute gifts for space enthusiasts but they do not give the purchaser a legal claim to any property on the moon.

As long as the company was selling these fake deeds for about twenty bucks a pop the harm to the customer was minimal. We believe there is great harm to the cause of property rights in space because it makes the issue seem like a joke or a fraud. But that's a different issue.

Now, however, the company is offering membership in their so-called Century Club for $1,000. That's right, $1,000. And what comes with membership? About 2,000 acres of land on any planet where the company claims to be selling property and the chance to win a trip to Las Vegas and the company president's used sports car. We kid you not. (See site here.)

We're glad that China is investigating this scheme. We believe a jurisdiction in the United States should do the same.


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Thursday, October 27, 2005

Real World Politics And Off World Policy.

Space entrepreneurs are always complaining about government roadblocks to space exploration. The most vociferous complaints are about the restrictions imposed on private space companies by ITAR, the international arms control regulations of the federal government.

ITAR is especially hard on private space companies because its definition of arms includes just about every technology related to space flight and its definition of arms trafficking includes talking about arms technology with foreigners. Dennis Wingo, of the company Orbital Recovery, told stories at the Space Frontier Foundation's annual conference last weekend about the burdens of working under ITAR. He described how ITAR makes it difficult for him to communicate with his company's Western European partners about problems with technologies they are developing together.

Wingo's company was required to get an ITAR license for each European partner. Despite having these licenses he described how at meetings with the Europeans discussing a flight performance shortfall, which he knew how to fix, ITAR barred him from telling his own partners the solution. The European engineers had to go out and figure it out themselves. And these are American allies Wingo is partnered with.

But it's not just the private sector that has to deal with international politics. NASA was facing the prospect of not being able to fly to the International Space Station in Russian Soyuz spacecraft because of the Iran Nonproliferation Act (INA). That act prohibited NASA from purchasing Russian hardware linked to the construction and use of the ISS. Congress imposed the ban because Russia sold nuclear and missile technologies to Iran. That ban has now been lifted. (See stories here and here.)

Most comments about ITAR and INA at space conferences such as the Space Frontier Foundation's are entirely self-centered. They tend to be intense complaints about how the laws make it very difficult for United States companies to do commercial space flight. The complaints are understandable since in plain political terms, the space conferences are meetings for special interest groups trying to make money in space or steer taxpayer dollars to space. Consequently the national security reasons behind laws like ITAR and the INA tend to be ignored. So it was refreshing to hear two speakers on the ITAR panel at last weekend's conference talk about the law in national security terms.

Berin Szoka, an energetic young lawyer who is starting up a new D.C. think tank, the Institute for Space Law and Policy, said that space advocates lobbying Congress against ITAR have to take national security into account. Responding to this challenge, Randall Clague, an XCOR employee, argued that ITAR is hurting America's defense industry. He claimed that ITAR is putting the United States at risk of having a second-best defense. The most dramatic example he cited was the recent federal government decision to use a foreign company to replace the President's helicopter. Clague did not provide details on how ITAR contributed to that decision or how it hurts American defense generally. In time perhaps he will, and he'd better because Szoka is right that the argument has to be framed in those terms. Here's why.

Lifting the INA ban on use of Russian hardware will help NASA get through the next seven years and is good for the United States space program. Whether it will benefit United States national security remains to be seen. Russia remains friendly with the theocrats who rule Iran and is supportive of the mullahs' nuclear program.

At the same time the INA ban was being lifted, the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad was making a speech that is a reminder why the ban was imposed in the first place.
"'As the Imam said, Israel must be wiped off the map,' Mr Ahmadi-Nejad said, citing Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of Iran’s Islamic revolution.

The president told an audience of students there was 'no doubt the new wave [of attacks] in Palestine will soon wipe off this disgraceful blot from the face of the Islamic world.'

'Anybody who recognises Israel will burn in the fire of the Islamic nation’s fury,' he said, in remarks aimed at Arab states."
(See story here.)

