As we head towards the 50th anniversary of the dawn of the Space Age -- 4 October, 2007, will be Sputnik's half-century and party central chez Goodwins -- the state of the art is mixed. On the downside: the International Space Station resembles the ramshackle spaceship Dark Star more and more each day, Beagle 2 has provoked a new spirit of secrecy in the European Space Agency, and the next time we'll see a shuttle will be when someone stumbles across it under a cobwebbed tarpaulin in a shed in rural Georgia. On the upside: the Mars Rovers and Cassini are delivering the goods in spectacular fashion, a whole fleet of deep space observational craft with Hubble at the helm continue to push back the boundaries of our ignorance, and Burt Rutan is close to becoming the easyJet of extraterrestrial travel.
Yet despite extending our senses to the very limits of space, time and energy, one cosmic question remains unanswered: why do people still spend money on satellite broadband? Today's launch is Anik F2, an enormous bird destined to hang above North America and provide its bandwidth-hungry denizens with uncounted 1.5Mbps radio links into the Net. It is the biggest communications satellite ever and the first to provide a public service on the Ka microwave band, a vast rolling prairie of undeveloped spectrum up between 20 and 30 GHz. Anik F2 will host a service called WildBlue, which is up against DSL, cable, power line and every other broadband option, and the lessons of history are that wireless never does well against an existing wired option unless it has something really special to offer. And in wireless, satellite never does well against existing wireless -- again, unless it's got a unique advantage.
Perhaps there are enough people in North America too far from any other sort of broadband, and they're all gagging for their online fix. If not, Anik F2 may join that other band of record-breaking satellite systems; those that have consumed more development cash to less effect than any other communications systems.
Meanwhile, us narrowband satellite fans are in for a treat. At the end of last month, the Russians gave a lift to ham radio satellite Amsat Oscar Echo -- and the news today is that it is behaving beautifully. When they've finished fine-tuning its orbit and configuring its various systems, it'll provide free walkie-talkie access, digital relay services and an onboard BBS. The whole thing's not 10 inches square and the project cost around £60,000. Listen for it bleeping away on 435.150 and 435.300 MHz -- and if you've got an amateur radio licence, you'll be able to talk back. (Just wait for them to get the bugs out first). Who knows -- it might be up there long after the billion-dollar ventures have slipped into expensive silence.
(Update: bad weather has prevented Anik F2's launch. It might go up on Friday.)