Cassini, Huygens Images Show Erosion Similar to Earth

The surface of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, is being shaped by forces similar to those affecting Earth, such as plate tectonics, erosion and volcanic activity, NASA announced March 9.

Titan is believed to be similar in many respects to Earth, but with a surface covered by liquid methane rather than water. Images captured by NASA’s Cassini probe during flybys of Titan show dark curving and linear patterns in various regions of the moon, mostly concentrated near the south pole. Images from the European Space Agency’s Huygens probe — which hitched a ride to Saturn aboard Cassini and landed on Titan Jan. 14 — suggest the existence of small channels a few kilometers long, probably cut by liquid methane.

“The only known planetary process that creates large-scale linear boundaries is tectonism, in which internal processes cause portions of the crust to fracture and sometimes move either up, down or sideways,” Alfred McEwen, Cassini imaging team member from the University of Arizona in Tucson, said in a statement. “Erosion by fluids may accentuate the tectonic fabric by depositing dark materials in low areas and enlarging fractures. This interplay between internal forces and fluid erosion is very Earth-like.”

Scientists analyzing clouds in Titan’s lower atmosphere also have concluded that winds on Titan blow faster than the moon rotates. The phenomenon, called super-rotation, had been predicted but not confirmed until now, NASA said.

Wind speed is measured by cloud movement, which is rare on Titan, NASA said. Ten clouds above Titan have been tracked by Cassini, which measured wind speeds as high as 34 meters per second — much faster than the moon’s rotation.

The discoveries are based on images collected during four Cassini flybys of Titan over the past eight months. Cassini’s cameras have covered 30 percent of Titan’s surface, and the spacecraft is scheduled to make 41 more close-proximity flybys of Titan in the next three years.

Globalstar Takes Control of Venezuelan Satellite Service

Globalstar LLC plans to assume control of its service operations in Venezuela, including a satellite ground station, Globalstar announced March 7.

Assets that are not regulated by the government of Venezuela already have been transferred from TE.SA.M de Venezuela, which has been running Globalstar’s service in the region, to Globalstar subsidiary Globalstar de Venezuela C.A.

The transfer of the ground station assets and other regulated hardware and services must be approved by the Venezuelan Telecommunications Regulatory Commission and is expected to take place at a later date, Globalstar said.

The agreement is part of Globalstar’s efforts to expand and improve its service by assuming more of its regional operations, the company said.

ESA Seeks Ideas for Next Earth Observation Satellite

The European Space Agency on March 15 issued a call for proposals for its next Earth observation Core mission, with initial letters of intent due April 30 and final 20-page proposals by July 15.

A first-round selection of up to six semifinalists will be made by December, with some agency funding then made available to the competitors to refine their proposals. A final selection is expected in 2008, with the total program budget — design, launch and operations — set at a maximum of 300 million euros ($330 million). Launch would be sometime after 2010.

ESA separates its Earth Explorer program into Core and Opportunity missions, with the principal difference being that Core projects have about twice the budget of Opportunity missions. Under its Living Planet program, ESA has already selected three Core missions — the Gravity and Ocean Circulation Explorer, scheduled for launch in 2006; the Atmospheric Dynamics Mission ADM-Aeolus (2007); and the EarthCARE Clouds, Aerosols and Radiation Explorer (2012).

Ericsson To Provide Mobile Phones for MUOS

Ericsson of Sweden will provide wireless mobile communications gear to the U.S. Department of Defense’s Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) in what the company said represents “a breakthrough for commercial telecom in the defense market.”

Under a contract with General Dynamics C4 Systems, which is the overall MUOS ground segment program leader, Ericsson will provide mobile equipment using the wideband code division multiple access (WCDMA) transmission standard, which is being developed for the third-generation commercial wireless, or 3G, handset market. It is capable of transmission speeds of up to 384 kilobits per second and uses a network based on the Internet Protocol. In a March 14 announcement, Ericsson said the contract with General Dynamics has a potential value of $200 million.

