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Satellite Strike Marks New Space Race

On the list of all-time non-reassuring assurances, today's Pentagon statement about the downing of crippled U.S. spy satellite ranked high.
On the list of all-time non-reassuring assurances, today's Pentagon statement about the downing of crippled U.S. spy satellite ranked high."We're very confident that we hit the satellite," said Marine Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "We also have a high degree of confidence that we got the tank."

That's like saying, "We know we hit the plane, and we're pretty sure we got the nuclear warhead it was carrying, too." Coming just over a year after China shot down a satellite of its own in a similar display of missile-accuracy muscle, yesterday's mission, not surprisingly, set off fears of a new and ominous "arms race in space."

"The operation also added to concerns about disruption of space assets vital for 21st-century global commerce and security," Reuters noted in an analysis today.

But shooting down satellites is old hat -- we've been doing that since the Cold War. For people worried about a new space-based arms race, I have bad news: it's already under way. Only the "arms" involved are not missiles or space-based death rays, but big telecom satellites being launched in a drive to provide more bandwidth down here in terrestrial space. After a major crash following the bursting of the tech bubble in 2001-02 and a series of embarrassing flops, including the explosion of a Sea Launch Zenit 3SL rocket on its ocean-based platform last year, the global satellite industry is enjoying a major boom:

  • As part of its plan for "an advanced next-generation hybrid media system" that will combine satellite and terrestrial networks, ICO Global Communications will launch a new North American geosynchronous satellite, ICO G1, on April 14.

  • ViaSat-1, "expected to be the world's highest capacity broadband satellite," will go into orbit in early 2011, to be launched by Space Systems/Loral. ViaSat is a joint venture from top satellite broadband providers including Loral, Telesat, and Eutelsat.

  • Making a push to become the world's largest supplier of satellite-based communications, "China plans 10 space launches this year including the Shenzhou VII spaceship, according to a scientist from China's top space program research institute," reported the Xinhua news agency, adding that according to Yang Baohua, head of the China Academy of Space Technology, the PRC plants "to send a record number of satellites into space in the next five to 10 years."

  • Not wanting to be left out, India last September sent a new Insat-4CR communications satellite into space -- a launch "viewed as crucial to India's aims to grab a slice of the 2.5-billion-dollar heavy satellite launch business as well as meet its own booming telecommunications demand," according to Agence France-Presse.

    Worldwide satellite revenue grew nearly 20% from 2005-06, the last period for which figures are available, according to the Satellite Industry Association. The highest growth was in satellite manufacturing, which enjoyed a 54% jump in revenue. That growth is expected to continue in 2008, as demand for high-bandwidth services, particularly high-definition broadcasting, accelerates. The United States, it should be noted, is seeing its share of commercial satellite launches decrease amid this spurt.

    And it's not the threat of getting shot down by a rival government that worries satellite manufacturers and operators; it's signal-jamming.

    "Since 90 percent of commercial satellite revenues are from spacecraft in much higher geostationary orbits, kinetic ASAT [anti-satellite] weapons are not a big concern to industry," David Cavossa, executive director of the SIA, told an industry event last March, according to Aviation Week. "Of much greater concern are indirect attacks on satellites through jamming their signals, Cavossa said. There have been several high-profile jamming incidents in recent years, including Iran's jamming of U.S. satellites and the jamming of the Thuraya satellite last year."

    Middle Eastern sat-phone operator Thuraya had its signals jammed last year, most likely by the Libyan government. Expect to see more of such outer-space techno-intrigue as the new satellite arms race gains altitude.

  • Editor's Choice
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    Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing