North Korea is Burning

Or, at least, large portions of it were burning when this satellite image was taken.


(AQUA satellite image of smoke plumes from fires in North Korea, 25 April 2014. NASA image.)

As this ABC News story noted,

The extent of deforestation stands out in the satellite image — in stark contrast to the greenery south of the DMZ in South Korea.

I primarily posted this because one of the fellows I worked with at the Defense Technology Security Administration had worked on the AQUA satellite, which took the image,¬†when he was with NASA. Here’s the original NASA story with details on the image and the instrument used to produce it.

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Last Launch from San Marco, Kenya

Twenty-five years ago today — March 25, 1988 — a joint U.S.-Italy mission lifted off from the San Marco Range, Kenya, on a Scout launch vehicle.


(Scout X-4 rocket with the earlier US-Italian satellite San Marco 1. NASA image from Wikimedia Commons.)

The last satellite orbited from the San Marco facility on the Kenyan coast, San Marco D/L carried a specialized suite of sensors to study the interaction between the solar wind and the Earth’s thermosphere and ionosphere. One instrument, the Wind and Temperature Spectrometer, failed after 20 days, but the rest of the spacecraft operated nominally. Though the satellite was intended to last a full year, it re-entered the atmosphere on December 6, 1988.

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Space History, 1958: Vanguard 1

Fifty-five years ago today — March 17, 1958 — a Vanguard rocket carried the Vanguard 1 satellite to orbit out of Cape Canaveral.


(Vanguard 1. Note the very small solar panels on the side of the satellite. NASA image.)

Vanguard 1 was placed in an elliptical orbit with a perigee of 654 km (406 mi) and an apogee of 3969 km (2466 mi), inclined 34.25 degrees from the equator.

Original estimates had the orbit lasting for 2000 years, but it was discovered that solar radiation pressure and atmospheric drag during high levels of solar activity produced significant perturbations in the perigee height of the satellite, which caused a significant decrease in its expected lifetime to only about 240 years.

Vanguard 1’s batteries ran down in June 1958, stopping its battery-powered 10-mW transmitter, but its solar-powered 5-mW transmitter continued operating until May 1964. Vanguard 1 may still be optically tracked from Earth, and is the longest-orbiting man-made satellite.

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Japanese X-Ray Telescope, and a Satellite’s Destruction

Twenty years ago today — February 20, 1993 — Japan launched the Asuka x-ray observatory from Uchinoura Space Center atop an M-3SII rocket.


(Representation of Asuka satellite. JAXA image.)

Asuka, also known as ASTRO-D before launch and ASCA afterward, was a joint mission in which NASA and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology both provided spacecraft components in exchange for observation time with the orbiting telescope. The spacecraft operated normally for over seven years; however,

A solar flare on 14 July 2000 caused heating and expansion of the upper atmosphere, which increased the drag and external torque on ASCA. The attitude was perturbed, so the solar panels lost lock on the Sun, resulting in discharge of the batteries. ASCA reentered the atmosphere on March 2, 2001.

This date in space history is also marked by another satellite’s destruction, but this time it was deliberate: 5 years ago today, the guided-missile-cruiser USS Lake Erie launched a missile to intercept a disabled reconnaissance satellite. You can read contemporary news reports at Spy Satellite’s Downing Shows a New U.S. Weapon Capability and Navy says missile smashed wayward satellite.

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The First U.S. Satellite: Explorer 1

Fifty-five years ago today — January 31, 1958 — a Jupiter C launch vehicle carried the first successful U.S. satellite into orbit from Cape Canaveral.


(Explorer 1. NASA image.)

Explorer 1 launched late in the day — at 10:48 p.m. EST, or 03:48 Universal Time on February 1st — and was actually the Jupiter C rocket’s fourth stage. The rocket itself was a combination of a Redstone rocket that was the Jupiter’s first stage, and three sets of Sergeant solid rocket motors: eleven in the Jupiter’s second stage, three in the third, and one that drove the fourth stage satellite.

