The SpaceX Skynet, the Environment Under Trump, and the Latest, Greatest Weather Sat | Vol. 4 / No. 4

JCSAT-14 Launch | Photo: SpaceX, CC BY 2.0

This week we’ve got the lowdown on SpaceX’s latest FCC filing, the good news about the damage Trump can do to the environment, and what might be our last weather satellite for the next four years. It’s the news round up for Sunday, November 20, 2016: check it out!


SES-9 launching to GTO aboard a Falcon 9 "Full Throttle" | Photo: SpaceX Photos, CCo (public domain)
SES-9 launching to GTO aboard a Falcon 9 “Full Throttle” | Photo: SpaceX Photos, CCo (public domain)

SpaceX SkyNet

File this one under “let’s just hope it doesn’t achieve sentience”: SpaceX has filed with the FCC for “operating authority (i.e., approval for orbital deployment and a station license) for a non-geostationary orbit satellite system in the Fixed-Satellite Service using the Ku and Ka frequency bands.” This is in reference to their plans to build a 4,425-satellite orbiting internet backbone to augment and/or replace undersea internet cables and the like. Let’s set aside the numbers for a second and ask why. Musk is famous for what I like to call “threat modeling the human race.” He’s worried about setting up a second self-sustaining human settlement on another planet in case something like an asteroid or nuclear war takes out humanity on this one. He’s worried about creating non-malevolent AI so that we don’t end up being replaced by our own creations. He’s worried about getting us all on green energy so we don’t make the Earth uninhabitable for humans. And I’m pretty sure he’s worried about people ruining the global economy by screwing with the internet — maybe by cutting all those undersea cables that the internet runs on. A screwed-up global economy is likely to put the kibosh on his other plans for saving humanity, so I’d put my money on this being another one of Musk’s “backup plans” — formulated, of course, to make money at the same time (no plan works as well without both carrot and stick). But is it even possible? Engadget is reporting that the 4,425 satellites will be roughly 850 pounds each, and orbit from 714 to 823 miles up (which is definitely higher than the 268 miles up the ISS flies at, but nothing like as high as the geostationary orbits or regular coms satellites which fly at 22,236 to 26,199 miles up). They say it “could take five years to launch them all.” I guess that depends. If SpaceX were to launch once a month for five years (60 launches over and above their current schedule) they’d have to send 75 satellites up at a time. The crazy part is? From a weight to orbit perspective, that’s possible with the Falcon Heavy, which can get 119,900lbs to LEO — seventy-five 850lb sats is 62,900lbs, so even with the added height, that’s actually not impossible. The question in my mind is, can they really get 75 satellites into their correct orbits from a single launch, or are they planning to up their yearly launch cadence by an order or magnitude? Time, one supposes, will tell.

Oh, and in other SpaceX news, remember that massive pressure vessel for the Mars colonization ship that has yet to achieve a permanent name? They pressure tested it and things went well. Next up? “Full cryo testing.”


Smokestacks, detail of "Coal Power Plant"; Photo: Flickr user eutrophication&hypoxia, CC BY 2.0
Smokestacks, detail of “Coal Power Plant”; Photo: Flickr user eutrophication&hypoxia, CC BY 2.0

Environmentalism Under Trump

With the election of Donald Trump, a man arguably as famous for his businesses’ bankruptcies as for his habit of firing people on live television, it looks as though the Obama-era environmentalism is going to take a turn for the worse. Trump is set to become the only major world leader that believes climate change is a hoax, and he and his merry men have said they’re going to pull out of the Paris climate agreement, overturn President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, and “bring back coal.” But new data — and the softening tone out of Republican mouthpieces — suggest that he may not be able to have as much of an effect as he’d like to. Now let’s not mince words: it’s not because Trump won’t try to ruin the environment, that much is clear, but his ability to have a lasting impact may not be as great as feared. New data from the Sierra Club suggest that there’s a whole lot of greening happening in the US energy sector, and that economics, not politics, are the primary motivators: “U.S. power plants are on track to emit 1.76 billion metric tons of carbon this year, a 27 percent reduction from 2005. That’s already below the Clean Power Plan’s interim goal for 2024, and most of the way to the 32 percent reduction the plan envisions for 2030.” Even coal industry executives are suggesting that the best Trump can hope to do is stall the industry’s collapse, not effect a recovery — solar, wind, and natural gas are just too cheap to install now, and coal too expensive to maintain. Add to this the fact that US military bigwigs will be telling Trump over and over about the dangers to national security of a world under climate change, and maybe, just maybe, things won’t be so bad as he’s talked about making them — whether he wants to or not. Go read the analysis over at Politico for more on the Sierra Club data.


GOES-R in a clean room at Lockheed Martin | Photo: NOAA Satellites, CC0
GOES-R in a clean room at Lockheed Martin | Photo: NOAA Satellites, CC0


Yesterday NASA’s and NOAA’s latest-generation weather satellite launched into Geostationary Transfer Orbit aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V yesterday. The first of the four-satellite GOES-R series (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite, R Series) which includes GOES-R, -S, -T, and -U, it will provide a greatly increased lead-time for severe weather alerts in the Western Hemisphere, better data to enhance predictive models for hurricane tracks, real-time lightning tracking, and a host of “space weather” data as well (solar flares and the like). The next GOES satellite, GOES-S, is scheduled for launch in 2018, but with the severe (and short-sighted) cuts to NASA’s Earth sciences budget and a heavy bias against Earth sciences in general from the government about to take power in the US, I’m not at all certain it’ll go ahead. GOES-R may be the last chance we have to maintain a decent handle on weather and climate developments for the foreseeable future. At least we got one up before January. You can learn more about GOES-R over at the project website.



If you weren’t paying much attention, here’s what we got up to this week at This Week In Tomorrow:

If you missed any of them, take a minute to go check them out!


Best of the Rest

And here it is: your weekly linkspam.

You’re welcome.


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Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.