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Where Will U.S. Spy Satellite Fall?

By now, if you're even the least technically inclined person, you've heard that a large U.S. satellite in orbit above us has lost the ability to control its position and is slowly drifting back to earth. U.S. officials conveyed the information to major news outlets, such as the New York Times and the Associated Press, on Saturday under anonymous conditions. Though the officials were cautious to categorize the nature of the machine, independent space experts quickly pegged it as a crippled spy satellite.

"Appropriate government agencies are monitoring the situation," Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council, replied when asked about the matter after the news was leaked. "Numerous satellites over the years have come out of orbit and fallen harmlessly. We are looking at potential options to mitigate any possible damage this satellite may cause."

Beyond that, he would not comment on the status of the satellite or what measures might be employed to control its descent.

However, one intelligence expert who would go on the record, John Pike, told an AP reporter that spy satellites typically are disposed of through a controlled re-entry into the ocean to render the spacecraft inaccessible and he discounted any notion that the U.S. would try to destroy the object in orbit with a missile, as that would create an even more uncertain outcome for it.

Pike, the director of the defense research group said the vehicle in question is most likely an NROL-21 earth imaging satellite, which failed in its mission shortly after lift-off a year ago. For purposes of comparison, he told the AP that the slowly descending object is about the size of a small bus.

On its Web site, described the situation in these words:

A Delta II lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base on 14 December 2006, carrying the NROL-21 USA-193 satellite. The NROL-21 spacecraft failed within hours of its launch. By January 2008 the satellite was expected to reenter the Earth's atmosphere in late February or March. Although some of the spacecraft would burn up on reenty, the uncontrolled reentry could result in some heavier pieces of debris reaching the Earth's surface. The odds were about three in four that the debris would hit an ocean area. Although the safety hazard of the impacting debris was small, there was some concern that secrets of the spacecraft could be compromised if the debris were recovered by a hostile intelligence agency.

As to why the satellite failed in the first place, another expert told the New York Times it was essentially a matter of communications. "Itâ''s not necessarily dead, but deaf," said Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

In light of the toxic substances spy satellites use in their missions, he added: "For the most part, re-entering space hardware isnâ''t a threat because so much of the Earth is empty. But one could say weâ''ve been lucky so far."

With a timeline of a month or so before the orbit of the NROL-21 decays to a point where it plummets through the atmosphere, there will be plenty of opportunitiy for scientists to calculate its probable crash site. The odds are good, though, that it will not be situated near your neighborhood or anyone else's.

Out of Africa: every (digital) picture tells a story

Digital photography remains relatively expensive in Africa. An American graduate student, Eric Green of the University of South Carolina, has found a way to introduce the power of documented visual images to among the poorest children in the world.

Green is studying psychological reactions of people living in â''displacement campsâ'' in northern Uganda. The camps are usually clusters of traditional huts built along roads and in the center of villages in a remote, impoverished part of Uganda. As a sideline, Green loaned two digital cameras to 12 teenagers in the Opit camp, about 45 minutes outside the provincial capital of Gulu. Last fall, the teens took thousands of pictures of their peers, parents and environment.

â''So many people study refugees and speak for them,â'' Green told me by phone. â''My idea was to let the kids speak directly.â''

Green calls his project â''Photovoice.â'' None of his kids, ages 12 to 16, had ever used a camera before. The dozen teenagers took turns taking shots over a period of weeks.

I met several of the Opit teens in a school classroom near their camp earlier this month. On a hot and dusty day, I found them pining away for the chance to take more pictures. Green paid for the project out of his own pocket, and only loaned cameras to the youths, who last took photos in September.

Catherine Achan, one of the kids I met, clearly grasped the power of photography, an old technology undergoing rapid change of late.

â''Pictures are factual,â'' says Achan, who is 16. â''We can use pictures to fight deceit.â''

Peter Oola, another youth in the project, talked about how he could capture the everyday labor of ordinary people in his camp. His favorite photo is of a man selling boiled maize, a tasty dish that goes for a few pennies.

Oola, who is 14, says his photos â''give clues to other people about how we live.â''

At the end of September, about a thousand photos were projected on a wall in a community center. The Ugandans watched the images for hours. â''What was most remarkable to the adults was that children took these photographs,â'' says Jimmy Bentham, who coordinates the project.

Putting digital cameras in the hands of poor African youth, while a modest initiative, highlights the way that information technologies alter the self-image of those who use them, especially in the developing world. â''I felt special with a camera,â'' Achan says. When other children, and even adults, followed her around while she snapped photos, â''I felt important,â'' she recalls.

