Failed on Earth? Try orbit

Some good space-based militaria has arrived on that reliable source of interesting intel, Wikileaks. An unclassified document (PDF) from the US Space and Missile Systems Center ponders long and hard about how to create robust, affordable communications in Earth orbit.

Some good space-based militaria has arrived on that reliable source of interesting intel, Wikileaks. An unclassified document (PDF) from the US Space and Missile Systems Center ponders long and hard about how to create robust, affordable communications in Earth orbit. In particular, it worries about the increase in space debris, the (not unconnected) ability of the Chinese to blow stuff up, the difficulty of protecting things in space and the expense of trying to replace lost assets.

The answer? WiMAX, IP and lots of satellites in a SpLAN – Space Local Area Network. Heavens only knows what they'd call a WAN - it's a bit odd thinking of outer space as 'local', but if astronomers can call an area of the cosmos 20 million light years across our "Local Group" I suppose it's just a matter of relativity.

The L in LAN comes from the architecture, not the size, of course; the WAN equivalent will be Vint Cerf's Interplanetary Internet. All the SpLAN orbiting nodes are envisioned as simple, lightweight, standard hardware with minimal new infrastructure required for new missions, the ability to route past damage in that time-honoured IP fashion, and lots of useful interoperability with existing systems.

All makes sense to me – but the SpLAN will be orbiting a planet full of people who are very good at hacking IP-based systems. It is notoriously hard to protect satellites against radio-borne sneaky meanness: an early generation of US military communications satellites were soon compromised and are still in use by South American businessmen to talk back to Spain.

Rather enjoyably, the US military has its own group of space hackers called Space CHOP (Countermeasures Hands On Program), a small collection of military (and sometimes civilian) people whose job is to identify – and sometimes even cause – havoc in space. Their rules of engagement are that they can't know too much more than is in the public domain, and that they can only use hardware and software that you or I could feasibly lay our hands on. How do you get that job, I wonder?

It's rather touching that the US government ends up looking after so much technology that can't really breathe unaided. GPS, although a great success, has no real commercial model, as the Europeans have found when trying to pretend that Galileo could make money. Iridium, that splendid folly of a public satellite phone system, has only survived because the US State Department picked it up for a song and made it the backbone of their mid-level global voice communications network. And now WiMAX, in the middle of a teeth-rattling set of valuation write-downs by its sponsors, is being promoted as the right idea for Buzz Lightyear's Youtube fix.

As we head towards July's 40th anniversary of Apollo 11, it's good to know that, in the words of Sun Ra, that space is the place.

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