Could We Soon See the End of ITAR’s Chokehold on Space Exploration?

GPS Satellite
According to a new proposal, GPS satellites may be the key to finding dark matter. Credit: NASA


Jeff Foust of The Space Review may have said it best when he claimed that ITAR, a set of trade regulations regarding defense-related trade, was “an acronym that has become figuratively and literally a four-letter word in the industry given the costs, delays, and general uncertainty involved in dealing with those regulations.” No matter where you are on the political spectrum or no matter where you stand on the debate about what’s next in space, you will find people who hate the ITAR’s (International Trade Arms Regulations International Traffic in Arms Regulations) influence on space commerce. Even in this time of great partisanship, Rep. Howard Berman [D-CA28] along with six Democrats and four Republicans have joined forces to craft a sword that, once given to the president will eliminate ITAR’s influence on space commercial enterprise.

The Safeguarding United States Satellite Leadership and Security Act of 2011 is the name of the bill. Also named HR 3288, the act removes spacecraft and related components from the United States Munitions List which is a list of items which are controlled by ITAR. China, Cuba, Iran, Sudan, Syria, and North Korea have restricted access to US spacecraft merchants, easing fears that US technology would fall into the wrong hands.

HR 3288 has created much excitement in the space industry.

“Congress has the opportunity to dramatically improve the competitiveness of the U.S. satellite and space industries and ensure an innovative and thriving U.S. space industrial base,” said Patricia Cooper, the president of the Satellite Industry Association, in a press release. She added that they would be jumping for joy if it weren’t for the “outmoded and overly-restrictive regulation” they say they are under.

Why so much joy? Mitchell Baroody, political analyst, advocate, speaker and told Universe Today that “while ITAR may have some positive effects on National Security, the detrimental effects of these ‘red tape-laced’ regulations cannot be ignored.”

For instance, according to The Space Review in 2006, U.S. Satellite Manufacturers have estimated losses from ‘$2.5 and $6.0 billion since 1999 due primarily to ITAR regulations.’

“When industries become over-regulated, this is what happens,” Barody said. “As a result of ITAR, even…‘friendly’ foreign countries are weary of dealing with the U.S.”

This makes it difficult for our allies because spacecraft are listed after deadly toxicological agents and before destructive nuclear weapons with all three under the same trade rules. Despite this hilarious position, spacecraft’s removal is still, according to Space Politics, “an uphill battle, as Congress awaits the administration’s export control reform proposals as well as delivery of a final version of a report looking at the national security implications of moving satellite export control reform.”

This uphill struggle against protectionism might not be so bad because over the overwhelming need to create jobs. Baroody acknowledged that there are “many who are advocating protectionist ideals, like Donald Trump advocating increased trade tariffs of 25% with China in April of 2011.”

However, Baroody said, there are many more who know that in the present American economy, people are looking for any feasible solution to export control that has economic benefits. “Unfortunately, becoming more protectionist could have some very negative economic implications for the American consumer,” he said.

Baroody does not foresee this bill being stopped by the protectionist movement. “HR 3288 does not, in any way, benefit the one country who has been treating us unfairly, China,” he said. “This bill should not face an obstacle, in reference to protectionism.”

To Baroody, the thought “that idealists tendencies, which are not accurate, can dominate and win over more jobs, more freedom for American business, and more money in the pockets of Americans is…sickening.”

Some could counter-claim saying national security is at risk, but Baroody thinks the US government has gone too far.

“Before the satellite industry was given such a devastating blow in 1999, it is fair to say there was not enough oversight. However, putting satellites on the munitions list went way too far,” he said. “Now, American Manufacturers are winning with HR 3288 and American security is being preserved because the malevolent nations are excluded from being sold these satellites and components.”

Drilling down to the mechanics of the law, this is the only route Congress can take to export reform as Baroody explains: “Title 22 USC § 2778 (The ITAR) gives Congress oversight in munitions list removal. The President has to present any removals to Congress and cannot remove anything until 30 days have passed upon notification of the Speaker and specific committees. They specifically authorized the President to have discretion in removal. In HR 3288, Congress authorizes the President to remove the satellites and related components only if this does not cause a threat to National security.” In other words, congress can’t remove the spacecraft from the munitions list themselves.”

The Safeguarding United States Satellite Leadership and Security Act of 2011 is not perfect. “The bill includes risk-mitigating licensing controls, procedures, and safeguards,” Baroody said. “Red-tape and regulations are always going to get in the way of commerce, regardless of whether it involves space or some other category of commerce. If you put aside the risk mitigating licensing controls, procedures, and safeguards and look at America’s tax system, the answer is obvious.”