Explorer 1 carried a Geiger-Mueller detector to sense cosmic rays, and

was the first spacecraft to successfully detect the durably trapped radiation in the Earth’s magnetosphere, dubbed the Van Allen Radiation Belt (after the principal investigator of the cosmic ray experiment on Explorer 1, James A. Van Allen). Later missions (in both the Explorer and Pioneer series) were to expand on the knowledge and extent of these zones of radiation and were the foundation of modern magnetospheric studies.

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Launch of a Satellite I Babysat for Over 8400 Miles

Ten years ago today — December 29, 2002 (GMT) — the Nimiq 2 communications satellite launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome atop a Proton rocket. Before that, though, it had to get there …


(Antonov AN-124 ‘Condor’ ready to on- or off-load cargo. Image by Mike Young, from Wikimedia Commons.)

Nimiq 2 was a Canadian satellite, built for Telesat by U.S. manufacturer Lockheed Martin and launched by ILS — International Launch Services — on a Russian booster. I got involved in the program as a space technology security monitor, responsible for making sure no U.S. technology or satellite design methodology was transferred to the foreign companies.

As part of the monitoring effort, I had the task of escorting the satellite from the San Jose, California, factory to Baikonur. The spacecraft was loaded onto a Russian Antonov AN-124 cargo aircraft, and I rode with it for the entire trip — including eating Thanksgiving tuna-and-crackers en route.

Because the spacecraft and its support equipment made the aircraft so heavy, we could not fly directly to Baikonur. Instead, we made the trip in several hops, stopping for fuel each time:

  • San Jose to Winnipeg, Canada (1490.11 miles / 2398.1 km)
  • Winnipeg to Goose Bay, Canada (1605.93 miles / 2584.49 km)
  • Goose Bay to Shannon, Ireland (2118.3 miles / 3409.07 km)
  • Shannon to Ulyanovsk, Russia (2320.05 miles / 3733.76 km)
  • Ulyanovsk to Baikonur (909.67 miles / 1463.98 km)

Most of the stopovers were short, except for the stop in Shannon where the aircrew enjoyed the RON (rendezvous overnight) in a local hotel while I got to stay aboard the aircraft with the satellite. So much for my first trip to Ireland! I never strayed from the tarmac at the Shannon airport.

Once we arrived at Baikonur, I spent the early part of December 2002 observing the launch preparations, including mating the satellite to the Proton rocket and enclosing it in the payload fairing. Some of that experience went into my short story, “The Rocket Seamstress,” which was published in the literary magazine Zahir in 2007. (The story is now available on Anthology Builder.)

I did not stay at Baikonur long enough to see the Nimiq 2 launch, however. My boss flew in to take over monitoring the final prep and the launch itself, and I flew home (via Moscow and a couple other stops) in time for Christmas. But it was good to know that I had a part in the first commercial launch of a Proton with the Breeze-M upper stage.

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First Operational Shuttle Mission, 1982

A fine Veteran’s Day to you all …

Thirty years ago today — November 11, 1982 — the Space Shuttle Columbia launched from Kennedy Space Center on the first truly operational mission of the shuttle program.


(Satellite release from STS-5. NASA image.)

Mission STS-5 astronauts Vance D. Brand, Robert F. Overmyer, Joseph P. Allen, and William B. Lenoir carried two commercial communications satellites to orbit and released them from the shuttle’s payload bay. Both SBS 3, belonging to Satellite Business Systems, and Telesat Canada’s Anik C3 were successfully launched during the mission. The shuttle landed at Edwards Air Force Base five days after its launch.

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The Starting Gun for the Space Race

Fifty-five years ago today — October 4, 1957 — the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome.


(Sputnik. Image from the National Space Science Data Center.)

Anyone with an interest in space history learns early on that Sputnik 1 was the first successful artificial satellite. It was actually the first in a series launched by the USSR for the International Geophysical Year. The name Sputnik means “companion,” in the sense that a satellite orbiting a planet is its celestial companion.

Sputnik 1 was built as a pressurized aluminum sphere containing radio transmitters and instruments. It collected data on atmospheric density at high altitude and the effects of the ionosphere on radio transmissions.

