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November 15, 2007

Orbiting Eyes: Things You Didn't Know Satellites Are Doing -A Galaxy Classic

Google_satellite 1.  Creating space plagues

Many astro-boffins are upset that there isn't more money and attention for the space program, but few would go as far as a group of researchers from the Arizona State University who created a super-infectious strain of space bacteria.  We can only imagine that the next time they request funding they'll be casually juggling glass vials of the super-space-disease and contemplating how terrible it would be if there was an accident.

The team collaborated with NASA shuttle mission STS-115, soon to be known as "The end of the old ways", conspiring to expose Salmonella microbes to the stresses of space travel "to investigate the effect of space flight on cellular and physiological responses" i.e. to see what happens.  Please remember that the last people exposed to space radiation to see what happened developed superpowers and became the Fantastic Four.  I might have suggested choosing a Nobel peace prize winner or a firefighter for this experiment, not a disease known for extremely unpleasant days in the bathroom.

Unfortunately I was not on hand to advise/sabotage this shadowy team of superbug makers, and their devilish plot succeeded.  The returning microbes are now three times as nasty as their primitive Earth-bound cousins.  The scientists responsible continue to act like successfully creating a cosmic gut-plague was a good thing.

2. Tracking cows

The Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority will use Global Positioning System-enabled collars to track the movements and eating habits of a herd of fifty cows.  The idea of satellite tracking animals is nothing new, but it's normally for animals that move around just a little bit more in environments a little more challenging than the scenic Yorkshire dales..  Whoever went all the way to "use space technology" to answer the question "What do cows eat?" missed a few simple steps including:

a) Walk over to the cows
b) Look at what the cows are eating
c) Identify this strange green bladed plant that seems to grow everywhere, underneath the sky which is blue.

3.  Locating delicious barbecued turtles

Those worried about the ultimate big brother turning us all into obedient cattle (though I can't imagine how anyone would get that idea from this article) doesn't need to worry.  The fact is that those satellites are an incredibly large distance away, and while they can watch all they want they can't interfere in any way.  Like the lonely soul watching the late night skin flicks, they are to be pitied instead of feared.   This was never more clear than the case of the San Diego biologists using GPS tracking to keep an eye on a 50 year old giant sea turtle, 110 kilograms of rare sea animal, and were worried when transmissions ceased after three months.  Investigating the creature's last known position, they found that the turtle wasn't well - it was delicious.

A local village had caught and eaten the turtle, the barbecuing and consumption not being a process the transmitter had been designed to deal with.  Worse, thousands of school children had been tracking the turtle online to learn about ecology and conservation - and we have to admit this was a much more effective lesson about conservation than the teachers were expecting.

4.  The ultimate back seat driver

A safety program tested in the UK could enable satellites to cut your speed from space if it thinks you're going too fast.  A little hypocritical, since geosynchronous satellites clock up 3 km/s (that's 6,750 mph) to you, but at thirty million meters up at least they're safe from road rage reprisals.  The scheme is called "Intelligent Speed Adaptation" (ISA), showing that those responsible at least have good PR skills because in no way does that name suggest "slowing down" or "we will take over your car".

Unfortunately those behind the study have contaminated their own data: the test cars were twenty modified Skoda Fabias.  Unless those modifications went beyond "adding gps controls" and into "make it look like something other than a Skoda Fabia", no-one is going to do anything that risks drawing attention to them driving a Skoda.  Besides the fact that people who answer "yes please!" to the question "Would you like to drive a car that won't let you go fast?" are not a good test market, in the same way a chess club isn't a great place to test punchbags.

5.  Creating irony 

While satellites have been used to find natural resources on Earth and have even been proposed to harvest energy from space , only a group of UK researchers have managed to use space itself to produce that rarest of elements - irony.  A team from the University of Surrey designed a compact nanosatellite designed to remove the larger pieces of trash in orbit around the Earth.  It's no secret that there's an awful lot of junk up there and that even a fleck of paint moving at orbital velocities can smash a hole in anything (a fact that has been quoted in every single documentary and article on space since 1970).

