[amsat-bb] Re: NASA Kills Ulysses, and future Amsat missions

Daniel Schultz n8fgv at usa.net
Fri Jul 10 18:03:47 PDT 2009

Ulysses was switched off because it exhausted its fuel supply. Without
attitude control fuel it cannot keep its antenna pointed to Earth. Exactly
what are we amateurs supposed to do with this bird when its own flight
controllers cannot communicate with it anymore?

We hams do have a long tradition of making use of other people's useless junk,
whether it was the wavelengths shorter than 200 meters back in the 1920's, a
big pile of war surplus radios in the 1940's, old TV power supplies and sweep
tubes in the 1950's, unused launch vehicle capacity in the 1960's, and test
flights of new launch vehicles in the 1980's. However there are limits to the
"use other people's junk" business model and we have run up against those

Even amateur radio communications is sufficiently complex to require a
purpose-built payload for our communications mission. Commercial
communications satellites are kept in revenue service until they run out of
fuel, and their commercial payloads are specific to commercial missions and
cannot easily be retuned to ham radio bands at the end of their commercial

The amateur satellite movement started in 1961 when some unknown Air Force
general allowed Project Oscar to attach a secondary payload to a classified
Corona imaging satellite. In doing so he took a big chance on us. If Oscar-1
had vibrated loose from its clamp band and rattled around inside the payload
shroud to bang up the very expensive spy satellite it probably would have been
the end of his career. Following that beginning we went on to launch Phase 3A
with a solid fuel kick motor, and three more Phase 3 birds with highly toxic
and corrosive hypergolic liquid fuel systems. If we had screwed up any of
those missions we had the capacity to destroy the primary payload or cause the
loss of a very expensive test mission with great loss of revenue to the launch
vehicle owners. We were allowed to do these things because of a very generous
and trusting relationship by officials of the launch vehicle authority, who
were also willing to absorb substantial costs of paperwork certifications by
their own engineers that our secondary payloads would not pose a risk to their
primary missions. 

Our business model of the past 45 years seems to be no longer viable. In this
modern era the beancounters are fully in charge and insist on full recovery of
any additional costs that are imposed by our presence on the mission. It is
simply no longer possible for a friendly Air Force General or civilian project
manager to allow us to sneak our little payload in under the radar. Our
success in the small satellite area has created a thriving market for small
satellites, and launch vehicle owners now understand that they can sell the
excess capacity that they once gave away for free. With dozens of
universities, small companies and government agencies clamoring for secondary
launch vehicle space, we hams can no longer sneak our little satellites in as
"ballast" like we did in the past. 

We did have a deal with Intelsat to carry ham gear onboard one of their
geosynchronous satellites and we would not even need to wait 15 to 20 years
for the satellite to complete its commercial mission before using our payload.
They quoted us a price tag of about $10 million to cover their integration
costs in installing our equipment into their satellite. They probably would
not be making money off of us at that price, merely recovering their costs.
Since we have not yet been able to raise $10 million it looks like this
project is not going to happen. My guess is that the US Government is not
going to fork over $10 million for a disaster communications system unless
they set the specifications and control its use. It would be a classic case of
"Not Invented Here" syndrome.

What can we do to keep Amsat alive in the future? 

1. Team up with other space organizations. The Planetary Society is interested
in building a solar sail demonstration mission. Like us, they must find a
secondary launch. Amsat could provide a communications package for the sail
mission. There are other private groups trying to reach the moon. Offer them
our expertise in space radio communications systems, which no other space
interest group can match, in return for a ride on their spacecraft. Amsat has
historically marketed itself as a ham radio organization, but we are also a
space interest group. We should have a presence at the Space Development
Conferences. Few private membership funded space organizations have our
historic track record of success.

2. Offer RF equipment to the student Cubesat groups. Many of them simply
package commercial HT's into their Cubesats, they do not have enough RF
knowledge or experience to do any better. Develop a drop-in RF command and
telemetry system, include a simple transponder capability, and offer it to the
Cubesat groups for inclusion into their satellites. Design and fund an Amsat
Cubesat mission to show them how it should be done. Cultivate relationships
with schools and universities. The aerospace industry is throwing millions of
dollars into development of a new generation of aerospace engineers to replace
the aging and expensive baby boomers who they plan to forcibly retire in the
next few years. A student-built satellite can attract industry funding that no
Amsat mission can ever hope to receive. 

3. Cultivate our relationship with NASA, the Department of Defense and Foreign
space agencies. Our presence on the ISS is very costly but NASA thinks that
our value in providing school group contacts through ARISS justifies their
cost to carry us along on this mission. If we are ever going to get to the
moon it will have to be done in the same way. We need to cultivate
relationships with people who can give the green light to future projects like
ARISS. We should try to invite these people to the Amsat Symposium in
Baltimore this October. The private sector is probably not going to help us
unless we can pay cash up front, but always keep your eyes and ears open in
case there is an exception to this rule.

4. Develop our own propulsion technology, possibly electric propulsion,
possibly an old-fashioned solid fuel kick motor. Launch our satellites to LEO
on the Russian missiles, then raise their orbit to a higher altitude. I am
hopeful that the recently announced arms reduction agreement between the US
and Russia might free up additional missiles for launching satellites, however
the Russians have also learned the true value of their missile launches so
even these may be beyond our means without teaming with other organizations. 

5. Recognize that the real work happens behind the scenes. Stop whining on
Amsat-BB about what "you guys at Amsat" should be doing. Each of us can take
one of three roles, 1. Lead, 2. Follow, or 3. Get out of the way. 

Dan Schultz N8FGV

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