Imagine the world if this guy gets his hands on nuclear weapons. We just might need a robust space program to transport humanity away from a ruined and radioactive Earth.


Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Spectacular Photos From ISS.

NASA recently released a number of photographs taken by astronaut Leroy Chiao during his stay on the International Space Station from October 2004 to April 2005.

This link (here) to the National Geographic website hosts a small gallery of those photos. They are spectacular.

Our favorite is number 5.


Photograph credit: NASA/JSC


Monday, October 24, 2005

Hunting Asteroids For Profit And The Benefit Of All Humankind.

Yesterday we reported on Michael A'Hearn's talk about the Deep Impact mission at the Space Frontier Foundation's annual conference. Today we report on Thomas Matula's (resume here) proposal for private commercial missions to Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs) for profit, and, by the way, to save humanity from the fate of the dinosaurs.

Probably the biggest question facing private space entrepreneurs is how to make money in space. What's the market for space entrepreneurs? The trend for suborbital rocketeers seems to be tourism. Virgin Galactic and others are moving forward with their plans to fly tourists on roller coaster-like flights into space. But beyond sub-orbit what's the market?

To some, a major threat facing humanity is the risk of extinction from a collision by an uncharted asteroid. How do we protect ourselves when we haven't mapped many of the NEAs and we don't know enough about them to deflect or destroy one headed our way, even if we knew it was coming?

Thomas Matula has thought about both these questions and come up with a solution: bounty hunters in the sky.

Matula's proposal would have the United States Congress appropriate money for a program to pay bounties for data about NEAs. The bounties would be open to any company in the United States who would fly a scouting mission to an NEA and send back data about the rock. The program would be modeled after the bounties paid to hunters in the 19th Century American frontier who killed predators of cows and sheep. The government paid bounties for results and only with proof of the kill.

For the NEA program, the federal government would pay a bounty for information about the asteroids. There would be a fixed price for different kinds of data: composition of the asteroid, rotational periods, density, orbits, and so on, up to $40 million total for one asteroid. There would be a 20 percent premium for information about an NEA found to be a hazard to Earth. The bounty would not be paid for sending a mission. It would only be paid upon delivery of the data.

Matula touted several benefits to this program. It likely would have popular support. Matula said that in surveys of public opinion the two most popular reasons given for a space program are obtaining solar energy from space and defending Earth from Near Earth Asteroids. It would be a relatively inexpensive program. It would externalize costs because payment would be contingent on performance. It would create a market for space entrepreneurs that would encourage commercial space missions. It would provide needed information about NEAs that otherwise might not be obtained. And, although he didn't put it this way, it just might save humanity from extinction. With apologies to those who view people as a virus on the face of the Earth, that is perhaps the greatest benefit of them all.


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Sunday, October 23, 2005

China's New Space Age And Same Old Politics.

China's two straight successful manned orbital missions are establishing it as a space power to be reckoned with. Moreover, the program is likely to ignite an economic boom in its aerospace industry.
"China's manned space program is solely dependent on its own technology, involving hundreds of up and down-stream enterprises and research institutions and thousands of cooperative working units in the country, Vice Minister Ma Songde of Science and Technology was quoted by the Economic Information Daily newspaper as saying."
(See story here) Leaving aside whether borrowing from Soyuz is consistent with being "solely dependent on its own technology," China's determination to rely on its own industry to develop its space program is bound to continue that country's economic growth. From all appearances China is here to stay in space.

In the political sphere, however, China is not moving forward into the 21st Century. The State Council has just released a report on democracy in China. (See story here.) That report affirms the primacy of the Communist Party and makes clear that the government has no intention of embracing the values of freedom and democracy as we understand them in the West. Democracy was first established in China by Sun Yat-sen in 1911. Here's what the State Council's paper says about that experience.
"'The bourgeois republic, including the parliamentarism (sic) and multiparty system that were subsequently established after the Revolution of 1911 in imitation of the mode of Western democracy, did not fulfill the fervent desire of the Chinese people for independence and democracy.