“The red-tape a company has to go through to get a product to market, like a satellite, can also be just as bad as paying more for it,” Baroody continued. “Having to paddle through the exorbitant amount of regulations to ensure you are legally allowed to sell your product and your buyer is allowed to keep it, is detrimental to every business. We should have regulations, but they should be within reason and should make sense. Government should not babysit our industries but they should keep an eye on them to make sure no one is getting hurt and the American people are being reasonably protected”.

This bill even has international implications. In an interview for The Space Review Dennis Burnett, vice president of trade and export controls for EADS North America expressed that “You cannot build a big sophisticated satellite without US parts and components, you just cannot do it…Those components might comprise no more than five percent of the satellite, but still, it’s a very important five percent.”

Because of this international impact, the bill was referred to the Foreign Affairs Committee on November 1st. This so called ‘Congress of specialists’ will, if they give the bill their time, study the bill then report on it. If the committee doesn’t give the bill their time, it will die there. Only after the committee’s review will there be a vote on the elimination of the ITAR.

Space Junk Problem? Just Fire a Laser!

An computer generated image of objects in Low Earth Orbit that are currently being tracked. Approximately 95% of the objects in this illustration are orbital debris. Credit - NASA


Imagine yourself as an astronaut performing scientific experiments and crowd-stunning aerobatics. Suddenly, ear-stinging, blaring alarms go off. Mission Control radios that all space station personnel should evacuate to the rescue vehicles because a piece of deadly space debris is headed your way.

This scenario isn’t science fiction. In June of 2011, Universe Today reported that “six crew members on board the International Space Station were told to take shelter in…two Russian Soyuz spacecraft.” As more satellites reach the end of their operational lives, there will be more space junk emergencies in space and on the ground, undoubtedly with less pleasant results. Our young space faring society has been lucky so far: the ISS has been able to steer clear of space junk, and falling, uncontrolled satellites have thankfully fallen into the oceans. But one day our luck will run out.

There is hope, however. A new paper titled Removing Orbital Debris with Lasers published on arXiv proposes using a high-power pulsed laser system from Earth to create plasma jets on pieces of space debris, slowing them slightly, causing them to re-enter and burn up in the atmosphere or fall into the ocean.

Claude Phipps and his team from a high-tech company named Photonic Associates outlined their method, called Laser Orbital Debris Removal (LODR) which uses 15-year-old laser technology which is now readily available.

The team recognized that “thirty five years of poor housekeeping in space have created several hundred thousand pieces of space debris larger than one cm in the …low Earth orbit (LEO) band.” These may not seem like large objects, but with the energy density of dynamite, even a large paint chip can cause major damage.

The photo shows the "energy flash" when a projectile launched at speeds up to 17,000 miles an hour impacts a solid surface at the Hypervelocity Ballistic Range at NASA's Ames Research Center. This test is used to simulate what happens when a piece of orbital debris hits a spacecraft in orbit. Credit - NASA

Removing debris is an urgent task because the amount of debris currently in space poses “runaway collisional cascading,” with objects colliding with each other, creating even more pieces of debris.

There are other solutions besides creating a plasma jet, but they tend to be both less effective and more expensive.  A laser could be used to grind down an object into dust, but this would create an uncontrollable molten spray, making the problem worse.

Grappling the object or attaching a de-orbiting kit can both be effective. Unfortunately, they require a lot of fuel due to the need to accelerate to catch the object, which leads to more a more costly solution – about $27 million per object. Finally, there is the nuclear option of releasing a gas, mist, or aerogel to slow down objects, but this would affect both operational and non-operational spacecraft.

In their paper, Phipps and his team say that removing space junk by creating a jet of plasma of a few seconds in length with a laser is the best solution, costing only $1 million per big object removed and a few thousand for small objects. Furthermore, smaller objects can be de-orbited in merely one orbit, and a constellation of  “167 different objects can be addressed (hit with a laser) in one day, giving 4.9 years to re-enter” the atmosphere.

All 167 objects must carefully be tracked as to not change their paths of doom for the worse; however, it is possible to use the system to adjust orbits of space junk. That being said, current levels of space debris tracking are not adequate to implement LODR, but there is a dual benefit of easier removal and better avoidance with improve debris tracking. Better tracking will then allow for better control of the re-entry point and orbit modification with LODR, if necessary.

How can a light-push from a laser modify an orbit? While the laser doesn’t blast the debris out of the air, it is still effective because of the nature of orbital mechanics.

Imagine a cubesat that needs to be disposed of in a low altitude, perfectly circular orbit. The tap from a high powered laser and the plasma jet generated would push the cubesat out, farther away from Earth (higher in altitude) and into a more elliptical orbit.