Since the sphere was filled with nitrogen under pressure, Sputnik 1 provided the first opportunity for meteoroid detection (no such events were reported), since losses in internal pressure due to meteoroid penetration of the outer surface would have been evident in the temperature data. The satellite transmitters operated for three weeks, until the on-board chemical batteries failed, and were monitored with intense interest around the world. The orbit of the then inactive satellite was later observed optically to decay 92 days after launch (January 4, 1958) after having completed about 1400 orbits of the Earth over a cumulative distance traveled of 70 million kilometers.

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik 1, in 1997 the Russians launched a miniature replica named Sputnik Jr. aboard a Progress resupply ship bound for the Mir space station. Built by French and Russian students, Sputnik Jr. was released from the Mir station on November 3, 1997.

One interesting note about the original Sputnik 1 is that the satellite was not the only part of the package to reach orbit. Its rocket booster also reached orbit, and because of its larger size was actually more visible in the night sky than the highly polished satellite.

Students of space history know that Sputnik 1’s presence in the sky caused an uproar and led to a frenzy of space-related activity. As the brief essay “Sputnik and the Crisis That Followed” puts it,

As news of the Soviet accomplishment quickly spread by radio and television reports, untold millions climbed onto rooftops, ventured into city parks, or ambled out to dark backyards, all scanning the heavens for a brief glimpse of a rapidly moving star. It was a communal experience that would later become known simply as “Sputnik Night.”

…. The American response to Sputnik bordered almost on panic. The Chicago Daily News declared that if the Soviets “could deliver a 184-pound ‘moon’ into a predetermined pattern 560 miles out into space, the day is not far distant when they could deliver a death-dealing warhead onto a predetermined target almost anywhere on the earth’s surface.” Newsweek magazine dolefully predicted that several dozen Sputniks equipped with nuclear bombs could “spew their lethal fallout over the U.S. and Europe.”

…. Thus, the United States and the Soviet Union began a duel for control of the heavens, the so-called “Space Race” that consumed both nations for the next 11 years, ending only when American astronauts first set foot on the Moon on July 20, 1969.

On this date in history, the starting gun sounded for the Space Race. The first leg of that race may have ended, but it is at least a relay if not a marathon. The longer race has barely begun.

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First Private ComSat, and Closest Comet Encounter

Fifty years ago today — July 10, 1962 — Telstar 1 launched from Cape Canaveral on a Delta rocket.


(Telstar 1. NASA image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Telstar 1 was built by AT&T Bell Telephone Laboratories, making it the first privately-built communications satellite, and broadcast the first live television signals between the U.S. and Europe. The spacecraft was short-lived — its “command channel began to behave erratically” in November and its transmitter failed in February 1963 — but it proved the concept and thereby led to the worldwide satellite communications we enjoy today.

In other space history, on this date 20 years ago, the Giotto probe made a flyby of Comet Grigg-Skjellerup, passing the comet’s nucleus at a distance of between 100-200 km (62-124 mi). It was Giotto’s second flyby, having studied Comet Halley on its primary mission, and the closest-ever flyby of a comet nucleus.

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'Buckshot' Launch Attempt

A half-century ago today — January 24, 1962 — a Thor AbleStar rocket out of Cape Canaveral attempted, but failed, to launch a group of five small satellites for the U.S. Navy.


(SOLRAD-1, the precursor to SOLRAD-4. US Navy image.)

The launch was called Composite-1, or “Buckshot,” and intended to launch:

  • SOLRAD-4 (Solar Radiation or SR-4) — intended to measure and analyze solar emissions, but also incorporating the GREB IV (Galactic Radiation Experimental Background, also known as Galactic Radiation and Background, or GRAB) reconnaissance payload
  • Lofti III — Low-Frequency Trans-Ionospheric satellite, a follow-on to Lofti-I
  • Injun-II — a University of Iowa payload to study the Van Allen radiation belt
  • Secor — Sequential Collation of Range, an experiment in geolocation
  • Surcal — Surveillance Calibration satellite, used to calibrate the Naval Space Surveillance system

According to the 02/01/62 issue of FLIGHT International, the launch failed because “the second stage of the Thor AbleStar failed to build up thrust after ignition.”

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