The Spy Satellite Monopoly

By ROBERT BECKHUSEN | WIRED | JULY 24, 2012

Earlier this year, the spy satellite industry was hit hard by defense budget cuts. For the top two commercial satellite companies, which survive largely by providing imagery to the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies, the cuts left only enough money for one to survive. Now budget austerity has forced the companies to merge together and create a new space monopoly with control over what we see from orbit.

On Monday, Colorado-based satellite firm DigitalGlobe announced it’s merging with Virginia-based competitor GeoEye in a stock and cash deal worth $900 million. The merger works out in DigitalGlobe’s favor, which keeps its name intact and whose shareholders will control 64 percent of the new company. DigitalGlobe will also take over GeoEye operations. Best known for providing imagery for applications like Google Earth, the companies combined provide more than three-quarters of the U.S. government’s satellite images.

The company also has somewhat of a codependent relationship with the Pentagon. For one, the companies help serve a need for satellite images that the government’s own aging fleet of satellites can’t always fulfill. Meanwhile, the companies are dependent on funding from Congress and the Pentagon’s National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) in order to stay afloat. This year, that funding got cut — severely.

Earlier this year, the Pentagon announced it was pushing “significant reductions” for commercial satellite imagery for fiscal year 2013. Although the total amount the government spends on reconnaissance satellites is kept secret, analysts expected losses up to 50 percent. This served as the catalyst for an austerity-driven merger war.

A week before the budget dropped in February, GeoEye launched a failed hostile takeover bid for DigitalGlobe, offering to acquire the company for $792 million. DigitalGlobe called GeoEye’s bluff, saying GeoEye’s offer “substantially undervalue[d] the company in relation to DigitalGlobe’s standalone business and financial prospects” — i.e., their company’s ability to withstand a body-blow brought on by defense cuts.

Then in late June, doubts emerged whether GeoEye’s funding would continue. The NGA diced into two parts GeoEye’s share of the agency’s 10-year, $7.3 billion EnhancedView program, which provides funds for imagery and helps develop satellite technology.

The agency gave GeoEye two options: either renew the contract for EnhancedView for three months or nine months instead of a full year. It was a worrying sign the agency was looking for a way out of the contract. If the agency renewed with GeoEye for a full year, the agency’s cost would come out of a budget that might get cut. If Congress was set to cleave apart that budget, the NGA might not have the means for pay for it.

GeoEye’s stock plunged. There was speculation the company wouldn’t be able to secure lending from banks — already considerably difficult for companies that depend on a static defense budget for contracts.

But competitor DigitalGlobe also had a share of the EnhancedView contract, and it wasn’t touched. With its competitor now on the ropes, DigitalGlobe was set up to consume it.

Of course, with the merger, that means DigitalGlobe is now the main player in the satellite industry. The company plans to continue with launching its former competitor’s premiere satellite project, the GeoEye-2, sometime in the next two years. The GeoEye-2, though not as zoomable as the governments’ top secret spy satellites, is expected to be able to photograph the ground at higher resolutions than the best current commercial satellites. A second satellite, the WorldView-3, is being kept grounded for now as a spare.

DigitalGlobe expects the merger will allow net savings of up to $1.5 billion, saving taxpayers money while allowing the company to diversify. But with most of the U.S.’s geospatial intelligence now absorbed by one company, it’s worth wondering what that will do to satellite costs over the long term. It’s not difficult to factor that monopolies distort the marketplace, and exclude competitors which work to keep down prices.

It also means more and more space imagery will be the preserve of one company. Like it or not, that means DigitalGlobe will control an increasing amount of what we can — or can’t — see from space.

The Big Red Bear is Waking up and It Will Affect Us All

NASA Science

Coronal Mass Ejection

Coronal Mass Ejection

Earth and space are about to come into contact in a way that’s new to human history. To make preparations, authorities in Washington DC are holding a meeting: The Space Weather Enterprise Forum at the National Press Club on June 8th.

Richard Fisher, head of NASA’s Heliophysics Division, explains what it’s all about:

“The sun is waking up from a deep slumber, and in the next few years we expect to see much higher levels of solar activity. At the same time, our technological society has developed an unprecedented sensitivity to solar storms. The intersection of these two issues is what we’re getting together to discuss.”

The National Academy of Sciences framed the problem two years ago in a landmark report entitled “Severe Space Weather Events—Societal and Economic Impacts.” It noted how people of the 21st-century rely on high-tech systems for the basics of daily life. Smart power grids, GPS navigation, air travel, financial services and emergency radio communications can all be knocked out by intense solar activity. A century-class solar storm, the Academy warned, could cause twenty times more economic damage than Hurricane Katrina.

