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SpaceX, Amazon, OneWeb seek communications dominance in space

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June 10 (UPI) — The developers of new communications satellite constellations — connecting virtually every part of the Earth — are engaged in a multibillion-dollar battle to develop dominance in space and the immense revenue that could bring, industry experts say.

Elon Musk‘s Starlink is part of a new wave of ventures by several companies to cover the globe with faster, better internet by using constellations of satellites that number in the thousands. At stake is the future of communications on Earth and in space.

Competitors include Amazon founder Jeff Bezos‘ Project Kuiper and startup company OneWeb, which not long ago filed for reorganization under Chapter 11 of U.S. bankruptcy laws.

But the road to profitability is not navigated simply by launching scores of satellites at a single shot. Other factors come into play.

For example, Musk acknowledged recently that the cost of the user terminal is the biggest challenge for his project. He previously said he hoped to develop a terminal that would sell for under $300, but analysts say that will be difficult.

“Getting the signal to the customer [affordably] has always been the issue with new communications satellite service,” said Hamed Khorsand, founder of California-based BWS Financial, which provides research on technology and communications companies.

“You can’t just put up satellites and think that will solve everything. You have to have revenue,” Khorsand said.

Both Starlink and OneWeb began in 2015. As OneWeb continued to develop, Starlink launched repeatedly. As of June 3, Musk’s SpaceX has launched 480 Starlink spacecraft.

The company has said it anticipates to invest about $10 billion in Starlink, with a potential for $30 billion to $50 billion in annual revenue if the system becomes fully operational.

Testing soon

Musk said on Twitter recently that limited service could be tested by around August — when SpaceX aims to have 800 satellites in orbit — in what is called a beta validation. In technology development, beta validations attempt to demonstrate a new software or service to a limited number of potential users.

Enter Bezos, whose plans for space communications services under the Project Kuiper mantle, are shrouded in secrecy.

In the battle for funding, Bezos’ deep pockets only grew deeper as the coronavirus pandemic sent more people online to shop. Analysts following the high-tech satellite slugfest say they have no idea how much Bezos — who consistently ranks among the wealthiest people in the world — is investing in Project Kuiper.

Amazon, though, aims to launch more than 3,200 satellites, according to filings with the Federal Communications Commission. But details of the constellation remain mostly under wraps as the company builds a new headquarters and prototype manufacturing laboratories near Seattle.

Like Starlink, OneWeb said it aimed to provide reliable internet service to remote regions. But OneWeb had only three launches and ran into funding trouble just as the pandemic took hold.

The company was testing and developing technology with 74 satellites in orbit and permits for up to 720.

In bankruptcy court, OneWeb reported assets of $3.3 billion, the most significant of which are radio-frequency licenses and licenses to receive signals in nations around the globe, while its debts and liabilities were $2.1 billion.

Pandemic hurt

Despite the positive balance sheet, the company said financial market fallout from the pandemic interrupted efforts to raise more money for expansion of the satellite network. As a startup, the company had no significant revenue.

OneWeb, based in Virginia and London, continues to operate with a reduced staff since it filed for bankruptcy in March and laid off about 450 workers — more than three-fourths of its payroll.

The satellite startup filed a new application with the FCC in late May to boost the number of planned satellites to 48,000.

OneWeb’s move to seek more satellite permits is aimed at making it more attractive to a new owner, or for a sale of the existing satellites, analyst Khorsand said.

“It’s really more about whether anyone can use the satellites that are up there already. I just don’t know if they are compatible with any other company’s technology, because most of the technology is pretty proprietary,” he said.

Despite backing from major players like Airbus and Richard Branson‘s Virgin Group, OneWeb made its bankruptcy filing after a big investor, Japan-based Softbank Group, withheld additional funding in March as the pandemic spread and a recession took hold.

One veteran player had planned to join the fray, as well.

Intelsat reborn

Intelsat, founded in 1964, has been reborn with new investments several times. It planned a communications satellite constellation, but filed for bankruptcy protection in May as financial fallout from the pandemic hit many industries. The company cited only “substantial legacy debt” in its bankruptcy announcement.

Observers of the satellite communications industry are well-acquainted with struggling startups and bankruptcy — due to the high cost of getting underway and the time needed to become fully operational.

Costs increase more because federal and international regulations require thruster systems on the communications satellites to avoid potential collisions.

Khorsand noted that another firm in the competition, Iridium Communications, went bankrupt in 1999 after launching a communications satellite constellation. The company later emerged from bankruptcy and now provides service to major customers, including the U.S. military. It has 75 satellites in orbit.