Achan misses not having a camera. She wants a camera in her hands â'' and to feel important again.

Big Brother and Nanobots


Do you ever get the feeling that all the interest groups that have positioned themselves in opposition to nanotechnology are doing so more out of perceived threat of authoritarian governments, or worse, big business, than any real concerns about the specifics of nanotechnology?

It would probably be a worthy study, but in the meantime, let me offer you the latest in a paranoid dystopian future where â''advances in nanotechnology will allow swarms of nanobots (or â''nanoidsâ'')â'' to search our private property.

Thereâ''s not much here in terms of specifics of nanotechnology, but there is plenty of rant on the recent warrantless surveillance conducted under the Bush administration.

Spurred by the potential for the future that is predicted by 2040, the Foresight Institute urges the drafting of guidelines for responsible use of these nanobots, I suppose just regarding privacy issues.

Is self-parody in their lexicon?

If you donâ''t think this is funny enough, take a read of the comments section where by coincidence just such a study is being proposed for the National Science Foundation.

I am not sure which I should be more perturbed by as a taxpayer that the government in cahoots with the telecoms is eavesdropping on my international phone calls or that the government would fund research into nanotechnology and privacy issues.

Bluetooth Offers Wounded Veterans a Leg Up

Doctors with the U.S. military are using prosthetics equipped with Bluetooth transceivers to help badly injured combat veterans walk again. A news article on CNN online today reports that rehabilitation specialists at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in Washington, D.C., are fitting soldiers and marines who have lost both lower limbs in fighting in Iraq with artificial legs that use Bluetooth (an IEEE standard) to communicate their relative position and momentum between each other. The result is greater effectiveness in controlling their new legs for the recovering vets.

The CNN article focuses primarily on the status of Marine Lance Cpl. Joshua Bleill, who lost both his legs above the knees when a bomb exploded under his Humvee while on patrol in Iraq in October 2006. He has 32 pins in his hip and a 6-inch screw holding his pelvis together, according to the news service. Medical engineers created innovative prostheses for Bleill that employ wireless communications chips that use Bluetooth to signal one another about what the marine is doing as he moves his upper legs. The chips then send instructions to motors in the artificial joints of the legs so that their knees and ankles can move in synchronized fashion.

"They mimic each other, so for stride length, for amount of force coming up, going uphill, downhill and such, they can vary speed and then to stop them again," Bleill told CNN. "We've compared walking several laps in both sets of legs and one, your legs come out burning and tired and these, you know, you sometimes are not even breaking a sweat yet."

Bleill has not mastered the new technology sufficiently to walk without the help of a cane, but he says he is determined to do so as soon as possible. Plus, he has offered some important feedback to the prosthetics researchers on ways they can improve their invention.

"It's only going to react to how I move," Bleill noted. "Unfortunately, sometimes I don't know those reactions, I don't know what I'm doing to make it react. So sometimes the leg kicks harder than I want it to, or farther, and then I start perpetuating, and I start moving faster than I really want to."

While he's far from being a bionic man, Bleill understands the opportunity he's been given to return to a semblance of normalcy after his war experience and rehabilitation. He plans to look into ways he can "give back" to his country once he returns to his home in the Indianapolis area by seeking work for a charitable organization and to "just carry on a normal life."

It sounds like he's well on his way to that goal already, with a little help from skilled doctors and technicians.

[Editor's Note: IEEE Spectrum Executive Editor Glenn Zorpette toured Iraq in late 2005 to report first-hand on the reconstruction of the war-torn nation's infrastructure and published a series of award-winning accounts on the facts on the ground at that time, such as "Re-engineering Iraq". He currently is revisiting the scene as an embedded reporter with the U.S. Army and is filing updates on the renewed recovery effort in our Tech Talk blog. Look for further updates from Zorpette as they become available, as well as future feature-length reportage once he returns to the United States.

Plus, next week, look for a Spectrum report on inventor Dean Kamen's latest marvel, the Luke Arm. Named for the sci-fi prosthesis Luke Skywalker was fitted with in the "Star Wars" saga, Kamen's innovative artificial arm is now pending approval (and research funding) from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency as a technology suitable for military personnel returning from combat with lost upper limbs.]

American Superconductor Secures Project Hydra Contract

Last year, the best-known and hardest-charging company commercializing the so-called high-temperature superconductors, American Superconductor Corporation (AMSC), came under fire in connection with a contract to upgrade the New York City power system. The basic idea, which was new and untested, was that by using superconducting cable in the New York distribution grid, not only could the capacity of the system be increased up to ten-fold, but the intrinsic properties of superconductors could be exploited to damp excess currents.