"'Through painstaking exploration and hard struggle, the Chinese people finally came to realize that mechanically copying the Western bourgeois political system and applying it to China would lead them nowhere.'"

Don't hold your breath for freedom and democracy in China anytime soon.

China's political development matters beyond present politics here on Earth. The nature of the regimes who send people into space matters too. It's inevitable that humans will colonize space. It'll matter to future settlers in space what kind of government sends them there. The experience in the Americas shows how the nature of the colonizer has consequences that last through history. By most measures, Britain's former colonies in the Americas have fared much better than Spain's former colonies.

The US owes it to future space colonists to be a leader in space. If we don't lead others will. If China overtakes us and its regime remains the same, the future in space will be less free.


FAA Moves Along On New Space Regulations.

Last year's passage of the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004 required the Federal Aviation Administration to develop regulations for private, suborbital manned space flight. The FAA has published some guidelines for the proposed rules on their website. (Here.) Public comment is welcome.



Smashing Comets For Fun, Education, And Profit.

Asteroids and comets are likely to be mined for their resources in a future space-based economy. Knowing the structure and composition of those objects beforehand will help to improve the odds of success. There were two speakers at the Space Frontier Foundation's annual conference this weekend who talked about that topic. One was Michael A'Hearn, the principal investigator for the Deep Impact mission.* (NASA mission website here.)

Ahearn reported on the preliminary findings from Deep Impact's collision last July 4th with the comet Tempel 1. He said the mission obtained so much data he could study it until retirement.

Here are some of his comments:

The mission flew for only 6 months in space from January to July of 2005. During that flight the spaceship encountered one "space weather event" in which the ship was saturated with radiation from the sun.

There are significant outbursts from the surface of the comet. A'Hearn showed a film clip of the impactor's approach to the comet. During the flight the view noticeably jiggled three times. These jiggles were caused by high speed impacts with milligram-sized dust particles coming off the comet.

There does not appear to be any uniformity of shape for comets. Comet Tempel 1 looks completely different from the other three comets that have been observed up close. So far the team can't explain how the surface terrain of the comet was formed. The bottom half of the comet is pocked with impact craters. (A'Hearn said that's what they were but he said in print he'll only call them craters with the characteristics of impact craters.) There is an upper portion of the comet that is also cratered but the terrain is more smooth as if the craters are older in that region. There are several distinct elevations. The bottom portion was lower than a flat plain that adjoined it, which in turn was lower than the upper portion of the comet. How the comet's flat plain was formed, he couldn't say.

The observed temperatures on the comet rule out the presence of ice on the surface of the comet. There is a region observed in shadows with lighter colored areas, which could be ice mixed in with dust but there was not enough data to make a conclusion. These lighter colored areas are more reflective than the rest of the comet, however, even those areas are pretty non-reflective. The comet is even less reflective than soot.

The heat from the sun does not appear to penetrate beneath the surface and there is ice down there fairly close to the surface. The ejecta from the impactor's collision included lots of water ice, lots of organics, all in very fine particles.

The comet's core is not very dense. The interior appears to be highly porous. The estimate is that throughout the entire core it is probably 70 percent empty space. So the comet's structural strength is very weak. Despite this, the impactor's collision did not affect the structural integrity of the comet or move the comet significantly in its orbit. The estimate is that the maximum change would be to push the comet's perihelion out about 100 meters. The collision did leave a typical gravity-formed crater.

What's the significance of this for commercial exploitation? Any prospector seeking to mine a comet will have to expect outbursts from the comet. The comet's low structural strength will complicate docking and operations on the surface. However, the presence of lots of organics and ice just below the surface improves accessibility to the resources.


* The other speaker on this topic was Thomas Matula. He proposed a program for making investigation of Near Earth Asteroids profitable for private companies. More on that in a subsequent post.

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Saturday, October 22, 2005

One Billion New Suckers?