Much of the damage can be mitigated if managers know a storm is coming. Putting satellites in ‘safe mode’ and disconnecting transformers can protect these assets from damaging electrical surges. Preventative action, however, requires accurate forecasting—a job that has been assigned to NOAA.

“Space weather forecasting is still in its infancy, but we’re making rapid progress,” says Thomas Bogdan, director of NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado.

Bogdan sees the collaboration between NASA and NOAA as key. “NASA’s fleet of heliophysics research spacecraft provides us with up-to-the-minute information about what’s happening on the sun. They are an important complement to our own GOES and POES satellites, which focus more on the near-Earth environment.”

Among dozens of NASA spacecraft, he notes three of special significance: STEREO, SDO and ACE.

STEREO (Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory) is a pair of spacecraft stationed on opposite sides of the sun with a combined view of 90% of the stellar surface. In the past, active sunspots could hide out on the sun’s farside, invisible from Earth, and then suddenly emerge over the limb spitting flares and CMEs. STEREO makes such surprise attacks impossible.

SDO (the Solar Dynamics Observatory) is the newest addition to NASA’s fleet. Just launched in February, it is able to photograph solar active regions with unprecedented spectral, temporal and spatial resolution. Researchers can now study eruptions in exquisite detail, raising hopes that they will learn how flares work and how to predict them. SDO also monitors the sun’s extreme UV output, which controls the response of Earth’s atmosphere to solar variability.

Bogdan’s favorite NASA satellite, however, is an old one: the Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) launched in 1997. “Where would we be without it?” he wonders. ACE is a solar wind monitor. It sits upstream between the sun and Earth, detecting solar wind gusts, billion-ton CMEs, and radiation storms as much as 30 minutes before they hit our planet.

“ACE is our best early warning system,” says Bogdan. “It allows us to notify utility and satellite operators when a storm is about to hit.”

NASA spacecraft were not originally intended for operational forecasting—”but it turns out that our data have practical economic and civil uses,” notes Fisher. “This is a good example of space science supporting modern society.”

2010 marks the 4th year in a row that policymakers, researchers, legislators and reporters have gathered in Washington DC to share ideas about space weather. This year, forum organizers plan to sharpen the focus on critical infrastructure protection. The ultimate goal is to improve the nation’s ability to prepare, mitigate, and respond to potentially devastating space weather events.

“I believe we’re on the threshold of a new era in which space weather can be as influential in our daily lives as ordinary terrestrial weather.” Fisher concludes. “We take this very seriously indeed.”

For more information about the meeting, please visit the Space Weather Enterprise Forum home page at  http://www.nswp.gov/swef/swef_2010.html

U.S. 30ft Spaceship is Loaded and Ready in Orbit

Times Online

Somewhere above earth is America’s latest spaceship, a 30ft craft so classified that the Pentagon will not divulge its mission nor howX37B much it cost to build.

The mysterious X37B, launched successfully by the US Air Force from Cape Canaveral on Thursday, using an Atlas V rocket, looks like a mini-Space Shuttle — but its mission is top secret.

It is officially described as an orbital test vehicle. However, one of its potential uses appears to be to launch a surge of small satellites during periods of high international tension. This would enable America to have eyes and ears orbiting above any potential troublespot in the world.

The X37B can stay in orbit for up to 270 days, whereas the Shuttle can last only 16 days. This will provide the US with the ability to carry out experiments for long periods, including the testing of new laser weapon systems. This would bring accusations that the launch of X37B, and a second vehicle planned for later this year, could lead to the militarisation of space.

US defence officials, who would not say how much the project had cost, insisted, however, that it was “just an updated version of the Space Shuttle activities”.

Thursday’s launch was more about testing the craft, a new generation of silica tile and a wealth of other advances that make the Shuttle look like yesterday’s space technology.

Nasa’s X37B programme began in 1999 and ran until September 2004 when it was transferred to the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency before being taken over by the US Air Force.

The flight of the X37B is being managed by the US Air Force Space Command’s 3rd Space Experimental Squadron.

“This bird has been through all of the shake, rattle and roll, the vibration tests, the acoustic tests that any spacecraft would go through,” said Gary Payton, Under Secretary of the Air Force for Space Programmes.

With all the focus on the launch of the secret X37B, another space launch by a Minotaur IV rocket from Vandenberg Air Force base in California received less attention.