This might seem like a horrible idea during the time the cubesat spends at a higher altitude, but as it comes half circle, it clips the atmosphere at a lower altitude since the ellipse is warped due adjustments by the laser. Since a low altitude corresponds to more drag, the cubesat slows down and locks into a lower orbit. This is why highly elliptical orbits are called transfer orbits, as they change lanes on the highway of space. Now, with the transfer orbit complete, the cubesat is slowed enough so that its orbit can no longer be achieved by the cubesat. The cubesat then falls out of the sky.

A picture showing the accelerations needed to transfer orbits, the laser provides acceleration and the atmosphere provides deceleration. Credit - Wikimedia Commons, AndrewBuck
The meat of the research for LODR deals with the atmosphere as the laser can become unfocused if the atmospheric turbulence is not addressed. LODR is complicated because the turbulence in the atmosphere causes distortions like those you see above a road on a hot summer’s day or like those you see when looking through a glass bottle. This complication is in addition to the aiming ahead needed to hit a target, just like the aiming ahead needed to hit a running player in dodgeball.

There are two ways to cancel turbulence.  First, one can shine a laser at a known spot in the atmosphere, exciting the sodium atoms at that location. Knowing the height of this dot in the sky, the system can then flex the reflecting mirror to bring the dot into focus moment-by-moment. It can then fire freely.

A second way involves the use of a Phase Conjugate (PC) mirror, otherwise known as a retroflector, which could automatically undo turbulence by sending light who’s phase variation has been reversed. That is to say it will send back an “oppositely distorted” laser beam whose distortion is un-done by the atmosphere creating a sharp laser beam.

An illustration of the distortion caused by both a phase conjugate mirror and a normal mirror. While both mirrors receive distorted images, the PC mirror results in a clear picture whereas a normal mirror is doubly distorted when passing through disrupting medium. Credit - Wikimedia Commons, Danh
LODR is not a silver bullet. Wired reports that “the main criticism of such a project would come from the international community, which might fear that a powerful enough laser could be used for military purposes such as hitting enemy satellites.” Wired then conducted an interview with Kessler; NASA’s former Senior Scientist for Orbital Debris Research who said, because of the politics involved, “any laser proposal is dead on arrival.” However, Phipps asserts to Wired that “If we get the right international cooperation, no one would believe the laser to be a weapon in sheep’s clothing.”

There are still unaddressed problems, as Kessler points out, hitting the wrong part of a space object would have disastrous results. “You might hit the wrong part of a satellite or could vaporize enough to cause it to explode.” In spite of that, careful study of the object could avoid any danger.

Commercial Crew Assessments Carry On with CST-100 Wind Tunnel Tests

Front view of the Wind Tunnel Model - Credit: Boeing


Boeing recently began wind tunnel testing on its CST-100 (Crew Space Transport) capsule, designed to service destinations in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), locations like the ISS and Bigelow Space Stations. These tests have been on going since Sept. 17th of this year, collecting data on “20 different positions to mimic the different phases of an aborted landing”, Boeing said in a press release. These tests may lead to extensive changes and are critical to the craft’s safety.

The tests will move onto analyze ”approaches to abort before liftoff, abort after separation from the rocket, abort in orbit, etc” said Paula Korn, media contact for space exploration at Boeing, in an email to Universe Today. All these abort modes place high aerodynamic stress on the capsule and each abort mode has it own stresses. Each of the modes must be balanced for an ideal space system.

“Each of these approaches involves various aspects of problem solving and design solutions and are based on lessons learned from our 50 years of human spaceflight, starting with the early Mercury missions,” Korn said. “We are also integrating innovative, new design aspects to optimize safety, reliability and affordability objectives”.

An engineering view of the model - Credit: Boeing
Rear View of the Wind Tunnel Model - Credit: Boeing

The test platform was a 1/14th scale representation of the crew module and service module – the cone that houses the crew connected the uninhabited cylinder that houses the engines and other support systems. Jutting out of the model of the service module there are four thruster doghouses in addition to one umbilical cover for the crew and service modules. Poking out of the back of the model are four LAS (Launch Abort System) thrusters.

This extensive detail in the model combined with “hundreds of pinhole-sized sensors” give Boeing engineers precise views of the aerodynamics of the CST-100. “As engineers, we like data and numbers, and you can take all of this and make something meaningful out of it,” said Boeing engineer Dustin Choe. “We can reduce it down and provide a clearer picture of what we will experience in flight.” Based on this data there will be further changes to the spacecraft.

The CST-100's Flight Path - Credit: Boeing

There are more tests in store for Boeing’s answer to NASA’s Commercial Crew Development program. Boeing and Bigelow have already “dropped a mock capsule off a moving truck,” Boeing said in the press release, “to test the external airbags the real spacecraft would deploy to cushion a landing on Earth.”. “In the first quarter 2012,” Korn confirmed that “we are planning to perform parachute drop tests”.