The Lunar Embassy, which purports to sell property on the moon, is setting up shop in China. (See the story here.) Ownership of private property in space is a serious issue. The law needs to be changed to recognize private property rights in space. At best the Lunar Embassy makes this issue a joke and turns serious people who advocate private ownership in space into laughingstocks. At worst people are being duped into believing they own something they don't. Something should be done to crack down on this business. China may be just the country to do it. (See story here.) Not that we're making a recommendation.


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Sunday, October 02, 2005

Serenity Box Office Takes Second Place.

The numbers are here. Serenity took second place over the weekend losing by $5 million to Jodie Foster's Flightplan and defeating Tim Burton's Corpse Bride by $300,000.

Joss Whedon's scifi fanatics no doubt tipped the scale for Serenity. The tell will be in how the movie does next weekend. There are several positive reviews by bloggers who had never seen Firefly that suggest the movie might have legs. Read the reviews here, here, here, here, and here if you're a fan. It might bring back your own fond memories of first discovering Firefly and it's nice to have your own tastes ratified by others.

I've never seen a single movie written about by so many bloggers, especially bloggers who don't typically do reviews. Powerline, for instance. It's pretty obvious that the movie studio sent out screening invitations to the bloggers because they realized the internet is a powerful marketing tool and that bloggers are opinion shapers in today's media. It was a successful strategy because the bloggers came through with reviews and the reviews have been pretty positive. Probably one way to tell the big fish blogs from the little ones are whether an invitation came to attend the Serenity screening. Sadly, this blog is still a little fish.


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Serenity: The Movie

I was a big fan of Joss Whedon's space science fiction series, Firefly. I was disappointed when it was cancelled after less than one season. The series DVD with its unaired episodes helped to feed my fix. Now the new movie based on the series, Serenity, has completely satisfied it.

I saw the movie Friday at the late show in downtown San Diego. There was a pretty big crowd consisting mostly of 20-something males. There were a minority of women too. The small turnout of women surprised me because Joss is famous for his heroines, Buffy the vampire slayer, for example. Perhaps the show started too late for the demographic. As for me, the cashier must have thought I'm a senior now because I got in for the discounted price. Ha! Let's hear it for the graying beard look.

The TV show made a successful transition to the movies. The effects looked very good and the film's overall look did well on the big screen. The space scenes were works of cinematic art. I think there'd be a market for some stills as framed art.

But Whedon is not so much known for special effects and cinematography as he is for his writing and character development. The movie delivered on that score as well. The plot changed the lives of the characters in dramatic ways. This was no movie about heroes who are so beloved by the author that nothing bad can ever happen to them. Whedon should be given credit for having the guts to do what he did to his characters in this movie. The love that obsessed scifi fans have for their favorite characters cannot be understated, yet Whedon took a chance on alienating his base by killing off at least one likeable character. No small thing considering how unlikeable some of the characters are in this story.

Another of Whedon's trademarks as a writer is his penchant for snappy one liners and very clever writing. This wore thin at times, especially in what should have been an emotionally weighty scene involving the character Book. The jokiness did not run true for me in that scene. But snappy one-liners goes with the scifi adventure format and Whedon writes good ones. Another thing that grates at times is the faux western dialog but that dialog goes with the western in space concept that is Serenity and that concept works really well. Holstered six-guns and all.

As a fan of scifi it was also a pleasure to see a show that takes place without faster than light travel and within the confines of a single star system. It's a geeky point, I know, but I liked it because it's not usually done.

At the end I'm left hoping the show gets picked up by Sci-Fi channel as a series with a 2-3 year commitment to finish out the development of the characters and move them into the next stage of their lives. But nothing longer than that else it'll go the way of Stargate and the imitation of all things Star Trek. A movie sequel, maybe, so long as it involves big things happening as Parliament figures out just what they should do about Serenity's crew now that it has become clear how much of a threat the crew poses to the Alliance. Or perhaps people from "Earth that was" could come a visitin'.


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