It was carrying the prototype of a new weapon that can hit any target around the world in less than an hour.

The Prompt Global Strike is designed as the conventional weapon of the future. It could hit Osama bin Laden’s cave, an Iranian nuclear site or a North Korean missile with a huge conventional warhead.

The Militarization of Outer Space: The Pentagon’s “Space Warriors”

Air Force Raises the Stakes for a New Arms Race

Global Research

It’s not as if things aren’t bad enough right here on planet earth.space war

What with multiple wars and occupations, an accelerating economic meltdown, corporate malfeasance and environmental catastrophes such as the petroleum-fueled apocalypse in the Gulf of Mexico, I’d say we have a full plate already.

Now the Defense Department wants to up the stakes with new, destabilizing weapons systems that will transform low- and high-earth orbit into another “battlespace,” pouring billions into programs to achieve what Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) has long dreamed of: “space dominance.”

Indeed, Pentagon space warriors fully intend to field a robust anti-satellite (ASAT) capability that can disable, damage or destroy the satellites of other nations, all for “defensive” purposes, mind you.

Back in 2005, The New York Times reported that General Lance W. Lord, then commander of AFSPC, told an Air Force conference that “space superiority is not our birthright, but it is our destiny. … Space superiority is our day-to-day mission. Space supremacy is our vision for the future.”

Five years on, that “mission” is still a top priority for the Obama administration. While some might call it “net-centric warfare” on steroids, I’d choose another word: madness.

Air Force X-37B

On April 22, the U.S. Air Force (USAF) successfully launched its robot space shuttle, the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Sitting atop a Lockheed Martin Atlas V rocket, the unmanned, reusable space plane roared into orbit after more than ten years of development by Boeing Corporation’s “Phantom Works” black projects shop.

The successful orbital insertion of the X-37B was the culmination of a decades’ long dream by the Department of Defense: to field a reusable spacecraft that combines an airplane’s agility with the means to travel at 5 miles per second in orbit.

From the Pentagon’s point of view, a craft such as the X-37B may be the harbinger of things to come: a johnny-on-the-spot weapons platform to take out the satellite assets of an enemy de jour, or as a launch vehicle that can deliver bombs, missiles or kinetic weapons anywhere on earth in less than two hours; what Air Force wags refer to as “operationally responsive space.”

Prior to launch, Air Force Deputy Undersecretary of Space Programs, Gary Payton, ridiculed speculation that the X-37B is the prototype for a new space-based weapons system. Payton told reporters, “I don’t know how this could be called a weaponization of space. Fundamentally, it’s just an updated version of the space shuttle kinds of activities in space.”

Needless to say, such denials should be taken with the proverbial grain of salt.

The highly-classified program has a checkered history. According to GlobalSecurity.org, the project is envisaged as a “reusable space architecture” that would provide “aircraft-like operability, flexibility, and responsiveness, supporting AF Space Command mission areas.”

While early examples such as the Dyna-Soar/X-20 program of the 1950s-1960s never panned out due to technological constraints, the Air Force never stopped trying. Programs such as the X-40 Space Maneuver Vehicle (SMV) and the X-41 Common Air Vehicle (CAV), a hypersonic craft intended to serve as a key component in developing the off-again, on-again “Prompt Global Strike” project, demonstrate continuing Air Force interest in “high frontier” weapons programs.

The X-40 project eventually merged with the Air Force’s X-37B program and the X-41 CAV program has been absorbed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle (HTV-2).

Last month, the first test of the Falcon (apparently) ended in failure when DARPA researchers claimed they had lost contact with the craft moments after take-off from Vandenberg Air Force Base. The Falcon was supposed to demonstrate the feasibility of launching a vehicle to the edge of space and then have it come “screaming back into the atmosphere, maneuvering at twenty times the speed of sound before landing north of the Kwajalein Atoll, 30 minutes later and 4100 nautical miles away,” according to Wired.

Did the HTV-2 mission fail? Since misdirection and disinformation have long been staples of Pentagon black world projects, most likely we’ll never know one way or the other.

Inevitably, even if these projects amount to no more than monumental failures, their intended target audience, China, Russia or any other nation viewed as a “rogue state” by the imperialist hyperpower, in all likelihood would be drawn in to an expensive, and deadly, contest to devise countermeasures.

In this light, Space.com reporter Jeremy Hsu wrote May 5, that ambiguities in devising militarized space technology “can make it tricky for nations to gauge the purpose or intentions behind new prototypes.” And such uncertainties are precisely the fodder that fuel an arms race.

