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Bench Talk for Design Engineers

Bench Talk


Bench Talk for Design Engineers | The Official Blog of Mouser Electronics

The Internet of Space: Intelligence for What You Least Expect, When You Least Expect It Lynnette Reese

On February 15, 2013, a large meteor shot into Earth’s atmosphere over Chelyabinsk, Russia, at a low angle, damaging more than 4,000 buildings and injuring about 1500 people. This was a “small,” undetected meteor that knocked out cell tower transmissions (but not the internet) as it disintegrated upon entry. Amazingly no one died, although the sonic boom alone broke every window for miles, there were injuries from the glass, and the sonic boom literally knocked people over. 

What happened? The low angle means that this asteroid was akin to “space-roadkill,” in that Earth ran into it. No one saw it coming. We have tsunami warning systems, but no meteor warning systems. We could get a larger meteor impact and never see it coming. 

Even though astronomers monitor the night skies constantly, we can see only a tiny slice of dark sky above our blue planet at any given time. Only 1/4th of our planet is in darkness every 24 hours, and the vast majority of monitoring is from Earth’s surface and must be done at night. We’ve been hit in centuries past, when the earth was far less populated, and most meteorites hit the ocean, which covers 2/3 of the planet. On Aug 30, 2016, we nearly got hit by another asteroid, labelled “2016 QA2.” It came much closer to Earth than the moon; about 1/4th the distance to the moon, in fact. We didn’t see it until it was here. Some people are concerned about asteroids. Some people want to explore them. Asteroids are called meteors once they enter the Earth’s atmosphere, and if they are made mostly of metal, they will not disintegrate above the Earth’s surface like the Chelyabinsk meteor. When they impact the surface, they can create an atomic bomb-like effect (without the radiation), creating huge craters, plumes of dust that block out the sun, tsunamis, and a bad year for life on Earth in general.

If you are the fatalistic type, you will eschew any resemblance to Chicken Little, which is understandable. But we can also detect cosmic rays, asteroids, and possibly a stray alien ship if we deploy monitoring technology that covers the Earth: tiny computer-equipped devices, spaced evenly apart, that encircle all but the extreme poles of the earth at low orbit. Andy Filo, a Design Engineer at 4Special Projects, LLC, estimates that we would need only about 68 tiny satellites, called “femtosats,” to monitor for asteroids. His femtosats are about 35mm x 35mm x 2mm and connect literally on the fringe of the internet to form a networked mesh of sensors, to continuously monitor over Earth at low orbit with magnetometers and gyroscopes. Instead of the Internet of Things, you could call this ”The Internet of Space,” or IoS, because these Intel® Quark™ D2000-powered satellites would use the internet, starting with RF communication in spaceto get monitoring data back to scientists on earth. It’s inspiring that the Intel® Quark D2000 is accessible for anyone to purchase and develop projects like the Femtosat. The tools are free, a suite included with the platform called the Intel® System Studio for MicrocontrollersThese development tools were used by contestants in "America’s Greatest Makers".

What could we do with this information? Besides a warning in time to duck and cover, we can use femtosats to monitor solar activity. The study of cosmic rays, natural radiation from space, reveals to us that natural high-energy radiation from space (that often reach the surface of the earth) as well as the composition of our sun and information about our galaxy.

Figure 1: The Sprite rode on the first KickSat to space but never deployed due to a timing glitch. Another is under development.


Earth is pretty large. How do we get hundreds of these things into space to get enough coverage to monitor Earth? There’s an open source spacecraft project going on called “KickSat” that offers an excellent model for deployment of many tiny satellites. KickSat is a larger holding satellite that once it gets into orbit, can spin out hundreds of femtosats in each space deployment of a single KickSat-type satellite.


Figure 2. Computer-generated image of how KickSat would deploy smaller satellites. Image by Ben Bishop VK2FBRB

Hundreds of femtosatellites, called Sprites, were shipped into space on the first KickSat, which started as a KickStarter project to launch what amounts to personal satellites. Andy’s vision of the femtosat includes an engine for his IoS vision driven by the Intel® Quark™ D2000 microcontroller with an ultra-low-power core running at 32 MHz (and currently undergoing space qualification.) Sadly, the first KickSat, or “KickSat1,” experienced a fatal deployment error, and the original Sprites did not deploy before KickSat re-entered Earth’s atmosphere. (Another KickSat is underway.) Andy’s femtosats will cost about $4K each to make and deploy; i.e., $4K is a turn-key figure.

But isn’t NASA doing this already? There are many known Near Earth Objects (NEOs) and we are able to observe these bodies and interpolate an impact to Earth many years from now for some. One of NASA’s jobs is to find NEOs and report them. So NASA has an official report-collection center for NEOs discovered worldwide. Since the inception of NASA’s NEO program in 1998, there have been over 10,000 NEOs reported. With a blanket of just 68 femtosats armed with Quark™ D2000s, we could have a VNEO, or Very Near Earth Object warning system for a very low cost with enough resolution to see asteroids that are big enough to be a problem. Back in the 1980s it would have been a bigger commitment, since the equipment to accomplish the duties of just one femtosat would have been the size of a refrigerator and about $20M. Today, you can deploy one equally-capable femtosat for about $4K, using the KickSat concept.

Why bother? Indeed, the warning time from this IoS is just enough – about 30 seconds – to duck and cover from flying glass. Is a 30 second warning justifiable for deploying a network at great cost? Some cities pay for earthquake warnings with the same kind of time-frame to act: doors are rolled up at fire stations, diesel engines started, and firemen are already sliding down poles when the earthquake hits. And this IoS is not millions of dollars; technology has gotten much cheaper, because it would take only 68 femtosats at $4K each.

Solar activity is a very, very bad thing for electronics.

There are other good reasons to deploy an IoS. It can make the study of cosmic rays more data-rich and can be used to collect data on solar events. The Carrington Event, were it to happen today, would devastate our electronics on a very large scale. In 1859, the large solar flare of the Carrington Event was enough to cause sparking on telegraph equipment. Large solar flares have knocked out radio and GPS signals for planes at altitude in lesser events. Another such event could interrupt or destroy satellite communications used in every day transactions. It would be a really bad day for all of us, because power grids could also be affected.

Improving our ability to predict solar flares is just another area of research to put to good practical use. So far, we have been blessed with fairly modest solar activity as technology has gained prominence in our lives. Perhaps a solar flare warning app, with information from the IoS, can warn us in time to duck and cover our $600 iPhones. Getting insurance for a major solar flare might seem like getting volcano insurance in Nebraska, but electronics are not immune to Murphy’s Law.

The final “What if?”                                                                                                                                                                      

If you are still not convinced that this is worth it, even in the face of NASA’s 2016 $50M NEO budget (up from $4M in 2010) the best reason for having a blanket of low-orbit monitoring femtosat is to keep fingers off The Red Button. (And at a bargain price!) That small meteor over Russia came in like a “rocket-bomb.”  It might be urban legend, but rumor has it that one cool-headed individual in the Russian big-red-button-chain-of-command chose to wait a bit before jumping to conclusions. If we had the entry path recorded by an IoS, we could have a scientific basis on which to “trust but verify.”



I’m just glad the meteor chose the even-tempered Chelyabinsk, and not North Korea. 


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Lynnette Reese holds a B.S.E.E from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Lynnette has worked at Mouser Electronics, Texas Instruments, Freescale (now NXP), and Cypress Semiconductor. Lynnette has three kids and occasionally runs benign experiments on them. She is currently saving for the kids’ college and eventual therapy once they find out that cauliflower isn’t a rare albino broccoli (and other white lies.)

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