With lucrative military contracts providing an enticement, SpaceX also is gunning for that market. The company said it already has worked with the Air Force to test the signal from Starlink.

SpaceX eventually wants to have an armada of satellites that would beam data around the globe, using laser optics in the vacuum of space that could move data close to the speed of light.

Iridium is the only commercial provider that presently uses such laser optics, said Chris Quilty, founder of Florida-based Quilty Analytics, an aerospace analyst firm.

New generation

Before such space laser connections can happen, Starlink will need a new generation of Starlink satellites, Quilty said. The current Starlink satellites in orbit aren’t designed for that technology, he said.

“Starlink will have ground stations, but over the ocean, there are no ground stations, so it has to have a crosslink based in space to beam super-fast service around the world,” Quilty said.

For Musk and Bezos, dominating the future of space communication also could benefit their long-term goals to explore the moon and Mars, Quilty said.

“You can’t fund Mars exploration only on the launch business, especially if SpaceX is successful at shrinking the cost of launch dramatically, which is the company’s goal,” Quilty said.

“If Musk is successful at establishing a colony on Mars, a good communications link to Earth will be vital, and Starlink would help that.”

Astronauts return to space from U.S. soil

Newly arrived NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, front row from left to right, pose for a photo with the rest of the crew aboard the International Space Station on May 31. On the back row, from left to right are Roscosmos flight engineer Anatoly Ivanishin, NASA Commander Chris Cassidy and Roscosmos engineer Ivan Vagner. Photo courtesy of NASA



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Peak viewing Tuesday night for Perseid meteor shower

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The wait is over. For stargazers in North America, one of the most highly anticipated and reliable meteor showers will peak this week.

The Perseid meteor shower will peak on Tuesday night into early Wednesday morning, a reliable meteor shower that puts on a show year in and year out.

The Perseids are the most popular meteor shower as they peak on warm August nights as seen from the northern hemisphere,” the American Meteor Society said on its website.

This year, spectators across the Northern Hemisphere can expect to see between 50 and 75 meteors an hour under dark skies, which averages about one meteor every minute. Areas south of the equator will still be able to see some of the Perseids, but the hourly rates will be lower.

“The Geminid meteor shower in December produces about the same number of meteors. Both showers produce about four times more than any other shower during the year typically does,” AccuWeather astronomy blogger Dave Samuhel said.

One big difference between the Perseids and the Geminids is the weather.

August typically features more comfortable stargazing weather for the Perseids compared to December’s cold and often cloudy conditions around the peak of the Geminids.

As with every meteor shower, the best time to look is when the shower’s radiant point is highest in the sky. The number of meteors able to be seen will gradually increase as the radiant point moves higher in the sky.

“They are called Perseids since the radiant (the area of the sky where the meteors seem to originate) is located near the prominent constellation of Perseus,” the AMS explained.

Contrary to popular belief, sky watchers do not need to look at radiant point to see the meteor shower — shooting stars will be visible streaking across all areas of the sky.

The radiant point for the Perseids will rise above the horizon by around 11 p.m. local time and will continue to climb higher in the sky as the night progresses. However, the moon is set to rise by around 1 a.m. local time and will bring with it natural light pollution, making it more difficult to see some of the fainter meteors.

Because of this, the best window for viewing this year’s Perseid meteor shower will occur between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. local time.

“Even though the Perseids will be most active after midnight, I encourage people to start looking once it gets dark in the evening,” Samuhel said.

“You will be more likely to see a long-lived, bright meteor fly across a large portion of the sky during the evening.”

Onlookers staying out after 1 a.m. to watch the celestial light show should look to the darkest part of the sky away from the moon.

This year, most of the western and central United States will have cloud-free conditions for the peak of the Perseids. Favorable weather is also in the forecast for much of western Canada and the Canadian Prairies.

Folks east of the Mississippi River may have some clouds to contend with, especially across the Ohio Valley to the coast of the mid-Atlantic.

Other areas, such as the Deep South, northern New England and into the St. Lawrence River Valley will have some breaks in the clouds, which could provide opportunities to spot a few shooting stars throughout the night.

Meteors will continue to be visible in the nights following the peak, so those that find themselves under clouds on Tuesday night should plan for a night under the stars later in the week when weather conditions improve. However, the number of meteors visible will gradually decrease each night.

In addition to needing clear weather, a little patience is also required for watching the Perseids.

Dedicate a solid hour to doing nothing but looking for meteors,” Samuhel said. “If you look for only a few minutes, you might not see any.”

It is important not to look at any source of light while out looking for shooting stars this includes cellphone screens.