According to GlobalSecurity.org’s John Pike, the U.S. military “could even be using the cloak of mystery to deliberately bamboozle and confuse rival militaries.” Pike told Space.com that “the X-37B and HTV-2 projects could represent the tip of a space weapons program hidden within the Pentagon’s secret ‘black budget,’ or they might be nothing more than smoke and mirrors.”

Pike said that current work “leaves plenty of room for misinterpretation or even outright deception, which could be a ploy to distract other nations with military space projects.”

“‘One of them could be a deception program and the other could be the spitting image of the real thing,’ Pike noted. He said that such misdirection could force other nations’ militaries to waste money chasing down dead ends.”

While Pike’s assertions sound plausible, given the Pentagon’s track record and an annual $50 billion black budget directed towards research on new weapons and surveillance systems, the X-37B, the Falcon HTV-2 or other systems on the drawing board would certainly be useful assets if the military chose to deploy them as offensive weapons.

A Space Bomber?

Less ambitious perhaps, but potentially more destabilizing than unproven hypersonic technology, the X-37B was originally designed by Boeing for NASA in 1999 as an emergency escape vehicle for the International Space Station.

The civilian agency once viewed the craft as a potential lifeboat that could rescue stranded astronauts from the ISS. However, with Russia’s Soyuz space capsule doing yeoman’s work for just such a contingency, NASA no longer saw the need for an expensive winged re-entry vehicle and dropped the program.

But, as with all things having to do with the Military-Industrial Complex’s insatiable appetite for new weapons, DARPA, the Pentagon’s “blue sky” geek shop, picked up the slack in 2004 when NASA headed towards the exit.

After further testing and design enhancements by DARPA, the project was handed off to the Air Force in 2006. The program is now run by the USAF’s secretive Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO) and spokespeople there have been tight lipped, refusing to say how much the vehicle costs; a sure sign that funds for the robot shuttle come from the black side of the budget where new weapons systems spawn and metastasize.

A tip-off to the covert nature–and militaristic intentions–of the program, comes from the office running the show. According to an Air Force Fact Sheet, the RCO “responds to Combat Air Force and combatant command requirements” and “expedites development and fielding of select Department of Defense combat support and weapon systems by leveraging defense-wide technology development efforts and existing operational capabilities.”

According to investigative journalist Sharon Weinberger, the author of Imaginary Weapons and A Nuclear Family Vacation, her recent piece in Popular Mechanics, revealed that prior to the Pentagon assuming ownership of the X-37 project, “the spacecraft was regarded as just another experimental prototype.” Today however, Weinberger wrote, “Air Force officials are skittish to mention even the smallest details.”

When Air Force chief scientist Werner J.A. Dahm was asked by Weinberger “what he could say about the X-37B,” he replied, “‘Nothing very useful,’ before quickly changing the subject.”

In a 2006 piece in Air Force Print News (AFPN) however, we were informed that the X-37B will “will serve as a test platform for satellites and other space technologies. The vehicle allows satellite sensors, subsystems, components and associated technology to be transported into the environment where they will be used–space.”

With information scarce on what the OTV’s current mission is, the Air Force has said that after the first few flights (a second test in slated for 2011), “you get into the realm of using it as a reusable space test platform–putting space components into its experimental bay and taking them to space for testing,” RCO’s X-37B program manager Lt. Col. Kevin Walker told AFPN.

While the Air Force has denied that the X-37B is the vanguard for a space-based system to be deployed for spying or as an orbital weapons’ delivery platform, and while this may betechnically accurate in so far as the mini-shuttle is a prototype, the vagaries of the project raise intriguing questions.

This is borne out by an April 22 announcement by the 45th Space Wing Public Affairs office at Patrick Air Force base. Deputy Undersecretary Payton said “if these technologies on the vehicle prove to be as good as we estimate, it will make our access to space more responsive, perhaps cheaper, and push us in the vector toward being able to react to warfighter needs more quickly.”

This was seconded by Col. André Lovett, 45th Space Wing vice commander: “This launch helps ensure that our warfighters will be provided the capabilities they need in the future.”

Nothing ambiguous in these statements as to how the USAF views the future role for the system, nor do they bear a relationship to Payton’s earlier claim to reporters that the X-37B is “just an updated version of the space shuttle kinds of activities in space.”

Weinberger notes that “the most daring job of a space plane, and the one least discussed, is the role of a bomber.” According to Weinberger, the X-37B “could fly over targets within an hour of launch to release cone-shaped re-entry vehicles that would both protect and guide weapons through the atmosphere.” Equally destabilizing, a craft such as the X-37B “could carry 1000- or 2000-pound re-entry vehicles armed with precision munitions like bunker-busting penetrators or small-diameter bombs, or simply use the explosive impact of kinetic rods cratering at hypersonic speeds to destroy targets.”