Norspace Forecasts Satellite Market Rebound

After a sharp drop in orders starting in 2001 with the telecommunications market crash, Norspace AS of Norway said the commercial satellite market appears to be rebounding. It expects total orders for surface acoustic wave (SAW) filters this year to be about $1 million. The company estimates that it has captured about 80 percent of the commercial satellite SAW filter market, which has developed rapidly since the mid-1990s.

Norspace said it has consolidated its market position in providing SAW filters with three Norspace-equipped satellites launched in February and March, bringing the total Norspace SAW in-orbit population to 6,400, Norspace President Sverre Bisgaard said.

An additional 3,500 SAW filters have been delivered for integration into satellites not yet launched, Bisgaard said.

Japan’s MTSAT-1R, XM Satellite Radio’s XM-3 and Inmarsat‘s Inmarsat 4 F1 satellites, all launched this year, together carry more than 1,000 Norspace SAW filters, which are used to control and process electrical signals.

Galileo Avionica Gets Deal To Build ATV Components

Italian avionics specialist Galileo Avionica S.p.A. will provide power-conditioning units and solid-state power amplifiers for Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) cargo carrier for the international space station under a contract with ATV prime contractor EADS Space Transportation, Galileo Avionica announced March 9.

Under the contract, valued at more than 11.8 million euros ($15.3 million), Galileo Avionica will supply the equipment for the six ATV vehicles to be constructed by the EADS-led consortium over the next 7-8 years under contract to the European Space Agency. The six vehicles are in addition to the demonstration ATV, called Jules Verne, that is scheduled for launch in early 2006.

AIA Satellite Stats Count Shipped Goods, Not Sales

The U.S. Aerospace Industries Association figures released last week showing an apparent big jump in U.S. satellite exports in 2004 were actually not a measure of sales or other economic activity, but only of the value of hardware shipped out of U.S. territory to other nations, according AIA Research Center statistician David Napier.

A U.S. manufacturer selling a satellite to a non-U.S. company would not be engaged in an export under AIA definitions unless the satellite was shipped out of the United States for launch, Napier said. “We are measuring trade data only,” Napier said. “If it’s not going through our ports or going to another country, it does not count as an export.This is definitely not sales data.”

The AIA Research Center reported March 8 that U.S. industry exports of spacecraft, satellites and parts totaled $575 million in 2004, double the amount recorded in 2003. These figures include three satellites and 23 spacecraft, which Napier said in AIA terminology generally refers to satellite components.

For AIA, a satellite built in the United States and launched by Lockheed Martin’s International Launch Services (ILS) of McLean, Va., would be counted as an export if launched by an ILS Proton rocket from the Russian-run Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. But it would not be counted as an export if launched by an ILS Atlas vehicle, which operates from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. In both cases, the nationality of the satellite’s owner would not matter.

Similarly, a U.S. satellite-fleet operator purchasing a satellite from Europe’s Alcatel Space or EADS Astrium, and then launching the satellite aboard a European Ariane 5 rocket from that vehicle’s French Guiana spaceport, would not be an import as recorded in AIA’s statistics because the satellite did not transit U.S. territory. But in economic terms, the above sale would be viewed as an import because a U.S. company is purchasing the satellite and the launch from outside the United States.

“I guess it could confuse people because normally when you think of balances of trade, imports are bad and exports are good,” Napier said. “But if you take French Guiana, in our counting they have an enormous imbalance because they import lots of satellites and export almost none — except into space.”

Lockheed Martin Completes Communications System for SBIRS High Satellite

A Lockheed Martin Corp. unit has completed work on a key communications system for the U.S. Air Force’s first Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) High missile warning satellite, according to a March 3 Lockheed Martin news release.

The secure, jam-proof communications system will deliver missile warning information from the satellite to ground forces as well as receive command-and-control signals sent from the ground, the news release said.

The system was developed and built at Lockheed Martin’s facilities in Newtown, Pa., and has been shipped to the company’s assembly plant in Sunnyvale, Calif., for installation on the first SBIRS satellite. The spacecraft is slated for launch in 2008.