“Make yourself comfortable. Lay back on a lounge chair or a blanket on the grass. Don’t sit in a normal chair and look up, your neck will quickly get tired,” Samuhel said.

After the Perseids pass, the next moderate meteor shower will not occur until mid-October with the peak of the Orionids.



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Researchers, growers seek vanilla production in Florida

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ORLANDO, Fla., Aug. 11 (UPI) — Growers and researchers in Florida hope the aromatic vanilla bean can provide a lucrative, high-margin crop for the state’s farmers.

The University of Florida is heading research into vanilla, which comes from a tropical orchid and carries a hefty price around the world.

The goal is to determine how well the plants grow in Florida’s subtropical climate, where the dominant crop — citrus — has suffered from destructive diseases and hurricanes that have shut groves and put growers out of business.

Already, the university reports that hobbyists, bakers and breweries are calling to line up more vanilla production.

“The interest in this as a new crop is huge,” said Alan Chambers, assistant professor of tropical plant genetics at the university’s research station south of Miami.

“Our biggest problem right now is growers can’t find enough plants. We have people calling and asking to buy the beans we’re growing, and we say you have to wait a couple of years.”

Chambers knows that vanilla can grow in Florida because four native species of the vanilla orchid plants exist, but none of the native types produces authentic vanilla.

So, he’s started with the most common commercial species, vanilla planifolia, the beans from which Madagascar and Mexico export in large quantities. Chambers has 150 of the plants ready to distribute to community center gardens and other growers as far north as Tampa.

Florida will never be able to compete globally for vanilla due to the cost of labor, but there’s a big demand for specialty vanilla, he said.

“We’d be looking at extremely high quality, similar to the limited vanilla production in Hawaii,” Chambers said. “We’re hearing from brewers, herbalists, bakers and aroma extractors.”

Chambers also helped a Miami area grower, attorney Abrahm Smith, obtain 800 of the vanilla plants for Smith’s small, 8-acre farm. They take up about one-quarter of an acre.

“It’s a hobby farm for me, but if vanilla works, it will be great because it has a very high-profit margin,” Smith said. “I should be able to make as much from that quarter-acre as I do from 6 acres of fruit trees we’ve planted.”

That high margin is what drove the crop to become one of Madagascar’s top exports, but the bean is not processed on the island. Much of the bean crop is processed when it reaches the United States, where it is primarily used as a food and drink flavoring.

The price of vanilla has fluctuated wildly in recent years with weather conditions in Madagascar, from $600 per 2.2 pounds of beans in 2018 to $350 for that amount in June.

The United States is the largest importer of vanilla beans. Given the high value of the crop, and Florida’s struggles with citrus, the University of Florida funded Chambers’ research with a $75,000 grant.

Chambers also advises a separate project led by private industry that collects funds from interested growers to provide thousands of the vanilla plants from a nursery in Orlando.



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Math models developed by Alan Turing help scientists explain bird behavior

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Aug. 11 (UPI) — In a new study, researchers in Britain used math models developed by famed mathematician Alan Turing to figure out why flocks of long-tailed tits separate themselves into different parts of their habitat.

Many birds form what are called home range patterns, but scientists have struggled to explain why non-territorial passerine segregate themselves.

For the study, scientists at the University of Sheffield tracked the movements of long-tailed tits across the woodlands they called home. After collecting enough data for patterns to emerge, researchers used Turing-inspired models to determine what causes the segregation.

The models deployed by Sheffield researchers were similar to those Turing developed to show how patterns in nature, like stripes of a zebra or a leopard’s spots, can emerge naturally from a uniform state.

The new analysis, published this week in the Journal of Animal Ecology, showed long-tailed tits, when segregating themselves across the landscape, were less likely to avoid places where they had previously interacted with relatives.

The passerine birds, however, were more likely to steer clear of places where they’d previously encountered larger flocks. The birds also showed a preference for the center of the woodlands.

“Mathematical models help us understand nature in an extraordinary amount of ways and our study is a fantastic example of this,” Sheffield doctoral student Natasha Ellison, lead author of the new study, said in a news release.

Scientists had previously used Turing models to understand the movement patterns and distribution of territorial animals, but this is the first time the same mathematical models have helped researchers understand the spacing and movements of a non-territorial species.

“Long-tailed tits are too small to be fitted with GPS trackers like larger animals, so researchers follow these tiny birds on foot, listening for bird calls and identifying birds with binoculars,” Ellison said.

“The field work is extremely time consuming and without the help of these mathematical models these behaviors wouldn’t have been discovered,” Ellison said.



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