AMSC and its subcontracting partner in the plan, New Yorkâ''s Con Edison, obtained a commitment to fund the project from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. DHS saw the project, which it dubbed Hydra, as an opportunity to demonstrate technology that could be used to fortify grids against breakdown and attack everywhere in the country. But because of a pattern of sole-source contracting between AMSC and U.S. government agencies, and the role of one person in particular in negotiating such contracts for the government, Project Hydra came into the sights of Representative John Dingell (D-Mich.), surely the most feared investigator on Capitol Hill.

AMSC had obtained contracts to develop superconducting electric motors for the U.S. Navy, when Rear Admiral Jay M. Cohen was Chief of Naval Research, and now this very same Cohen was giving AMSC another big contract as a research director at DHS!

AMSC and Project Hydra appear now to have survived Dingellâ''s challenge. The company announced yesterday that DHS has signed a contract with AMSC to proceed with demonstration of the companyâ''s Secure Super Grids technology in New York, using its second-generation â''344â'' cable. DHS, having already paid AMSC $3.8 million under a letter agreement, will now pay up to a total of $25 million to complete the project, contingent on demonstrated performance, step-by-step.

What Dingell may have missed, as emphasized in the analytic story IEEE Spectrum published about Project Hydra last November, is that this is basically a research and development project: as it proceeds, new technology will be developed and tested, and only if it pans out at each stage will the next phase of the project be funded. But if Dingell is confused, heâ''s not to be blamed. The company itself, seeking to project a confident image and to persuade the world that this is a wholly done deal, has obscured the projectâ''s experimental character.

One New Year's resolution checked off: I'm finally on Facebook


Iâ''m usually the early adopter in my family (among the adults, anyway), so I was a bit chagrined late last year when my husband got a Facebook page before me. And then, at CES, a few people, besides handing me a business card, said â''Friend me on Facebook.â'' Clearly, I needed to do this. It went to the top of my to-do list for 2008; I didnâ''t care if â''Over 40 is Facebook Creepy.â''

It wasnâ''t as simple as it was supposed to be. First, Facebook didnâ''t like my name; apparently, and flagged it as fake. I had to send an email to customer service and wait for a real person to override the system and let me sign up. Then, since I typically use Eudora (I know, old tech, but Iâ''m not the only one hanging on to it), it couldnâ''t hunt my web-based email list to automatically find friends. Instead, I cut and paste a few of my mailing lists into Facebookâ''s Friendfinder. The first list it sorted the addresses into two sections, indicating who among my friends were on Facebook and would be contacted. The second time I loaded a list it choked; I wasnâ''t sure if any invites went out, but later got a few responses, so it apparently worked.

In spite of those glitches, it was pretty simple, and I now have a Facebook page and 35 friends. I now know that one of my friends is addicted to online scrabble and another

reads a lot of blogs.

The first few days on Facebook I checked pretty frequently; it was fun watching peopleâ''s pictures pop up in my friend screen. I definitely need a much hipper picture, the classic Facebook photo seems to be something involving a tilted head partially obscured by a door or a computer or a hand; mine is boring, though I changed it to black and white to make it a little more artsy. I scanned through some of the more popular applications; none really grabbed me. I donâ''t really want to take movie quizzes, collect virtual fish in an aquarium, or track my reading on a virtual bookshelf. But Iâ''d better pick a few soon, my page is pretty dull.

Iâ''m not sure how useful Facebook is going to turn out to be. When Iâ''m traveling, I expect Iâ''ll flag that information in my â''statusâ'' line; every now and then I find out that someone I know and I crossed paths during travel; it would be great to know that ahead of time. And likely when my son goes to college in a year and a half, I may come to love Facebookâ''s updates on his activities.

Richard Branson: 2008 Is "Year of the Spaceship"

Yesterday, at the Museum of Natural History in New York City, Richard Branson, the British entrepreneur famed for his airline and music businesses, unveiled his latest space transport designs for a system capable of carrying passengers on sub-orbital flights on a paid basis to his Virgin Galactic operation. The designs of the new spacecraft and its launch craft, respectively named SpaceShipTwo and White Knight Two, expand upon the work done by aeronautics legend Burt Rutan's company Scaled Composites, of Mojave, Calif., which won the coveted Ansari X Prize in 2004 by becoming the first private endeavor to achieve human spaceflight. Virgin Galactic said that the new spaceship and mothership will begin flight tests this summer in New Mexico.