Hubble Finds Evidence Of Limits of Star Growth

Scientists working with NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope say they have found evidence that stars cannot grow beyond 150 times the mass of the Sun.

Astronomers have been uncertain about how large a star can become before it is blown apart by centrifugal forces. Previous theories have set the size limit at anywhere between 100 and 1,000 times the mass of the Sun. But a study of the Arches cluster, the densest star cluster in the Milky Way, found no stars larger than 130 times the mass of the Sun.

“This is an incredible cluster that contains a rich collection of some of the most massive stars in the galaxy, yet it appears to be missing stars more massive than 150 times the mass of our Sun,” Donald Figer, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, said in a statement. “Theories predict the more massive the cluster, the more massive the stars within it. We looked at one of the most massive clusters in our galaxy and found there is a sharp cutoff to how large a star can form.”

Figer estimates that the upper limit of star size is about 150 solar masses, but he did not rule out the possibility that larger stars may exist. He plans to study more star clusters to test his weight-limit theory.

Lightning Clears Safe Zone In Earth’s Radiation Belts

Lightning that occurs in clouds only a few kilometers above the Earth’s surface helps clear a safe zone thousands of kilometers higher within the radiation belts that surround the globe, NASA said in a March 8 press release .

Data collected by several NASA satellites were used to determine the origin of the area of reduced radiation within the Van Allen belts, which offers a safe operating haven for satellites such as the U.S. GPS spacecraft that operate in medium-altitude orbit .

The Van Allen belts resemble a pair of concentric rings surrounding the Earth, with the planet located in the center . The belts are populated by high-speed electrons and atomic nuclei trapped by the Earth’s magnetic field.

The lightning theory is one of two on how the safe zone was created within the belts. According to the theory, radio waves created by lightning clear the safe zone by interacting with the radiation belt particles.

The radio waves remove some of the energy from the particles and change their direction, NASA said. This interaction lowers the height of the mirror point, the area above each of the Earth’s polar regions where the radiation particles stop heading toward Earth and bounce back into space. Eventually, the mirror point is lowered into Earth’s upper atmosphere, and the radiation-belt particles can no longer bounce back into space because they collide with atmospheric particles and lose their energy.

This process is repeated each time magnetic storms in space fill the safe zone with radiation.

To test the theory, researchers combined a global map of lightning activity made with the Micro Lab 1 spacecraft with radio-wave data from the Radio Plasma Imager on the IMAGE spacecraft and archival data from the Dynamics Explorer spacecraft. IMAGE is an acronym that stands for Imager for Magnetopause to Aurora Global Exploration.

The data indicated that radio wave activity in the safe zone closely followed terrestrial lightning patterns, NASA said. If the radio waves were created in space and not within the atmosphere, the data would not correlate, the agency said.

“Without the cleansing effect from lightning, there would be just one big radiation belt, with no easily accessible place to put satellites,” said James Green of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

The research may one day enable engineers to design spacecraft that generate radio waves at the correct frequency and location to clear radiation belts around other planets, NASA said.

KVH Receives Patents On Satellite Antenna Systems

KVH Industries Inc. of Middletown, R.I., received a U.S. government patent for technology related to its hybrid phased-array antenna designed to provide satellite television service to automobiles, the company announced March 8.

The patent from the U.S. Trademark and Patent Office covers technology developed by KVH to create the flat panel antenna system, which measures only 12.7 centimeters high.

KVH was awarded a separate patent in July for the design of its TracVision A5 low-profile antenna, which works exclusively with DirecTV’s satellite system.

Intelsat Launches Military, Civil-Government Service

Intelsat General Corp. has launched a new broadband satellite service aimed primarily at military and civil-government users, the company announced March 7.

The GlobalConnex Network Broadband Service creates a virtual private network through a combination of satellite capacity, teleport facilities and very small aperture terminals. The network can provide voice, video and Internet services at transmission rates of up to 5.25 megabits per second outbound from the terminal to the satellite and 2.25 megabits per second inbound to the terminal.