The SNAP satellite was intended to latch onto a large piece of space debris and use its boosters to heroically pull itself and the junk into re-entry where both burn up.  Unfortunately during testing unexpected factors caused the SNAP satellite to veer away from its intended target, and it ran out of fuel before completing its mission.  The report is careful not to reveal the final fate of the satellite, so we can conclude that if there ever is a trash-busting SNAP-2, its mission will be "Go up and get rid of SNAP-1".

Unfortunately such a mission isn't on the cards as the team have not yet secured funding for a second trial.  It just goes to show - if you want to sell TV or cellphones there are buyers lining up around the block, but doing something stupid like "improving the situation for everyone" won't earn you any money.

Posted by Luke McKinney

Related Galaxy posts:

Hiding in Plain Sight - Google Maps, Submarine Tunnels & Spy Satellites Over Greenland
Cryptome -The Google of SecretsThe New, Real "Minority Report": How the U.S. Gov't Aims to Catch Criminals That Haven’t Yet Committed a Crime

The Rise of the Surveillance Society—“Big Brother” or Common Sense?
Cyber Warfare: What the Pentagon Security Breech Says About the Future
The Manchurian Bot
Motion Tracking - Sci-Fi Meets Real World

Story links:

http://www.ee.surrey.ac.uk/SSC/research/astrodynamics/rendezvous http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/797338.stm


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Unless I missed something. this article, being unsigned, is anonymous. Given the tone and the truncated links (better than none, but still not very usefull), by anology with previous papers, I would bet the author is Rebecca Sato: do I get a prize? ;)

Everyone is entitled to his own opinions, and I greatly enjoy reading about different opinions from mine, but I find the accusation of wanting to create a space disease (not even counting the supposed plan to blackmail a space-agency) quite far-fetched, and a bit insulting to the scientists concerned.
1) It would be interesting to know that if Salmonella is less or more potent in space, if only to adapt our precautions (if it is much more potent in space, better know it through an experiment rather than through the bad cleaning habits of one astronaut).
2) The same could have been said about a similar experience with any form of life, and in particular any unicellular form of life, which are all causing problems when developping without limits.

Rebecca (or whoever wrote this piece): I enjoy your prose and your acidic tone is amusing, but at least please make your pointers usable, so that I (and others) can get the original story directly, especially if you let yourself distort it that much...

JyBy, I wish I had written this witty/interesting piece, but it was actually posted by fellow writer Luke McKinney.

FYI, us writers have no site access to fix broken/truncated links etc, but you make a fair point. It's annoying! I really appreciate that you're reading The Daily Galaxy though, and we'll do what we can to make sources and related articles more accessible. xx

You apparently know little to nothing about GPS (global positioning system). The GPS satellites DO NOT track ANYTHING. The receiver / device triangulates its position using the signals from several different GPS satellites, and then by radio, relays the info to a tracker.

"It's no secret that there's an awful lot of junk up there and that even a fleck of paint moving at orbital velocities can smash a hole in anything (a fact that has been quoted in every single documentary and article on space since 1970)."

So why aren't all of our satellites ripped to shreds by now? Surely some of this junk, debris and space particles must be moving way faster than the satellites. You hear that even a fleck of paint can smash a hole, but why doesn't it ever happen or does it? Just wondering because you never hear that a satellite got wiped out by a fleck of paint.

re: #2 - How are GPS receivers on cows something that the satellites are doing? Sounds like a ground-based technology, unless the cows' receivers are then transmitting the data back up to the satellite (doubtful).

Sounds like receivers on cows are simply receiving the GPS signal and storing the location data, either to be downloaded later or transmitted real-time via an existing terrestrial network (mobile phone).

Oh and #6 lets not forget tracking all those people who wear tinfoil hats!

i prefer not to panic until big brother makes me wear a GPS collar or something ...
let them watch cows ...

in response to wow just wow's post, think of how much room there is in the upper atmosphere. That's probably why nothing is colliding. I would feel bad for the poor astronaut that gets hit by a bolt going that fast.

Can cows ever have privacy!?!?!??!

Why would you waste that energy to watch Cows? I guess they need to find out if California cows really are happiest.

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