"I think it's very important that we make a genuine commercial success of this project," Branson said to the gathered media yesterday, according to an account from BBC News. "If we do, I believe we'll unlock a wall of private sector money into both space launch systems and space technology. This could rival the scale of investment in the mobile phone and Internet technologies after they were unlocked from their military origins and thrown open to the private sector."

The construction of SpaceShipTwo is reportedly 60 percent complete. It is being built to accommodate a crew of two pilots and six passengers, who will fly sometime in 2009, if all goes according to plan, from a facility called Spaceport America, near Upham, N.M. The overall flight should last about 2.5 hours and reach an altitude of 110 kilometers (the defined edge of space), where it will provide passengers with the experience of weightlessness for approximately 6 minutes, as well as a view of the planet below that only a few professional space travelers have seen before. In recompense, the spacecraft's first 100 passengers will pay Virgin Galactic US $200 000.

The company announced that it has already received tens of millions of dollars in deposits from some 200 individuals who would like to be early participants aboard the new spacecraft, which will be christened VSS Enterprise. The list of civilian pioneers includes actor William Shatner, famed for helming the fictional ship of the same name in the TV series "Star Trek", as well as other celebrities such as Sigourney Weaver and Stephen Hawking, according to Virgin Galactic.

Branson also said at the New York press conference that SpaceShipTwo will be made available to research groups interested in launching payloads into near orbit at a fraction of the price of rocket delivery.

"As far as science is concerned, this system offers tremendous potential to researchers who will be able to fly experiments much more often than before, helping to answer key questions about Earth's climate and the mysteries of the universe," Branson told the media.

On its Web site, Virgin Galactic noted that the White Knight Two mothership will be powered by four Pratt and Whitney PW308A engines, 'which are amongst the most powerful, economic, and efficient engines available', as part of a call on Branson's part to make the entire project as environmentally responsible as possible.

In a prepared statement on the site, Branson said yesterday: "[W]e are all very excited about the prospect of being able to develop a bio-fuel solution for the space launch system and we are looking forward to working with Pratt and Whitney and Virgin Fuels to trial an appropriate bio mix for the PW308A engines that will be powering our new carrier aircraft."

To herald the advent of the new era of civilian space travel, the marketing department at Virgin Galactic is dubbing 2008 as "The Year of the Spaceship."

It should be quite an auspicious calendar to keep track of.

Clearing IEDs and Saving Lives in Iraq


I'm back for a night at Camp Victory after a couple days with an Explosives Ordnance Demolition team at a dusty Forward Operating Base south of Baghdad....

EOD techs are called in whenever IEDs are found, and, using robots, they either disable and collect the devices for forensic analysis or they blow them up. They are also called in to help troops move through an area, often by clearing routes of IEDs.

The EOD techs I talked to were all young, gung ho, profanely funny, and smart. There was a sign taped to the door of their tent: “It you open this box, run away as fast as you can and call EOD. If you are reading this message, you are already dead.”' They had lots of video they'd shot of the explosions, some huge, that occurred when they blew up IEDs.

One guy described a mission he'd been on this past Nov. 7 to accompany troops moving on foot through a bad area south of Baghdad. Their objective was to “go in and capture some high-value individuals.” Or, presumably, kill them, but he didn't say that specifically. There were two EOD techs, including the guy who told me the story.

The patrol was being led by a CLC who said he knew where the IEDs were. The area was known to have a lot of pressure-plate IEDs, which go off when the victim steps on the plate. One and a half kilometers in, they came under fire briefly, and took cover. The fire stopped; apparently this is SOP for the insurgents. They fire on Coalition troops to slow and harass the troops (and, of course, kill them if they can) and then they flee, because the insurgents understand they can't win a protracted gun battle.

After they realized the insurgents were gone, the patrol continued on. After about 150 meters, they heard another shot, which they assumed was from the same insurgents. But it was the CLC, who had taken it upon himself to shoot a single bullet at an abandoned house that was thought to have been used by Al Qaeda recently. The troops, not knowing where the shot came from, jumped in a canal to take cover. Then, after a few minutes, still not knowing that the shot had come from their own CLC, the officer leading the group brought up a fire team of three rifleists to address the perceived threat from the abandoned house. As the team was going forward, with the officer, one of the rifleists stepped on a pressure-plate IED and it blew, severely injuring the three rifleists and the officer. One of the IED guys immediately began using technical means (it's classified) to “clear” the area, i.e., make sure there weren't other IEDs.

They had to do this even before medics could go to the injured men, because there was no way of knowing whether there were other IEDs. The other troops had to stay still, because of that possibility, not uncommonly, IEDs are placed in groups. Basically, the EOD tech had to clear the area around the injured men so that they could be reached safely. He cleared an area to the most gravely injured guy, the one who had stepped on the plate, and the other EOD tech (the one who was telling me the story) dragged that severely injured soldier to a spot where the medic could start administering first aid. Then the first EOD tech had to clear an area so that the medevac helicopter, already on its way, could land.