Joan Johnson-Freese, a Professor of National Security Studies at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, told Space.com journalist Leonard David last month that “other countries” will likely view the X-37B “as another capability intended to assure the United States will be able to dominate access to and the use of space.”

William Scott, coauthor of the militaristic novel Counterspace: The Next Hours of World War III, told David that a reusable space plane “could deliver small satellites having specific, limited roles to bridge critical capabilities gaps.”

The former bureau chief for Aviation Week & Space Technology told David that amongst the most vital characteristics for fielding a weapons’ platform such as the X-37B is surprise: “On the first orbit, a space plane could capture data, before the ‘target’ knew it was coming.” Since a space plane could be “launched into any orbit, at any inclination, providing prompt ‘eyes-on’ of virtually any area of the world,” unlike a satellite with known, predictable trajectories, it could also be used as a surveillance platform or even as a means to surreptitiously “kidnap” or disable an adversary’s satellite.

Seconding Weinberger’s assessment, Scott told Space.com that “ultimately, weapons could be delivered from a space plane in low Earth orbit.” As noted above, these could come in the form of “precision” munitions or insane hypervelocity rod bundles, so called “Rods from God,” tungsten projectiles lobbed from space at 36,000 feet per second that can “hit a cross-haired target on the ground.”

“I did a story about the rods concept in 1994 or 1995, based on concepts being discussed in the U.S. Air Force at the time,” Scott said. “Fifteen years later, maybe they’re ready for testing.”

This view is shared by Everett Dolman, a professor of Comparative Military Studies at the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies at the Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama.

“Regardless of its original intent, Dolman told Space.com, “the most obvious and formidable is in service as a space fighter–a remotely piloted craft capable of disabling multiple satellites in orbit on a single mission and staying on orbit for months to engage newly orbited platforms.” A project such as the X-37B, more advanced systems still on the drawing-board or in development in any number of Air Force black sites such as Groom Lake (Area 51) “would be a tremendous tactical advantage,” Dolman said.

Even were the system not to be transformed into a space bomber, Dolman theorized that the X-37B could be maneuvered close to an adversary’s satellite and capture details in the form of signals intelligence. “With the anticipated increase in networked-microsatellites in the next few years, such a platform might be the best–and only–means of collecting technical intelligence in space.”

While the system may evolve into a destabilizing new weapon, Dolman said that “all of the information leaked about the X-37B suggests its primary function will be as a test platform, but a test platform for what?”

Regardless of how the X-37B prototype pans out, we can be certain that as the U.S. imperialist empire continues its long trek on the road towards failed statehood, the Pentagon, always eager to expend the blood and treasure of the American people on endless wars of conquest, will continue to build new and ever-more destabilizing weapons.

Has the Space War officially begun?

Mail Onlinespace

A top secret space plane developed by the US military has blasted off from Cape Canaveral on its maiden voyage.

Billed as a small shuttle, the unmanned X-37B heralds the next generation of space exploration. It will be the first craft to carry out an autonomous re-entry in the history of the US programme.

But its mission – and its cost – remain shrouded in secrecy. The Air Force said the launch was a success but would give no further details.

However, experts have said the spacecraft was intended to speed up development of combat-support systems and weapons systems.

Speaking after the launch, Air Force deputy under-secretary for space systems Gary Payton, admitted it was impossible to hide a space launch but was cagey about the what exactly the X-37B would do.

‘On this flight the main thing we want to emphasise is the vehicle itself, not really, what’s going on in the on-orbit phase because the vehicle itself is the piece of news here,’ he said.

He refuted claims that the craft was a step towards military dominance in space.

‘I don’t know how this could be called weaponisation of space,’ he said. ‘It’s just an updated version of the Space Shuttle type of activities in space.

‘We, the Air Force, have a suite of military missions in space and this new vehicle could potentially help us do those missions better.’

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle took a decade to develop and will spend up to nine months in orbit. It will re-enter Earth on autopilot and land, just like an ordinary plane, at the Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

The decision on when it returns to Earth is dependant on the Air Force are satisfied with the tasks it has been set to carry out in space.

‘In all honesty, we don’t know when it’s coming back for sure,’ Mr Payton said. ‘It depends on the progress we make with the on-orbit experiments and the on-orbit demonstrations.’   More…