The service, developed for remote environments or where ground-based infrastructure may not be reliable, is intended for U.S. civilian and military government organizations, NATO, state governments and select commercial customers, Intelsat said.

Intelsat General, based in Washington, was created by the combination of Intelsat’s Government Solutions unit and Comsat General.

DRS Completes Sale of Non-Core Business Units

DRS Technologies Inc. has completed the sale of a pair of business units that the company no longer considers part of its core operations, DRS announced March 11.

DRS, based in Parsippany, N.J., sold its DRS Broadcast Technology Inc. and DRS Weather Systems Inc. units to Veritas Capital Fund 2 LP., a New York-based investment company.

DRS Broadcast Technology of Dallas manufactures radio frequency broadcast transmitters, systems and power amplifiers. DRS Weather Systems, located in Enterprise, Ala., produces Doppler weather surveillance radar systems, receivers, components and software.

“The sale of these units was a strategic decision to concentrate our resources and integration efforts on our core defense technology businesses,” Mark Newman, chairman, president and chief executive officer of DRS Technologies, said in a statement. “We believe their established customer bases will continue to be well served in the transfer of these operations to a buyer that is focused on their success and very familiar with them.”

DRS Technologies acquired the two businesses when it bought Integrated Defense Technologies Inc. in November 2003. Veritas Capital had been the largest shareholder of Integrated Defense Technologies.

AGI Wins Two Patents for Space-Related Software

Analytical Graphics Inc. (AGI) has won two new U.S. government patents for space-related software , Analytical Graphics announced.

The first patent, issued by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, covers spacecraft sensor obscuration methods software, which helps spacecraft designers determine the limitations on sensors due to blockage by other parts of the spacecraft. The software works within the company’s 3-D visualization software module dubbed STK/Advanced Visualization Option.

A second patent covers software for 3-D orbit maneuver analysis, which works within STK/PRO’s Vector Geometry Tool.

Analytical Graphics, based in Exton, Pa., now owns 11 patents for technologies for applications such as orbit determination; transmitter and receiver bandwidth modeling; and determination of spacecraft drag.

NASA Rover Finds Life In a Desert — on Earth

NASA scientists using a robotic rover have identified signs of microbial life in one of Earth’s driest deserts in a demonstration that could help the agency prepare for future Mars missions, NASA announced March 16.

The findings are based on rover data and on laboratory analysis of samples collected during an expedition in Chile’s Atacama Desert in September and October.

Samples were collected by a solar-powered, automated rover dubbed Zoe developed by Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. The rover identified and documented the microbial samples, finding signs of organic molecules such as chlorophyll, DNA and protein.

The research team, operating in Pittsburgh, used the robot remotely to conduct week long investigations at two separate sites. The rover covered a distance of several kilometers as it traveled from the humid coastal region to the arid heart of the desert, NASA said. The remote rover operations simulated the current Mars mission, the agency said.

Those samples were returned to the laboratory, where preliminary results showed biological activity, said Nathalie Cabrol, a planetary scientist with the SETI Institute at NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif.

“Life is barely detectable over most of the desert,” Cabrol said. “Its geological, climatic and biological evolution provides a unique training ground for designing and testing exploration strategies and especially life-detection methods for the robotic search for life on Mars.”

The effort was funded by a three-year, $3 million grant from NASA to Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute.

ILC Wins Technology Development Contract

ILC Dover will develop sensors, materials and other advanced technologies that could be used in future space exploration missions under a contract with NASA.

ILC, based in Frederica, Del., is working on technologies that would work with inflatable space structures that may one day house astronauts on the Moon and Mars, said Phillip Spampinato, ILC’s product manager for space products. Other areas of work include sensors that can detect hazardous materials, light-emitting diodes that do not require a power source and self-healing inflatable materials, Spampinato said.

The work is being done under NASA’s Human & Robotic Technology Project Formulation Plan. The intent of the program is not to develop finished products, but rather to bring the technology to a level where NASA can determine whether it will be useful for the exploration mission, he said.

Spampinato declined to divulge the value of the contract, which is still being negotiated. The development effort could run as long as four years, he said.