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Tech-Op-ed July, 2020 SOUNDING OFF

By Michael Skinner Editor

Constellations 2.0 — Orbital Internet

downs of all of human history. Now, you can catch a glimpse of more than 2,500 artificial lights, some


on a clear night with the naked eye, arcing at incredible speeds through vari- ous planes of orbit. These satellite constellations have been circling the plan- et for nearly 30 years. The corporate visionaries of the 1990s included GlobalStar, Iridium,

Odyssey, and Teledesic. Unfortunately, each of these pioneers, except Iridium, scaled back or ultimately canceled their orbital plans, after limited demand could not balance the costs involved. The first major satellite networks in those early days were GPS and

GLONASS. The GPS constellation, now operated by the United States Space Force (USSF), contains 31 satellites with 27 in use at a given time. A mini- mum of four satellites at a time is needed to track a position, but with the cur- rent array, nine are visible at once from any point on Earth. GPS satellites oc- cupy six planes of medium Earth orbit (MEO), roughly 12,500 mi (20,000 km) above sea level. This distance yields an orbital period of 12 hours, so each satellite completes the same ground track two times per day. Since then, ambitions for orbital satellite constellations have remained

large, fueled by the demand for ever-greater bandwidth. Still, attempts at cre- ating broad, low-Earth-orbit (LEO) satellite constellations have all but failed, most notably by LeoSat and OneWeb. LeoSat, a Luxembourg-based firm that aimed to provide high-speed

satellite broadband, failed to secure enough investment and closed its doors last November. All 13 employees of the company were laid off. OneWeb fared slightly better, managing to launch an initial 74 out of 650 satellites before fil- ing for bankruptcy in May of this year. Prior to collapse, the company had plans to eventually increase the number Ku band-transmitting satellites to more than 2,000. Alongside OneWeb’s demise, some familiar figures have moved in to oc-

cupy the (pardon this pun) space. SpaceX, Amazon and Telesat have already put hundreds of satellites into orbit and each expect to offer commercial inter- net service soon. SpaceX claims to be ready by the end of this year. Amazon’s Kuiper constellation, which the company labeled a “big, audacious space proj- ect,” is forecasted to include 3,236 satellites. This network will provide about 95 percent of the world’s population with low-latency, high-speed broadband connectivity, ranging in latitude from 56 degrees north to 56 degrees south. SpaceX’s Starlink designs are grander in scale, including 12,000 satel-

lites already approved by the FCC, and another 30,000 pending. The compa- ny plans to sell some of the satellites to the military and to other organiza- tions for science or exploration and hopes to put the funds toward building an eventual colony on Mars. A major concern is the end-of-life plan for these satellites. There are cur-

rently 2,666 operational satellites in orbit, with the bulk of them operating in LEO. However, there is an enormous amount of debris hurtling around the Earth as well. Radar tracking shows about 13,000 objects larger than 4 in. (10 cm) in

orbit, and scientists believe that there are more than 100,000 pieces of debris between 0.4 and 4 in. (1 and 10 cm) in size. This space trash is made up of pieces of spacecraft, ranging from flecks of paint or tiny bits of metal to entire dead satellites and rocket upper stages. The world’s top space agencies have enacted policies to limit the amount

of debris they leave in orbit. But, this does not help the fact that while it is dif- ficult to launch things into orbit, it is nearly impossible to cause them to come back if they malfunction, unless they fall toward the Earth and burn up on their own. The stars seem to be aligning for these new constellations. As the cost of

launch goes down, due to reusable rockets and advances in technology, more companies are likely to enter orbit with a variety of services, as well as com- panies working on land to build gateways and ground stations. The growing number of successful commercial launches, and, most re-

cently, a collaboration between the state and private sector to send astronauts to the International Space Station, is encouraging to new companies. After the planning, engineering and tense moments waiting on the launch pad with fin- gers crossed, all that is left is positive thinking. Like Norman Vincent Peale wrote, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”r


By Jacob Fattal Publisher

Number-Crunching to Fight COVID-19


he Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment (XSEDE), funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) was launched in 2011 to “envision a world of digitally enabled scholars, researchers, and engi-

neers participating in multidisciplinary collaborations to tackle society’s grand challenges.” Led by the University of Illinois National Center for Super- computing Applications (NCSA), the organization has supported more than $2 billion worth of research awards from agencies like the NSF. Now, XSEDE is being called on to help save the world. XSEDE provides training both online and in person on a variety of top-

ics, including high-performance computing, visualization, data management, and distributed and grid computing. In March, the White House announced a consortium of some of the most powerful and advanced computers on Earth, along with brilliant hardware and software researchers and engineers, and set their sights on COVID-19. The COVID-19 High Performance Computing (HPC) Consortium is a

partnership of industry, academia and federal departments, with such firms as IBM, Amazon Web Services, Google, Microsoft, and Intel collaborating with MIT, Rensselaer, UC San Diego, and other academic institutions. The Depart- ment of Energy’s national laboratories, including Argonne, Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and Sandia, as well as federal agencies like the Pittsburgh Supercom- puting Center, Texas Advanced Computing Center, and NASA are also in- volved. Researchers can submit proposals to the consortium through its website.

Proposals are then reviewed and directed to the computing resources at one of the partner institutions. This allows those working on the most pressing proj- ects access to computers that can crunch massive numbers of calculations, fast- tracking bioinformatics, epidemiology and molecular modeling discoveries. At the time of writing, there are nearly 70 active projects, leveraging five

million CPU cores, 50,000 GPUs, and a total of 483 petaflops. One petaflop equals one quadrillion floating-point operations per second. These projects in- clude modeling the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein and creating a decoy receptor that blocks its entry into human cells and studying the SARS-CoV-2 helicase using molecular dynamics simulations in order to block the virus’ ability to replicate. With potential vaccines on the way,

with the most promising candidates begin- ning human trials, XSEDE is hoping to ac- celerate the process in the short-term, con- tribute to a stable vaccine, and protect against the viruses of the future. r

ot long ago, it was impossible to look into the night sky and see any- thing but the constellations — the cosmic lamps that have been fixtures of magic, then mythology, and now science throughout the ups and

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