He had no sooner done this than a sergeant yelled that he saw another IED nearby. So then that first EOD tech had to clear the area around *that* IED so that the troops there could move away safely.

It turned out that the IED that blew and the one the sergeant found were the only two devices they found. The guy who stepped on the plate died in a field hospital. He had a wife and two young kids. The other three guys had frag wounds in their legs and one of those guys also broke a leg. The officer leading the patrol never stopped giving orders and leading the patrol.

New NASA Rocket Has Vibration Problems

Over the weekend, we learned the U.S. space agency's new rocket for the next generation of space vehicles has a design problem that could seriously undermine its progress. Still on the drawing board, the proposed Ares class of main propulsion engines has an engineering flaw that will most likely lead to severe vibrations upon launch, according to a report from the Associated Press.

The new Ares rockets are being developed to lift the spacecraft that will replace the shuttle into orbit. They are designed to take advantage of successful technology modified from the shuttle program and are officially designated as Shuttle-Derived Launch Vehicle prototypes. NASA plans to use them to return to the Moon by the year 2020--and keep on going from there to Mars ultimately.

Relying on solid-fuel engines, the first of their class, Ares I, is to be the rocket that will serve to propel the astronauts onboard the proposed Orion crew launch vehicle into space. Engineers are now pointing out that the current design of the Ares I shows flaws in the use of the first-stage solid rocket boosters (SRBs) that could lead to significant shaking of the units, possibly transmitting vibrations up the rocket. Should the vibration problem be severe enough during ascent to cause damage to the upper stages of the craft, it could prove to be catastrophic.

Reached by the AP after it had learned of the flaw through a Freedom of Information Act petition, NASA managers said they were fully aware of the problem and expected to have it fixed by as early as March, posing no delay to the overall schedule of the pending Project Constellation program.

"I hope no one was so ill-informed as to believe that we would be able to develop a system to replace the shuttle without facing any challenges in doing so," Administrator Michael Griffin said in a statement to the AP. "NASA has an excellent track record of resolving technical challenges. We're confident we'll solve this one as well."

One of the outside experts recruited by the news service to examine the design of the Ares I agreed with others that the SRBs' tendency to vibrate at lift-off posed a serious hazard, but he was also confident that NASA would be able to overcome it.

"NASA has developed one of the safest and risk-controlled space programs in engineering history," Professor Jorge Arenas of the Institute of Acoustics in Valdivia, Chile, told the AP.

As the report explains:

The shaking problem, which is common to solid rocket boosters, involves pulses of added acceleration caused by gas vortices in the rocket similar to the wake that develops behind a fast-moving boat, said Arenas, who has researched vibration and space-launch issues. Those vortices happen to match the natural vibrating frequencies of the motor's combustion chamber, and the combination causes the shaking.

The SRBs for the Ares I are being built by ATK Launch Systems of Brigham City, Utah.

The first launch of the Ares I to carry astronauts into space is scheduled for March 2015.

That gives NASA a good size window to make sure every possible bug in the system has been identified and eliminated. Historically, it is an agency that understands just how much is at stake.

Road blocks on the hydrogen highway

master_map-N_05022007_02.jpgRemember the â''hydrogen highway?â'' This was California Governor Arnoldâ''s Schwarzeneggerâ''s vision back in 2004. He proclaimed that, by 2010, California highways would be lined with hydrogen fueling stations, some 20 miles apart throughout the state, enabling hydrogen-powered cars and buses to travel freely. He signed an executive order setting up a private and public partnership to implement that vision.

2010 is almost here, and it hasnâ''t exactly worked out. (We didnâ''t think it would; IEEE Spectrum called the effort a â''loserâ'' in its January 2004 issue.) At its peak in 2006, the state had 24 stations; now it has 23, next month that number is expected to drop to 22 when PG&E closes a San Francisco station. While a few new ones opened, a few also closed. And several planned were never built. The California Air Resources Board agreed to spend about $1 million each to fund stations built by the San Diego Unified School District and the California State University-Los Angeles; both projects fell through. And PG&E just turned down $1.5 million to build a hydrogen refueling station in San Carlos.

The Air Resources Board hasnâ''t given up; itâ''s putting out a call for proposals for a total of $7.7 million of funding already set aside for new hydrogen fuel stations or upgrades. And the new state budget asks for $6 million more for such projects. But will there be any takers?


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